what to do if your references aren’t available

A reader writes:

This question mostly applies to people working at small businesses where there is one manager and a few employees. I’ve always been told references should be whoever you reported to and/or whoever can evaluate your work. How can I provide a reference to potential future employers when the boss isn’t available or isn’t appropriate?

Possible situations: death of the owner/boss when there are no other managers … Your boss moved to a different company/location/country/industry and you can’t get their new contact info … The company went bankrupt and everyone scattered and not everyone can be found on LinkedIn or Facebook … Your boss is in jail or otherwise inappropriate as a reference … You were the boss and are now moving on after the company was sold, closed, complicated, etc.

Generally, you’d explain the situation and offer up other people who can speak to your work — ideally from that job, but if that’s not possible then from others. If you’re really stuck, sometimes you can offer copies of your performance evaluations from that job (which is one reason why it’s good to keep copies of them at home).

Hiring managers are humans who understand that sometimes this stuff happens. If you explain that your previous manager is dead or off the grid or so forth, they’re going to get it — they’ll just want you to be making an obvious effort to offer up other people who can speak to your work. Different hiring managers will have different levels of flexibility on this. Some will accept peer references when you’re in a bind like this and some won’t. Some will be happy as long as you can offer a manager from further back, while others will be uneasy if they can’t speak to one from the last decade. Some will make exceptions if you’re a truly stellar candidate who they already feel confident about, but they’ll have real hesitations otherwise. You just need to have a conversation with them, explain whatever the situation is, and work with them to see if you can come up with something they’ll accept.

But to the extent possible, it’s smart to make a real effort not to lose track of people who could be references for you because the more you have, the better. (LinkedIn can make this easier, although not always since not everyone uses it.) If you’re in a situation where you truly can’t come up with anyone for your entire career, not just a single job, that’s going to limit you.

{ 116 comments… read them below }

  1. glitter writer*

    My first boss got arrested for embezzlement about a week after I left (he ultimately ended up in jail). My second boss retired at the same time I left (I was an undergrad employee, who then graduated) and my department was dissolved three months later, haha.

    In short, I definitely struggled for references for a few years there! Most places were understanding when I explained (at a very high level; I tried not to mention the jail one haha) and offered up peers.

  2. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

    I’ve actually used vendors as references.

    This was in the alcohol retail business, so the sales reps for the wholesale vendors are in the store every week, see what’s going on, and know if there are issues. And they know if there are successes, too — when I place that special order for 4 cases of expensive but obscure wine, they know that I did a good job selling it to my clientele.

    This particular relationship obviously may not apply to OP, but if you think creatively you can probably find other people who can attest to your skills & accomplishments.

    1. OP Here*

      It’s something I’d thought of, because outside parties & peers are about all I have! Glad to know someone else used this approach successfully.

      1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        I had to do peers only when I applied for and got my current job a little over a year ago now. And similar reasons, retired former supervisors who I didn’t have current contact info for and the last to major places I had worked ( 8 1/2 cumulative years) were franchised locations that closed when somebody retired. I did get lucky that the second place (I was working there when the closure happened) let us know they had made arrangements with corporate to send all employee files there so that corporate could at least validate dates of employment (which I was told did happen).

  3. Goldfinch*

    I’m mid-career (early 40s) and I’m already struggling with most of my previous managers retiring and falling out of visibility. I assume that aspect will get easier in general as the generations used to social media grow older, but right now I do wonder how people interviewing for EVP or C-suite jobs do it, since they’re usually 50+ years old themselves. Maybe it’s different for these types of jobs, since companies actively recruit individuals instead of accepting piles of resumes?

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Part of it is recruiting and also promoting from within. It’s also because in those cases, they are often known in a community or business networking events. So they aren’t strangers like if you’re just pulling resumes.

      That’s one reason it can boil down to “who you know” for leadership roles.

      I’ll put it this way, I get resumes for former business owners who are looking for work. Usually ones who are selling because of various reasons. Their references aren’t bosses, they never had one of those. It’s high ranking officials they’ve worked directly with.

    2. Me*

      I think too there becomes an aspect of the company/work itself being a reference. If you are high up in a successful known business and can point to verifiable accomplishments, a superior from 10 years ago isn’t going to say anything with much bearing. In general of course.

      1. TootsNYC*

        also, the higher up you are, the more visible your accomplishments are to the outside. So you have more credibility without someone vouching for you.

  4. Snoop*

    I really struggle with this because I have: worked at the same job for 8 years since graduating, while I’ve held two positions I have had the same boss the whole time, at a small company, haven’t been overseen by anyone else the whole time, and my college bosses are all no longer relevant and most have moved on.
    What I have done so far is put down one co-worker who worked close with me for five years and is now at another company and a Executive Director of an organization I have volunteered with (co-chaired walks) for more than a decade. I also have several years of performance reviews available.
    I would love to hear any other ideas from people though! Most jobs I apply at need 3 references but the ones I’ve actually had called only needed 2.

  5. Been at the same job a long time*

    I’ve often wondered about a related issue because I’ve been in the same job for a long time — about a decade. I’ve actually stayed in touch with two managers from my previous job once or twice over the years, but a) at this point it wouldn’t be hard to lose track of them, and b) they can barely speak to my work in a relevant way anymore! I’m doing something quite different than what I did when I worked for them — and at a much, much more senior level. I suppose they could talk more generally about my energy and dedication, but I feel like it wouldn’t be a full picture. (Maybe in combination with a current peer, though, it would suffice?)

    1. WellRed*

      I’m in the same boat. Could use my former manager, but he left here ten years ago, so would have to add a former coworker, though there aren’t many of those either (small company with low turnover and NONE of them were in my department).

      I certainly don’t have any formal written job reviews to supply, but maybe with the company under new ownership that will change.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I keep in touch with my first supervisor ever. We just had a bit of a “LOL” on social media the other day even.

      She can’t speak to what I do now or me as a manager because I was her assistant originally. But she can certainly speak to what she knew of me as a person and a worker, so it’s still a glowing reference. She can speak to my work ethic, my learning abilities and how I am to manage [Do I take direction, do I accept feedback, do I strive for greatness whatever. Just not stuff like how I manage and engage with my reports, etc, you know?]

