we hired without checking references … and it went badly

A reader writes:

We recently interviewed some one who seemed okay but I had reservations. We didn’t have many good options, so we asked for her references. She has 10+ years of work history and we could not get in touch with anybody. When we went back to her asking for help, she provided references who, no joke, worked with her for 3 months 15+ years ago. We had been clear that even providing coworkers from her more recent jobs would have worked. We were desperate and hired her anyway.

It’s been 3 weeks, and we’re letting her go tomorrow. It’s nothing egregious, but she lacks certain skills/personality traits (like resourcefulness, flexibility, etc.) that are necessary for the job.

I don’t know whether to consider this a “lesson learned” because I’ve always known how important references are. But have learned that I can’t compromise on hiring decisions when I will ultimately be cleaning the mess.

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 234 comments… read them below }

  1. Joyce To the World*

    It has probably been covered here before, but it is my company’s policy that no one is permitted to provide a work reference. The only option available is a 1-800 HR number to call to confirm employment. Since I am going on 2o years now, any other references I might have are ancient history. I wonder how to work around that? Personal references instead?

    1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

      If it’s any consolation, a story about hiring references is an anecdote about anecdotes.

    2. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

      Well, if that had been the case in this situation, the candidate could have explained that.

      And yes, provided personal references, preferably from co-workers who had moved on. And the HR department who could have at least confirmed dates of employment and possibly “eligibility for rehire”, possibly with a tone of voice that would convey the secrets that cannot be addressed.

      1. Analytical Tree Hugger*

        I recommend listing coworkers as “professional references” rather than “personal references.” Coworkers aren’t managers and you could make that clear when you share them; I usually include a brief description of our relationship.

        I’m not nitpicking language for the sake of being pedantic. A hiring manager will likely see “personal reference” and think you’re listing a friend or family member, which is usually not what they’re looking for.

        1. Librarian of SHIELD*

          I agree with this. There’s no rule that your references have to be supervisors. I’m fact, in some of my previous positions my supervisor worked in a different building across town, and I question whether they would be able to give as strong or detailed a reference as a coworker I worked with closely. Your coworkers should still be considered professional references. Personal references would be people you’ve not worked with.

          1. lemon*

            Some companies can be stricter on this. I’ve been asked to provide additional references when only listing one supervisor because the company absolutely *required* at least 2.

            1. Rose*

              Regardless of what they’re asking for, coworkers are professional not personal references. I assume if they only want managers they’re not taking personal references of any kind.

          2. Been there, done that*

            There may be no “rule” but some companies (mine included) want to speak to a supervisor or at least someone in the management chain. Work peers might be able to provide some insight but they don’t know performance records or disciplinary issues, etc. And many employers do not allow anyone other than HR or sometimes management to handle references anyway because of possible legal implications.

            1. BeenThere*

              This become a problem when you are a targeted minority that often faces bias, particularly at the management layer. I had three bad managers in a row, there was the openly sexists, racist and ablest one, who was followed by Mr Yellypants and finally Mrs Jealous that you don’t have children and am going to comment on it constantly. It was really tough to do an internal transfer and I got lucky with my next position.

          3. So sleepy*

            Totally agree with this. I usually put 1 direct manager and 2 professional references, ideally someone senior to me that I have done work for (I’m in a role where I provide support to a lot of directors and managers, though, fortunately).

        2. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

          Depending on the job I am applying to, I list different categories of references (managers are always included) since my profession can have a really wide range of experiences. For example: Internal stakeholders; External Stakeholders; Analysis; Policy; Community Outreach, etc. and mix-and-match depending on what the job is looking for. I feel like it lets the hiring manager really drill down into what they might not be getting from my resume or cover letter.

      2. JohannaCabal*

        If you’ve been there awhile, do you have any supervisors/managers who have moved on or retired? Reference checkers generally want to talk to a manager and they don’t care if it’s someone who has switched to a different job. The only problem would be if they last managed you more than ten years ago.

        1. allathian*

          Really depends on where you are. In my area it would be an imposition to ask retired former managers for references, for example. It’s simply not done.

    3. Lemming22*

      Are there people that you’ve worked with relatively recently but have since left the company (especially managers)? I don’t think companies can enforce this for those that have left.

    4. irene adler*

      Thank you. I’m in a similar situation. Long-term at one small company.

      My work-arounds:
      -Ex-coworkers either retired or at another company.
      -People I work with in the professional organization I belong to (I’m the secretary for the local chapter).

      Not very good, I know. I’d like to learn ways to “sell” these to potential employers cuz that’s all I got.