      That’s going to be a problem for anyone who has advanced, which most hiring managers who are checking references would understand is normal.

    3. Mockingjay*

      I think (I would hope) that reference checking for jobs a decade past are more about confirming that yes, you’ve been in the workforce that long and you actually worked where you said you worked.

      AAM, does the information that hiring managers seek from references differ depending on timeframe? I’ve never done reference checks; those are done by senior managers or HR. I interview for the skills match.

  6. Still Looking (Maybe)*

    I feel this so much. My old, old bosses both have died, of my old bosses, one was arrested, released then fled the state, and the other has dementia. So I’m left with my current boss. I did track down a former office manager on facebook and have exchanged some friendly messages so I may ask her if I need a reference down the road. The struggle is real though and if my current boss dies or becomes unavailable I’m going to be really stuck.

    But my work community is small so I’m hopeful most places I might be applying for have dealt with me at one point so I won’t be a complete unknown.

  7. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    I would also advise you to keep your paystubs from those jobs so you have job verification documentation in the event that the company no longer exists.

    I had this fear when I moved on from my job that I held for over a decade. My boss hadn’t passed at the time I left but he was suffering from dementia. Thankfully I was able to get his wife, who stepped in on a very limited basis to fall back on. I also had her write me a reference letter to keep in my records in the event she was unable to speak on my behalf, which is all too real given age and just being how life works out sometimes.

    And if someone is tripping up on this, I will say that yes, it might hinder you to a certain point but I’ve never had many flinch at the setup. But I can attribute that to the fact I’m staying in small business, so I attribute that also to the fact that most of the owners I’m interviewing with understand the limitations of small shops setting us up like that.

    I act as a reference for some folks who are dodging our old employer’s ownership which is the actual person that was the “boss”. I keep getting calls and my former colleagues are still getting those jobs. To offer that POV! I have also had clients act as references when I’m lacking somewhere because ownership is unavailable for various reasons.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        Anything that’s an official issued document from the company would probably work, I prefer something with their federal ID number attached. Paystubs are just universal in most cases and easier to keep track of in my experience.

        I’m unsure about the tax return because in my experience they don’t list the employer and the FEIN on there, so it’s just showing you worked or at least brought in money you’re reporting that year. But filing services may actually provide that, I do my taxes myself by hand [well I type it, so not long hand like I did when I first started at least, lol].

    1. Hmmm*

      My neighbor did this. During the Great Recession she worked for 8 companies that all ended up folding. Whenever she applied for a new job she always let the hiring manager know before a background check that the companies folded but she could provide paystubs if needed. Being forthright about what happened and offering the paystubs were enough for her current employer. I imagine other documentation would work too. Anything that is an official form proving you worked there around the time you claim on your resume.

  8. Quickbeam*

    At my current job I had a challenge…..most of my references were dead or long retired. I had some old performance reviews. I also offered up HR at my last workplace who was able to verify I had not taken a sick day in 12 years. That counted for more than references! It gets really hard once you’ve got a few decades of work under your belt.

    I definitely keep in touch, swap holiday cards etc with old co-workers. it has come in handy and gives me their most recent address.

  9. LibGuideMeIntoTheWeekend*

    While I’m not generally opposed, I wish it weren’t an expectation. For example, at my most recent job, my supervisor was ineffectual and hands off. They had no idea what I did day to day. I could go weeks(!) at a time without seeing them and our offices were about a minute walk apart. We never even did official evaluations, they simply marked “exceeds expectations” on everything, signed it, and left it in my inbox to sign.

    My immediate colleague, however, was far enough along in his career that he could have easily been my supervisor experience-wise, and for all intents and purposes, he was. I went to him with questions, concerns, when I needed help or feedback, hell I even told him I was leaving when I got a new job before I told my supervisor. I would much rather list him as a reference when I next job hunt again, but it would apparently look fishy as that was my first professional job in my field post-graduate degree and so I would have no official supervisors from my field.

    1. Mockingjay*

      Could you list both? I’d offer it as: “In addition to Supervisor, I’ve listed Coworker, who can speak to my daily technical skills.”

  10. Quill*

    How far back do companies accept references, anyway? I have a few good ones from my first year out of college, but for two years after that, I worked for a small company where my boss, to put it mildly, ended up hating my guts.

    I left them 2.5 years ago and still dread being questioned about why I don’t list that boss as a reference.

    1. Avasarala*

      Same. I honestly didn’t do very well at my last job and don’t want to use them as a reference. It kind of traps you! I guess we will have to find lots of references from our current job that won’t alert our bosses.

  11. emmelemm*

    I’m definitely in this position, as I’ve worked for a small company for >10 years. My boss is the owner and if I were to leave, he would have to not know, absolutely. The previous two companies I worked for have long since ceased to exist, as they were victims of the first dot-com boom. I do have some contact with people I worked with there, but it’s a long time ago now, so most hiring managers would probably see it as irrelevant.

    I feel pretty screwed, actually. If I were to leave, I would probably take some classes/retraining and hope to get a professor reference, and I could get a couple of really good references from long-standing clients.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I would go with your client references. They speak directly to your work, even though it’s limited to their projects/accounts.

      Professor references have their place at times but honestly, after a decade of working under your belt, it’s going to be a weird to have one as a reference. They can only speak of you as a student and not a worker, which is the most critical point in all this. Professor references to me [aside from academics] speak to anyone who is looking for an entry level position right out of school and not to someone’s skills after being in the workforce itself. You’re much better off having former colleagues or clients or even vendors who know you as in a professional aspect.

      Please don’t let this trip you up though. You have to cast those lines and see where they take you. I had the same fears in the end and it all worked out brilliantly. Even after I left Toxic AF Boss a couple years ago, who was the owner, nobody wanted to even talk with that dillweed. There’s always hope.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          That would change things. I’ve had friends do work for professors in that way and have used them as references but sadly they are still viewed as not as great as a long term employer [it’s kind of like the references you get when you’re an intern, I’d liken that to].

          And as emmelemm says below, it’s a technical job training course that they’re talking about doing, so the professor would know more about their skills in that regard. So that is a plus as well.

          But sadly they know about your skills and learning in their environment. Which is a teaching environment. The workplace isn’t the same, you don’t get the same kind of training and experiences in the end, so that’s still a hurdle.

      1. emmelemm*

        Thanks for the hopeful words!

        In my case, clients that I’ve worked with are really in the best position to speak to my work: how quickly and clearly I’ve communicated with them, how I’ve translated and met their needs, how I’ve worked with them to troubleshoot or resolve issues. I work with them more than I work *with* other people at my company. My only issue would be, if I were to tell them I was leaving the company, they’d know they’re being left with a big hole to fill and might not be happy about that or want to facilitate it!

        In terms of school, I would definitely be doing some *significant* retraining (tech stuff here), so an instructor could speak to my skills at picking up new concepts quickly and the internal quality of my work. (Hopefully I would pick up new skills quickly and produce good work!)

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          The issue is that you have to trust people and not expect the worst. Most aren’t going to sabotage you, that’s a really awful thing for people to do, especially out of spite because they don’t want you to leave! They know you’re leaving one way or another, it’s just a matter of time.

          My old clients were sad to see me go but they cared about me as a human, they weren’t self centered freakshows by any means. So you should know yours enough before using them to see how they react to unfortunate events. Like think about the times that things have gone sideways with their projects, how do they react? Don’t use the ones who act out and lash out with spitting and sputtering and accusing you of being dumb, etc!

          1. TootsNYC*

            they might think this was an honorable thing to do, and they may have more loyalty to the boss.

        2. Filosofickle*

          I recently helped a mentee through reference challenges. This was her only “real” job and it wasn’t safe to let the boss (a small biz owner) in on it. I served as her main reference — while not her supervisor, I have directed her on some projects. She trusted me to support her search, and I did wholeheartedly.

          For her other references we had to think about former colleagues and clients. Former project managers were our go-to for coworkers — they had a good view on her reliability, leadership, reputation, etc. Clients were trickier. Our concern was more that it could hurt her boss & his company if an ongoing client knew she was leaving – they might wonder if the account would still serve them adequately since she was a big piece. There was a client we considered who could best speak to her latest skills but who was currently negotiating a new contract. We felt that was a bad idea to muck that up. We’d have used her if absolutely necessary — honestly, my mentee needed to look out for herself not her boss — but it felt like it was best to sidestep since we did have other options.

    2. I coulda been a lawyer*

      Any chance of taking on a part-time job? I’ve been lucky enough to get some great references from supervisors and union officials who can talk about my hard work and reliability and ability to get along with people from all walks of life. The older I get the quicker my references die lol but at least my last 2 bosses are still young.

      1. emmelemm*

        I might also try to do that, although I have never worked a retail job (yes, it’s true) and have little hope of being hired at one at this point. Not sure how feasible other types of part-time jobs that let me keep a 9-5 there are.

        1. more anon than usual*

          I once used the convention chair from a science fiction convention I volunteered for as a reference (for a job that required actual reference letters, no less!) due to a lack of suitable day-job references. I had a pretty high-level role with the convention, but it really wasn’t related to the type of work I was applying for.

          A lot of it depends on how badly the new job wants you other than that and the rest of the candidate pool. I had a very “unicorn” set of skills that made me a fit for that particular opening in a way that the rest of their applicant pool wasn’t (those skills had nothing whatsoever to do with my role with the SF convention, or anything my other references would mention in their letters, but were instead to do with a particular piece of software I’d used for a single year a decade ago in a previous job and which had not come in handy again even once in the intervening decade), and they were willing to overlook the fact that my references weren’t what one would typically have.

  12. Self Employed*

    I’ve always wondered this. I am self-employed and have been self-employed for over ten years. The only “bosses” I have had are from retail or food industry jobs in college and prior, and I don’t think tracking down a manager from Best Buy over 15 years ago will accomplish much. I completed grad school, I took over a retiring person’s practice, and I have owned and operated it myself ever since. I have no employees or contractors who work for me.

    I’ve started to look around at going to work in the corporate world, because I am tired of running my own business and need a change. I could use others in my field as references to say that I do good work, but then word will get out I may be closing up shop, in which case I will get fewer referrals and I will lose a lot of business. If that happens and I don’t find a new job, I will be in a real bad way.

    Does anyone have any suggestions? I understand the reluctance to hire someone with no one to vouch for them, but I really do have no one to vouch for me unless I want to take money out of my own pocket.

    1. OP Here*

      That’s similar to my situation and why I was asking. Anyone self-employed or on a non-traditional career path is going to have problems supplying relevant references. The only ideas I’ve got so far are colleagues and customers or vendors who I frequently deal with.

      I suspect giving a reference for yourself as your ‘boss’ isn’t going to carry much weight.

      1. Filosofickle*

        Colleagues, partners, customers, vendors are all good. They are what you have! If the hiring manager is going to be a total stickler for a proper supervisory reference, well, then it just isn’t going to be your job. It’s a disappointment, but you can’t change your references or their expectations.

        I had an apartment leasing agent spend two weeks trying to track down nonexistent references for me. I’d owned my home for years, there was no prior landlord to call! And all the landlords before that were totally unreachable. What was I supposed to do? They spent 2 weeks spinning their wheels and I found a better, more flexible landlord in the meantime. I considered their rigidity a red flag anyway.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Clients! And vendors!

      This happens all the time. We’ve interviewed a lot of people who are self employed in various ways. It’s all about having someone who can say “I am a long standing client of Self Employed. I have done multiple business transactions.”

      Then you find out if someone is quick to respond to clients, good with clients, good with their own processes, etc. Lots of good stuff to learn there.

      I have been a reference for clients and vendors before and that’s the kind of pathway they go with the questioning. Most places have different questions for whomever they’re speaking with, if they’re a manager, a colleague or an outside source such as a client or vendor

      1. Self Employed*

        Unfortunately I am a lawyer, and I’m not comfortable asking my clients to be references for me. First of all, the relationship I have with them is confidential, even the fact that they are my clients. I also don’t want to put them on the spot like that. Plus, that’s a good way for them to know I am looking for a way out and to take their business to a different attorney. Who will then find out I may want to switch careers and have a good shot at taking my clients (or not referring new ones to me).