      I have had some instructors from the classes I’ve taken recently offer to be a reference (I did NOT ask; they offered). Haven’t taken any of them up on this- so far.

      1. Tiffany Aching's imaginary friend*

        They can definitely speak to work ethic stuff — preparedness, attitude, stuff like that. Were I you, I would accept their offer for “sometime in the future when I might need it” and ask for their contact info.

    5. Ask An Event Manager*

      Wouldn’t your employer only have actionable consequences if they called the main number and someone reported it? In theory you could speak with your references and they could provide a cell number.
      I work at a university and we have a number in HR for employment verification, but we are still very much allowed to have direct lines to our former managers/coworkers.

      1. Koalafied*

        I suspect that people at these companies fall into a couple buckets:

        1 – People who are sticklers for the rules/afraid of the consequences of getting caught, so will not violate the policy or even a popular misunderstanding of the policy – “better safe than sorry,” they’ll say if you question whether the policy is being interpreted correctly.

        2 – People who don’t think it’s a big deal, don’t expect to get caught, feel like they have too much cultural capital to be afraid of whatever minor blowback they might get for violating the polices, so they’re fine giving references anyway.

        3 – People who don’t really expect they would be reprimanded to any degree worth worrying about, but don’t want to be someone’s reference for some other reason, and the company policy against references gives them cover to conceal whatever the real reason is.

      2. So sleepy*

        I think you’re right on this – there will definitely be fewer options, because some people will be hesitant, but others will be fine to take the call (I definitely would… if my employer is going to fire me for saying nice things about a former employee, have at it. I would definitely decline if it was someone I had reservations about, though, since I’m guessing the policy is due to a liability concern by the employer).

      3. JB*

        Yeah, I absolutely have given references before while working at a company that had an official policy against giving references. I just had the person give my cell number and I found somewhere private to have the conversation, same as if I had been job-hunting myself and had gotten a call from a potential employer.

        I’m pretty sure everyone knew I was doing it. They were closing our branch and I was the only one who had been offered a position at another location, everyone else got a severance package, so it’s not like it was a secret that all of them were looking for jobs, and I was the closest thing to a supervisor at that branch.

        If I had just left them all twisting in the wind without a reference, the company would have backed me up at the time I’m sure, but I probably would have had a much harder time getting a job at my current (awesome) company, where two of those former coworkers now work…!

    6. a tester, not a developer*

      My company does the same thing. Talking to friends who’ve gotten out, it’s the “is OP eligible for rehire?” question that carries the most weight. At least one of my friends provided a copy of a recent performance review (unprompted) as a substitute for a work reference.

      I’ve agreed to be a personal reference for a few people I worked with, but never ended up getting called.

      1. CupcakeCounter*

        The last couple places I interviewed with specifically requested this! They asked for 1) most recent performance review 2) 2-3 current or former coworkers (peer level or higher) who could speak to your work. One even gave an option for a call or would email a written questionnaire. It was quite fantastic actually…

        1. Autumnheart*

          I guess I see both positives and negatives to asking for the most recent performance review. On the one hand, it seems about the same amount of intrusiveness as asking for a paystub from your current place “so they can decide on salary” (Sure Jan). But on the other hand, if you’re trying to get out of a workplace that does things like, say, retaliate against you for quitting by telling future employers that you were a bad worker, it might be a way to fight against that.

          1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

            Some companies are notorious for not doing annual or performance reviews – other places do them routinely. I actually just had mine Monday – and can print and save copies of them easily for future reference.

    7. Ann O'Nemity*

      I worked for one of those companies, but it was pretty common to bend the rules and provide a “personal” reference. I’d just tell the reference checker, “While our company policy prohibits me from giving an official reference, I’m more than happy to provide a personal reference for Wakeen.” The reference checker would read between the lines; they knew the game. Another option is to get references from managers and coworkers who have since left the company.

      1. RunShaker*

        My company is same way, been with them for 17 years. My issue is my department is closing. We are being provided assistance from an outside firm along with our HR to help with updating our resumes and offering assistance on interviewing. I pushed back when I found out my large company doesn’t do references, only provides an 800 number to call to verify employment dates and managers are prohibited from providing a reference. The outside firm stated that no one relies on references anymore and it isn’t a thing. I pointed out that my research stated the opposite. Research being this site. My HR & outside firm tried to say it is only small companies that rely on references and that it is industry standard with large companies to not check references. Thoughts?
        Also, if interviewer has social security number and/or date of birth, our 800 number will provide salary information. You better believe I let them know that was wrong and why–from reading this site on how this affects women, especially minority women. I am white, middle age woman for context.