        I don’t really have vendors. The guy who delivers my office supplies?

    3. Filosofickle*

      I was on my own for a long time and then started interviewing. Honestly, references weren’t the real hurdle — it was convincing them I was truly okay going back to regular employment! Everyone was extremely skeptical.

    4. I coulda been a lawyer*

      Perhaps join a professional organization or business related charity and serve on (or chair) a committee? That will use and show your leadership and managerial skills to other leaders and managers who might be willing to be a reference.

  13. Mr M*

    Laid-off from job in 2012. Both references now dead. Next job- company went bankrupt in less than a year, workforce laid-off, plant closed. Next job: workforce cut-in half when company acquired by competitor, my Dept eliminated, laid off along with references. Next job: laid off along with references when company bought by competitor less than a year after starting, no review. Latest job, full-time at local 2020 census until office closes in Aug. No references from this…

  14. Rexish*

    I dislike the idea of references anyway.
    But the CEO of my previous job passed away and the other person that was promoted as CEO is very nice man but not the most professional. Then the job before that I was just another intern/temp amongst many others almost 10 years ago. They won’t have a clue who I am. So I’m struggling a bit with this aswell.

  15. TootsNYC*

    I keep thinking:

    LinkedIn may not be there forever.

    I want to set aside some time to go through LinkedIn and write down names, email addresses if they’re available, etc. Because who knows how long that platform will exist? It needs to make money–but that’s not always easy in a digital world.

    1. TootsNYC*

      also–in the computerized world, it’s really easy to just rely on stuff being on the server.

      But if you get laid off (or fired), you won’t have access. And the company many not keep them all digitally accessible (or even easily accessible–they may be in a deep backup).

      I sometimes think that once a year, we should sit down an update our resume, print out reviews/evaluations/emails of praise, write down references and contact info.

      It’s career maintenance, just like getting our car’s oil changed or having a medical checkup.

      1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

        I sometimes think that once a year, we should sit down an update our resume, print out reviews/evaluations/emails of praise, write down references and contact info.

        Oooh, I like this! Maybe do this right after our annual review, so whatever work we did in the previous year is still fresh in our mind (assuming we just did the self-assessment with evaluating the work we’ve done in the past year).

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      This is why I have a physical list in my records of everyone’s email address and contact information.

      This can still be outdated if not updated regularly enough. But even if LinkedIn is still around in 10 years, Betty may have just abandoned her profile or something as simple as that. Especially given how infrequently we all check that platform it seems.

      It’s like how I update my resume every so often because I’m not here for forgetting things or scrambling after I need it. Once was enough for that scramble fest. I spent a weekend a couple weeks ago doing just that. I’m not in the job search, I don’t plan to be like ever at this point but things change. If the world swallows this current place hole or my boss gets deported or abducted by aliens, yadda yadda yadda.

      I’ve seen too many people have their phones die and their backup being spotty or old AF. So you lose contacts that way too. Always have personal flies in writing somewhere. Preferably in a fireproof safe or lockbox or safety deposit box.

      1. TootsNYC*

        plus it’s nice to have a resumé for other things. I was asked to do a presentation to interns in my industry, from my internship program, and I was able to use my resumé to build a bio.

    3. Nervous Nellie*

      Seconding TootsNYC! I closed my LinkedIn account a couple of years ago after experiencing what is euphemistically call “privacy issues” (read- stalker….), but right before I did so, I did an email blast from within LinkedIn to the folks I wanted to stay in touch with, especially those who had agreed to be references for me, and former colleagues/direct reports I agreed to be references for. I gave them all my contact info, and then closed out the account. All but one of them emailed me back with their detailed contact info. It was heartwarming! I then put a biannual recurring reminder in my calendar to check in with my refs (both givers and takers) to stay on the radar for helping and being helped. No LinkedIn needed. :)

      1. Nervous Nellie*

        And forgot to mention – stalker notwithstanding, I really felt no regret closing my LinkedIn account, because even though I changed jobs twice during the time I had the account, neither company bothered to look at my LI page. All that time and curating for nothing. Keeping in direct touch with my ‘reference team’ has been much more gratifying.

    4. RecoveringSWO*

      This saved my butt recently! I kept a printout of a directory of managers at an old job which (lucky for me) included personal e-mail or phone numbers. My direct supervisor was deployed and completely unreachable, but I had worked with a number of managers on specific projects or side duties. I had 2 respond quickly and provide references.

      This is a good reminder that I need to keep contact information not just for my boss, but for any “backup” supervisors that can speak to my work.

  16. Just Another Manic Millie*

    I gave notice at my very first job on the second day. Two days later, I was told not to come back.

    My next job, which I consider to be my first official job, lasted eight months. My job after that one lasted more than eleven years. While I was still at that eleven-year job, I searched for a new job, only to hear the interviewers complain time and time again that I didn’t have any references. They said that they understood why I didn’t want them to contact anyone at my present job, but they still complained. I gave them the names of people at my previous eight-month job that they could contact, but they all complained that I was there such a long time ago that no one would remember me. I offered to give them personal references, but they all said, “That’s no good! You’ll just give us the names of people who will say good things about you!”

    I know that Alison will disapprove, but I even offered to work for free for a couple of weeks at some of the companies. I said that if they didn’t think that I did a good job, they could fire me. They didn’t even have to pay me. (I didn’t realize at the time that that would not have been legal.) I offered to sign anything they wanted in which I would guarantee that I wouldn’t sue them for anything. That was no good. They all wanted current references.

    Finally, I interviewed for a job with a stockbroker who told me that he was good friends with the owner of my current company (and he was his stockbroker, too). He told me that if I was good enough to be employed at his friend’s company for over eleven years, that was good enough for him.

    I’m not sure what I would have done if he hadn’t hired me, and if all future interviewers dismissed me from consideration because I didn’t have current references. Maybe I would have quit my eleven-year job. If I had, I would have had references galore.