        1. Jaxgma*

          I’d be gathering contact info from my colleagues in my department who are also being let go, and offering my contact info to them as well. Once people no longer work there, they’re no longer bound by the firm’s rules regarding references.

        2. Bernice Clifton*

          Some companies actually request your references as a required field on job applications.

        3. emmelemm*

          On the contrary, I’d say you’re more likely to have a small company either not ask for references or take non-standard references, whereas a large company is more likely to have a policy of “you must give us three references” (whether or not they check them thoroughly) and allow no exceptions no matter what you say.

        4. Never Boring*

          In my state, it’s now illegal to ask job applicants for their salary history. You might mention that to the folks running the 1-800 number.

        5. learnedthehardway*

          Your company is lying or misinformed. Pretty much any senior level role and most junior roles in any professionally run company want to have references.

          I would get the contact information from all your colleagues who are also being downsized, and offer to be references for them in return. Also look up former managers who have left the company.

          Good for you about pushing back on the income situation – wouldn’t it actually be fraud or something to use someone else’s social security number to get info on their salary?

      2. Eldritch Office Worker*

        That’s how mine works. If you call Company directly you get the “we only confirm” line. But if Manager wants to give a reference on their own time on their own cell and not officially as a representative of Company then that’s their choice.

    8. Cold Fish*

      That’s kind of where I am. Going on 20 years at company. Of those that could provide references, I wouldn’t want them to know I’m leaving until I was leaving and had offer in hand. Most recent ex-co-worker who left (2 years ago), next ex-co-worker I’d ask we are stretching the time line (7-8 years ago). This place just doesn’t have high turnover. Combine that with a friendly but VERY-NOT-outgoing personality and I’m pretty much screwed when it comes to references. Doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be a great employee.

    9. Sara without an H*

      Check your network — do you have any former managers or senior coworkers who have left the company?

      Personal references might work if they come from someone you’ve done some kind of substantial project with — say, someone in an organization where you volunteer. But if you use a personal reference, please be sure to explain your company’s policy to the organization where you’re interviewing: “It’s official policy at Hidebound & Stuffy not to give professional references, although HR is willing to verify my employment status. But here are the names of two former managers who now work elsewhere, and the chair of our Local Charity, who can speak to my work on their annual membership drive.”

    10. Jenna Webster*

      Our organization now allows people to provide references if the person applying for the new job signs a form stating they will not sue or pursue any consequences based on the reference given.

    11. anonymous73*

      I’ve found that if I have a good relationship with a manager or co-worker, they are willing to be a reference regardless of company policy. They can be contacted on their personal phone while not at the office. And I’ve never seen it become an issue.

    12. Chairman of the Bored*

      Find a colleague who doesn’t care about the policy, and ask them to be your reference.

      I previously worked for a place that also had that “no work reference” policy. That didn’t stop me from giving good references to good colleagues anyway.

      I’m more interested in helping deserving workers find new opportunities than I am in sticking to the letter of some wack policy that a corporation made in order to limit their employees’ ability to change jobs. I doubt I’m the only one.

      1. Jay*

        This. Every place I’ve ever worked has had that policy and I have ignored it. I’ve given out my personal contact info to people who asked for references and made it clear I was speaking for my own experience, not as an official representative of my employer. Never been an issue.

        1. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

          Yep. Employers can ban the use of adverbs if they want. IANAL, but I think unionization and salary are the only 2 areas they can’t restrict

      1. Hiring Mgr*

        Madison had alot to say on this in Federalist 49, but he wrote in that old fashioned way people used to talk

    13. SlimeKnight*

      I work in the public sector and much of this holds for us as well, BUT the real worry here is that you will slander/malign someone and get the entity sued. So realistically I can give out good references, but I have to refer all the bad ones to HR, who can confirm employment dates and whether they are eligible for rehire.

    14. Love WFH*

      I’ve worked at many companies that had the policy that you must not give references — and everyone ignored the policy and gave them anyway.

      1. Nynaeve*

        Ugh. If I knew that you worked for a company that prohibited references, and then also knew that you had gone to your superior and asked them to violate a company policy on your behalf, that’s a huge mark against you in my book. The act of asking someone to violate a policy says a lot about the person doing the asking, IMO.

        1. learnedthehardway*

          On the flip side, it’s really off-side for companies to refuse to provide references and to stand in the way of people being gainfully employed or having the freedom to move to a different company at will. The government (in Canada, at least) takes a very dim view of it when companies unnecessarily stand in people’s way of being employed (primarily because the gov’t doesn’t want to be paying unemployment insurance).