    1. TootsNYC*

      in that situation, I wonder if there is a higher-level colleague (even if you didn’t report to them) that would be willing to be a reference on a confidential basis.

      I know I’d do that for someone who reported to one of my colleagues, or whom I worked with in another department.
      (I’d even do it for someone who worked directly for me, without repercussion, but I’m not sure any of them would have thought that; I didn’t think I could announce it, it would sound too much like I was trying to get rid of them, and I wasn’t–but I’ve often thought they were interviewing, or believed it was probably time they might want to move on.)

      1. Just Another Manic Millie*

        No, there wasn’t any such higher-level colleague that I would have trusted to keep his/her mouth shut. You know what they say – three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead. Too many people aren’t very careful in keeping confidential information quiet. Or they forget that they’re supposed to keep it quiet. Or they are sure that they can trust this one person.

      2. Anon for this*

        I have this secret pact with a couple of my peers – that we can give each other as references. I can trust these people and they me. Gets dicey with managers though.

    2. OP Here*

      Lovely catch-22 there! It’s like saying that any entry-level applicant must have 3-5 years experience. Why would you be entry-level if you have experience? And how can you get experience if you can’t get that first entry-level job?

      Are good employees who stay for more than a decade permanently disadvantaged for references as we never want to contact our current employer? Ultimately, is the message that we MUST change jobs every 2-5 years? That’s not practical for many people due to personal or professional reasons.

      1. Anon for this*

        Similar situation – I’ve had the same manager for almost a decade, but some team leads who supervised my work have moved on to other roles. They’re not peers but didn’t have hiring/firing authority.

      2. emmelemm*

        I definitely feel like the message is we must change jobs every 2-5 years or we don’t have the “preferred career trajectory” and a ready list of 5 or more suitable references.

      3. Just Another Manic Millie*

        “And how can you get experience if you can’t get that first entry-level job?”

        Since I never put that four-day job on a resume, I had to try all over again to get a first job. And I succeeded. I often say that I had two first jobs. What’s funny is that I quit that eight-month job to avoid getting fired. So I was lucky that I didn’t have to look for a third first job. Nowadays, people get experience by working as interns during their summer breaks from college, but there weren’t any interns back in my day.

        I got my third job through an employment agency. To this day, I don’t know what happened. I don’t know if the agency thought that it was my company’s job to call the eight-month company for a reference. Maybe the new company thought that the agency had called the eight-month company for a reference. Maybe nobody actually called for a reference. Or maybe the eight-month company had given me a good reference (as we had discussed) and did not screw me over by saying that I had quit before they had the chance to fire me.

        I also wondered at the time why it appeared that job-hoppers would have an easier time to find a new job, because they would lots of references to give, unlike people who stayed at their jobs for a substantial amount of time. But I was hired on the spot at three companies. They hired me during my first (and only) interview and did not call or even ask about any references. I was also offered the job on the spot by a few other companies where I did not want the jobs.

      4. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

        What I have started doing is, anytime my boss, or project lead, or anyone else in a leading position that I had a good rapport with, would leave the company, I’d add that person on LinkedIn, and on Facebook if that’s an option. This way, I can get hold of them if I need to. My last three jobs all had a wildly high manager turnover. At one OldJob, some of my ex-peers who still work there are celebrating their 25 and 30 years of service, but in my six years there, I went through six different supervisors, three CIOs, and two or three division CEOs.

        1. RecoveringSWO*

          Was just about to recommend this. I’ve had great responsiveness from managers who have left the company I’m working for.

    3. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      “If I was good enough to be employed by his friends company” and then he hired you. I didn’t see that coming, holy moly.

      That’s not how I saw that play out personally.

      We got a resume from someone who was working at Boss’s friend’s company. Bro called up that friend and asked about her on the spot to be all “Why’s this person looking for work though, what you do over there that she doesn’t like, gurl?”

      And the friend was like “She must be looking because she’s not very good at her job and we’re actively working to remove her from her position.”

      But in my life, I was interviewed while trying to flee by someone who ended up knowing a popular guy at my job and put it all together. Thank the Heavens that their friend was an ally on my end and also when my interviewer was all “do they know you’re looking to leave?” I said “No, they don’t.” and the response was “Yeah my buddy told me the management there sucks, it’s all good *made motions that said that the secret was safe, etc*”

      I’m so glad your experience ended well but so scared at the same time.

  17. Red*

    For one particular previous job I’ve actually avoided listing my boss and either listed coworkers or other senior staff I worked with. I never had a company call me out for it and they all seemed fine with that (as in they never brought it up).

    Your references are people who you worked with who can attest to your work but also in a positive way. Sometimes that person can’t or shouldn’t be the boss. If a company is that much of a stickler they may be focusing on the wrong things.

    [My boss was a good man but foreign and simply didn’t seem to grasp the point of a reference was to be positive. He would be like “She’s great! Here’s also a list of weaknesses.” After a couple of weird feedback moments I asked why he was doing that and he kept saying he felt bad being only positive and felt he needed to temper it with some negativity because no one is perfect. I simply dropped him from my future applications.]

  18. SDSmith82*

    This isn’t just a references issue sometimes- i ran into this when my landlord was verifying us back when we were applying. Background checks are becoming a challenge for me because in the last 10 years 2 out of the 3 places I’ve worked have all been sold and have no record of my existence because of California Privacy rules. It’s beyond frustrating that it then changes how I am perceived because they have to do extra leg work and makes me look sort of bad.

    I really wish these things weren’t as much of an issue as they are.

  19. kittymommy*

    I have not needed references for some time (appx. 10 years), but when I do it’ll probably be difficult. I currently work in government and all we do is verify employment and state whether or not the former employee is eligible for re-hire. That is an entity wide decree and pretty strictly enforced. And all requests go through HR. I’ve though about lining up some previous colleagues as references, but none were my supervisors.

    Prior to this gig I worked for the state in an office that has since been privatized and outsourced. No idea who the contact for that would be.

    1. Atlantian*

      This is currently my issue in a casual, but long going, job search. I am pushing 40 and have never worked at a place that allows more than this type of “verify employment, dates and whether or not they are eligible for rehire” type of “reference”. They all have a strict no personal references policy. I have had to rely on former coworkers who no longer work at the place we worked at together either for references and they are getting quite stale, since I can’t use current coworkers, even if I never reported to them, because in addition to not wanting to alert my current employer of my job search, I don’t want to put their jobs in jeopardy. I’m pretty sure it’s holding my job search back but I literally have no other options.

  20. TimeTravelR*

    My husband’s former boss died so after his name on the resume he put deceased and then put an alternate contact. Like a year later, that guy died too…

    1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      The cursed resume… Did he put anyone else in as the new alternate or did he decide not to take any chances?

    2. RC Rascal*

      Don’t list actual references on your resume. You can say they are available upon request. You need to have more control over them than you can have listing them on a document and hat will be seen by lots of people.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        Yeah, don’t put anything pertaining to references on your resume. Don’t even put “Available upon request” because that line makes eyes twitch, we know they’re available upon request.

        But that’s old format that someone is going by. When I first made my resume decades ago, all the materials told you to list your references right there on the document. Then it moved to “available upon request” and just no mention at all over the years.

      2. TimeTravelR*

        he works for the federal govt so they expect you to put supervisor’s names. Otherwise he’d have left it off. Now it’s back far enough in his history, I doubt anyone would call even if they could.

  21. TexasTeacher*

    I will be facing this conundrum soon. I’ve been out of the public school classroom for a long time, only doing substitute teaching and more recently private music instruction. I’m sure both of my principals from 15-20 years ago are long retired, and I’m not sure they’d particularly remember me since they weren’t teaching alongside me. Music teachers sometimes get only 2-3 classroom visits a year from their principals. Maybe the district I worked for still has evals on file, but I did not save any copies, unfortunately. Hopefully, I can get my computer applications through to a live person who’s willing to talk to me.

  22. 1234*

    Something else, what if your old company has strict rules not to say anything except to confirm the title, dates of employment and salary? I know Alison has said that there’s ways to get around that, but what if your managers want to stick to their guns and not give references other than to verify employment information? “Because we don’t want to be sued or whatever in case you don’t get the job and want to blame us.”

    I’ve read all of these responses and I thought I would be the only one who wouldn’t really have references.

    1. RC Rascal*

      That’s not entirely a bad thing. It protects you free m managers who don’t like you or would be out for sabotage. This is where you get coworkers, clients, or people you’ve worked with through volunteering.

    2. Just Another Manic Millie*

      As far as I’m concerned, confirming your title, dates of employment, and salary does constitute giving you a reference. Especially if you’ve had that job for quite some time. I would think that most interviewers would think that you must have done a good/excellent job if a company kept you on for a substantial amount of time.

    3. Snoop*

      I have heard my boss (who also does our HR functions!) say this exact thing. I’m very worried that if I ever do leave this job, he won’t give me the very good reference I’ve earned. :(

    4. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      It’s literally built into a new bosses contract that they aren’t allowed to give references for any past or present employees. It’s supposed to safe guard the employee though, in case someone gave a bad reference out of spite. This way it’s a neutral one for just employment verification.

      Honestly in the end, you can’t force their hand and it will take you out of the running for jobs that require more. That’s sadly the way these kinds of things work with these kinds of situations up to each individual employer.

    5. Pipsqueak*

      I literally just had this problem! I’m a grad student doing part-time work, so I worked for several agencies, and on zero-hour contracts for a while so two of my last jobs would only confirm hours.
      A third had shut down the branch I worked for and “couldn’t find me in the system” but my new job insisted a reference could only come from an official email address, despite me explaining my previous manager obviously doesnt work there anymore. Luckily I was able to sort it in the end, but it cost me three weeks of work time.
      A case where two conflicting reference policies really put me in a bind.

  23. Another Steve G*

    Am I the only outlier on this s ite…I’ve had a handful of jobs in my field (logistics/transportation) and while I’ve provided a couple of references for former direct reports and a peer, I’ve never had a potential employer call any of my references.

    1. Justin*

      You’re not the only. I had one job that insisted on a supervisor, and when I told them I’d mostly had part time jobs, I found those supervisors, but they insisted on the one longer job I’d had (my CURRENT supervisor), who then refused to help (which imperiled my job!), but they accepted my candidacy because they needed to wrap it up, then changed their rules so it wouldn’t happen to future applicants (basically I wouldn’t have been considered).

      And then my current job they didn’t call anyone at all.

      It’s all over the map!

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Not the only one.

      I have had some pretty weird conversations with bosses over the years about the idea of reference checks. Some are firm believers that references are a waste of time. “They are listing people they know will speak well of them.” or from folks who also have their company policy that they don’t give references, so why would they expect others to give references. Lots of differences out there.

      I think that it can be industry and size dependent as well. Logistics/transportation not checking references makes a million times sense to me in my dealings with them over the years.

      An old colleague who went into long haul after our shop was winding down to part time hours only, didn’t need us to reference for him, even though I was ready to go.

    3. 1234*

      You’re not the only one. While I never worked in transportation/logistics, first job out of school, I worked for a small biz and they didn’t ask for references either. I had one interview with my direct manager and she then had me interview with her brother, one of the owners of the company. I was sent an offer letter either later that day or the next morning.

    4. Jdc*

      I’ve only ever had them call one. I luckily have one stellar reference but the rest are tricky for similar reasons as LW stated.

    5. londonedit*

      References aren’t really a big thing in my industry (publishing) either. I think it’s probably because it’s such a small world that you’d be stupid to lie about having worked somewhere if you hadn’t! Also references tend to work differently in the UK – usually you get a job offer and then they ask for your references. Your offer is contingent on a successful reference check, but in my experience it’s just a formality. They might get in touch with your references just to confirm that you were doing the job you said you were, but they wouldn’t ask for a detailed description of your strengths and weaknesses. I’ve had several jobs where they haven’t bothered to check, or where they haven’t contacted my references until after I’ve already started (which, when you consider most people in the UK have at least a month’s notice period, is pretty slow going!) I’ve never experienced anything like the sort of ‘background checks’ I see people talking about here – unless you’re working in finance or civil service or something like that, no one would ever delve into your personal history.

  24. Strawberry Red*

    Ugh, I’m currently in this situation. I’m at my second post-college job. My boss from my first professional job was busted for embezzlement and the firm was shut down. My previous boss (from a college retail job) is deceased, and the other two stores I worked at during college have since closed. Job searching has been fun…

  25. Kate*

    I would love to get some advice on this situation; my manager was fired for behaviour and being wildly inappropriate, as well as not being great at her job. I only worked there for a few months. I would now never use her as a reference. How would I explain that one?

    1. Inigo Montoya*

      I have that EXACT situation with my last job! I just don’t list her. I do list a colleague from that job who was senior to me and who I worked closely with. No one has ever questioned it. I just started a new job this week and I know they called 2 of my 3 references – they didn’t call the guy from my last job but that’s probably because I was only there for 6 months.

      1. RecoveringSWO*

        I think IM’s strategy is best.

        But if there’s no one else, I would ask HR if they would be willing to put in a word. “Kate’s supervisor is ineligible to provide Llama Co. employee references. However, we can confirm that she met performance standards during her X month tenure and is eligible for rehire.”

  26. A Teacher*

    I’m on the Board of Directors and the Foster Home Coordinator for an animal rescue. I have a lot of volunteers I supervise and manage-granted it is in a volunteer capacity, but I’ve served as a reference on more than one occasion because of situations like the OP describes.

    1. Coverage Associate*

      Yes. This was one thing I understood early in my career: volunteering is a way to develop references when professional/paid ones are limited for whatever reason.

  27. Sanity Lost*

    One thing I don’t see mentioned is for stay at home parents. How do you provide references if you are re-entering the work force after 12-15 years? With the rise of daycare and other childcare costs, we are starting to see a rise in SAHP.

    1. Mimosa Jones*

      This is my issue. I have a 15 year gap and I’m hoping to go back to full-time in the next year or so. I’ve done some volunteering and free-lance work here and there, so I have recent references. But all my traditional job references are over a decade old and in a different state. Plus, I worked in IT…for dot coms and small businesses. Out of 8 employers, 3 went out of business and the other 4 have been sold at least once since. The one that still exists is a for-profit, online university that I faintly remember contracted with me through a temp agency, but I don’t remember which one. I’m sure most of my old references have retired and I have no idea how to find them. I’m going to try and find the ones I can on Linked-in and I can get HR departments to verify dates of employment for the ones that were sold and then we’ll see what happens.

      1. Anon123*

        Good luck with your job search. My Aunt owns a solo law practice in a suburban town and has hired many people returning to the professional world after a 10+ year break in employment–usually from being a SAHP, but she didn’t prefer SAHP’s over any other reason/background. Not having references or having alternative references (former colleagues–who now usually have higher titles, performance evaluation copies, etc) was never an issue. It’s great that you’re being so proactive, but I wouldn’t fret too much about it since it’s logical to have a reference gap as well.

        Also, I would encourage you to look at any small local professional offices for your return to full time work. The unconscious bias problem works both ways and I’ve noticed that my Aunt likes hiring returning professionals. She needs mature employees to handle confidential files and become self sufficient in the intricacies of certain software or procedures with less “hand holding” than a fresh graduate (in terms of both duties and professional norms/client interaction). But, she can’t afford to provide healthcare benefits or pay big company salaries. She knows she can get better talent by hiring returning professionals at adequate rates and providing great flexibility in hours, vacation time, and telework policies. She’s hired “returning professionals” as remote employees for website administration and on site employees who handle the administration of judgments, estates, court filings, etc. I recognize that this example is problematic in its own ways (yay, hiring bias and no big company benefits/salary) but I think local professional offices could be a good stepping stone for anyone looking to return to the workforce after a significant amount of years.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I have found gaps in resumes like this are worse for the person seeking a job than figuring out who to use as a reference. Not because they’re old but because you’re already throwing a flag with the gap [unjustly since there are reasons for these gaps but as you know, parenting and raising children in the first place are a huge thing in unconscious bias]

      I see this happen with those who have to take years off to take care of an elderly parent or their own recovery process as well.

      In a lot of senses, despite having a great career 15 years ago, its’ now in the dust in most employers eyes and you’re going to have to start at the entry level again to prove you’ve still “got it”.

    3. Celestial being on a bike*

      IME I’ve only had one job ever check references. When I went back to work after being home with the kids, no one called anyone. I was ready to reach way back into the past if necessary, and I had done a ton of volunteering and had references from that…but in the end it didn’t matter. Worry more about getting interviews. Referrals helped me a bunch!

  28. Junior Assistant Peon*

    I had a situation once where some crappy temp agency placed me in a temp gig. About a month after I stated, the temp agency person called me up in a panic. She admitted to me that they had in a rush to fill the position, she had fudged my reference check with the intention of quietly updating my file with the real responses when they came in, and a person was failing to respond. Both the temp agency person and I left this reference a series of increasingly frantic voicemails that were ignored.

    I found out later that my company had reminded everyone of a policy against responding to reference checks after a group of us got laid off, the person who agreed to serve as a reference for me got scared, and evidently was too timid to use her words and tell us what the problem was.

  29. TootsNYC*

    If I were interviewing someone who’d been at the same company for several years, my assumption would be that they’re a good employee, because they didn’t get fired.
    So a peer reference would carry some weight, because it would be next to that longevity.

  30. Jdc*

    Dealing with this right now. A large chunk of my work history I have no reference for because it was a friends business I got off the ground and they have burned every bridge known to man kind, including telling my staff i was out having an abortion one time and breast enlargement another. For obvious reasons I wouldn’t trust him as a reference under any circumstances. I also don’t have “peers” per say at that company nor did I because it was him, me and our laborers. Frustrating.

    1. Jdc*

      Oh and neither were true not that it was his business or would I be ashamed if they were. I had bronchitis…that HE gave me. Ughh

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      What a nightmare!

      And all the laborers weren’t even able to give you a character reference of sorts? I have a couple people on my longer list [for when others may not be around to track down or if they want someone who worked in some capacity with me directly instead of off-site ghost ownership]. It was just me and the boss and then the production staff. The production staff still worked with me, still knew I busted my ass and did stuff and that they could always come to me for assistance or guidelines when things were unclear. It’s not at all ideal but it is helpful to have those people still able to use their voice, no matter where in the authority structure they ultimately landed. Better than nothing, that’s for sure.

  31. Crop Tiger*

    I’ll have this problem if I ever have to go job searching. I’ve been at my job 19 years. Of my four managers two are dead and one would never give me and I wouldn’t ask for a reference if the alternative was burning in the fires of hell. I suppose I could try to go the vendor/ board member route, but even those may not stay stable enough.

  32. Cubicles*

    This issue really concerns me. I have not really kept in contact with most of my past colleagues and managers, so I really don’t have any former coworkers or managers to offer as references and I’m honestly scared about it. The job I’m in right now will probably not last that much longer due to circumstances far beyond my control and way above my pay grade. I really should be looking for work right now since it takes some time to secure a new position in most cases. But I am totally stymied on how to do so. It feels so wrong to just hit up former coworkers on FB after not having sent a message or posted on their page in years.

    A company I used to work for went bankrupt and got bought out by another company, and I know no one at either one now.

    Honestly, it scares me that I (or anyone) could be out on the street in a cardboard box because I didn’t network enough.

    1. boop the first*

      Yeah, that’s the thing, too! I can remember enough names from past jobs and could probably find them alive and breathing, but it’s knowing that I will be That Person Who Only Calls When I Need Something that makes poverty and homelessness sound like a perfectly fine alternative.

  33. Keymaster of Gozer*

    My last employer was a very small firm and the managers are currently facing prison sentences for financial fraud and contempt of court…and I was a witness for the prosecution.

    I’ve had to explain several times to recruiters that there is absolutely no chance at all of getting any kind of reference from that job. Most have been very understanding (especially after googling former employer name) about it so I suspect people without references is something recruiters encounter a lot.

    Previous place to that, I can get a reference from. But I was there so long if I try to reach back to any other former employers I’ll be unlikely to get anyone who knows me.

  34. GG*

    This is very a very timely post for me, as I’m just starting to think ahead to a job search in the next few months. (Changes at work and in my personal life will mean I won’t be able to stay at my current job.) Unfortunately, Alison’s advice doesn’t help me much. I’ve got one good reference in my current boss. And I’ve got another okay one from 3 jobs before the current one. (Only okay because it’s from a job from 11 years ago, and he and I never really worked much together.) But that’s it. I can’t give references from the other 2 jobs in between due to toxic workplaces and unrealistic expectations. And I’m worried about what will happen if a hiring manager decided to independently contact those jobs. Well, not one of them. That one if you google the company it’s very clear why I left and why no reference from them could be reliable, even if you could find current contact info. But the other, the company is still going strong and the boss is still easily reachable, and I worry about what he might say about me. I’ll admit I made some mistakes there. But it’s because I was being given entirely too much to do in the time allowed and I was so frazzled I was actually so relieved when I was “laid off”.

  35. NGT*

    This happens to me fairly often. I’m a teacher, and although I completed my student teaching nearly a decade ago, I still have to list my student teaching experience (in a separate area on the application from my regular teaching experience, no less). The problem is, my mentor teacher retired that year, the principal I worked under has long since moved, and no one left there can vouch for me now because that was nearly a decade ago, and I’ve grown considerably as a teacher (as one might guess). I’ve been told that at least in my field, the best thing to do is to state on the application or in the CV or resume that that person was your mentor, but they’re retired or deceased now, and therefore not reachable. I also have to do this with older jobs in teaching.

  36. boop the first*

    I worry about this too… I haven’t had an interview in six months. My last workplace was exactly as described in the OP, so just an owner and three employees. The owner is very weaselly and untrustworthy and I don’t want to be in contact, but the business has been in a state of either moving cities or failing entirely for some years now so I don’t know if my contact info is even true.

    I’m still in contact with my previous-previous manager, but he’s experiencing some very serious health issues so I’m getting nervous.

    My previous-previous-previous manager, I felt we were pretty chummy during the decade we worked together but during my last two weeks there, he became ice cold like I’d abandoned him, so I’m not even sure if he’s committed enough of me to his memory to even be able to provide a reference.

    References were always kinda tricky for someone like me, but then I so rarely ever needed them, actually!

    1. boop the first*

      I do, however, have a text message begging me to come back so I’m curious if there will be a scenario where I’ll have to rely on it, lol! I would LOVE to delete that text chain just to get his name out of my inbox but that text is like a little flake of gold to me.

  37. Wendy Darling*

    My last job I only lasted 8 months because my boss was evil. I’m not comfortable using anyone from that company as a reference because Evil Boss kept me pretty isolated, so most of my colleagues only knew about my work from her talking smack about it, and none of them worked closely enough with me to provide a reference. I quit because Evil Boss had unreasonable expectations for my role that I wasn’t meeting because they were impossible, and being constantly berated about it was causing me major mental health issues.

    When I got my current job that company went as far as to refuse to verify my dates of employment for a background check, so I had to submit W2s to prove I’d worked there.

    So far I’ve just declined to offer any references from that job and given references from the job before that and no one said anything, but it stresses me out every time I apply for something — I’m not sure how to explain that we’re apparently not on speaking terms without making myself look bad.

  38. Orora25*

    What do you do when your last boss made your life such a living hell that you ended up in the hospital from stress and subsequently quit? I’m friendly with a peer, but I haven’t spoken to that boss since the day I left and we both like it that way.

    Job before that was with a company that went under, and my boss was investigated by the feds (who I cooperated with when they contacted me); he probably doesn’t have very good things to say about me.

    I have good relationships with my bosses from the early 2000s, but I’m a little nervous about leaving this job. I’m not actively looking but it’s a concern. My current boss is great and will probably be supportive, but I don’t really want to ask her to vouch for me while I’m still working for her.

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