          There have been cases here where employers have been sued successfully for not providing references, in situations where people lost out on employment opportunities as a result. Being concerned about liability for providing a bad reference wasn’t seen as a legitimate reason to not provide any references. The prevailing thinking here seems to be that as long as the company can back up a poor reference with documentation, that there’s no reason for them to feel they are at risk.

          So, if a company is acting unfairly by failing to provide references, I don’t see that in the same light as someone acting agains H&S policies, or insider trading, or being unethical, if they decide to remediate the wrong on their own.

        2. LarryFromOregon*

          Wow, that’s pretty rigid! I would never ask someone to embezzle or disclose trade secrets, but asking them to speak truthfully about our years of working together is different.

          In decades of being a manager, I gave many verbal references, violating employer rules—as did many fellow managers. Never heard of anyone getting in trouble for it.

          We don’t give up our humanity when we become an employee!

        3. American Job Venter*

          What other option would you give an applicant, or would you just let the reference requirement remain a catch-22 ?

        4. Sweet Christmas*

          I disagree with this wholeheartedly. If you’ve only ever worked at a place that has this policy, that basically prevents you from getting a reference at all. Besides, the supervisor has all the power to decide whether they want to adhere to the policy or not. In my case, we have it in theory but in practice people give references all the time – it just gives air cover if you don’t want to give one (or only have a negative one).

    15. Rachel in NYC*

      I’ve worked places that did this and every place- people at the same level agreed to be references or people who had already left agreed to be references.

      And I think some places acknowledge it’s problematic- I had one place give me copies of my personnel record, with all of my reviews because they were sorta “you were awesome. we loved you but we don’t do recommendations so maybe this will help. ‍♀️”

    16. CBB*

      But even that–confirming that they were happy enough with you to keep you employed–is something.

      If you were like LW’s hire, who apparently was so lacking in resourcefulness and flexibility that she couldn’t last more than a few weeks, it’s unlikely you would have remained with your previous employer for 20 years.

    17. Grumpy Lawyer*

      Do companies that have these policies expect to be able to *check* references before they hire? My former employer was big on thorough reference checks when hiring, but then HR decided one day that none of us could give references anymore. A few of us pointed out that, if every employer had that policy, we’d never get the information we wanted for our own hiring decisions. Apparently the reason for the policy was that they were afraid a manager who had a positive experience with an employee might give them a good reference not knowing there were other issues in their personnel file, and they didn’t want to be liable if another company relied on the good reference and found out the bad stuff later. So I just kept giving references and making it clear that I only knew the employee for X years and in Y capacity and was speaking for myself and not the company.

      1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        “they were afraid a manager who had a positive experience with an employee might give them a good reference not knowing there were other issues in their personnel file”
        Rather than banning the giving or references, they could have said to also systematically refer the person making the request to HR. But of course that would have involved more work for them.

    18. 40 Years in the Nonprofit Trenches*

      In situations where I can’t use my current manager as a reference for whatever reason, I’ve used (a) former managers at that workplace, (b) board officers like the President and Treasurer, (c) key employer-adjacent stakeholders like my organization’s auditors [I am the finance lead], and/or (d) colleagues on boards where I serve. All are able to speak to my relevant professional skills, capacity, initiative, follow-through, process & people management, etc.

    19. Seeking Second Childhood*

      Do you have any managers who have retired or resigned to go to another company? What about a project manager? A manager in another department that you support it? All are valid.

    20. Ana*

      This definitely sucks. I taught at the same place for 5 years for a company that had that rule and it was against the rules for co-workers to give any references either. They had mass layoffs by reverse seniority order and still would
      not change their rule. Very stressful. No one will hire a teacher who doesn’t have recent references. I went over my options and ended up choosing “back to school” as a way to get more references. Law school with scholarships was the way to go and now I make triple my previous salary. Let’s hope you also come out on top over this. Living well is the best revenge.

    21. fhqwhgads*

      That’s been the official policy everywhere I’ve ever worked and managers completely ignore it. Either that, or you use someone who was above you at company A, at a point in time where you now work at company B, they work at company C, and you’re applying to company D.

    22. Liz*

      That’s exactly my situation; been at my current company for 20+ years. And only HR is allowed to give references. Not that I have any plans to leave, but I really wouldn’t have any either.

    23. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

      I never understand the managers/supervisors who toe the HR line on not being “allowed” to give a reference. If I were a person’s supervisor and they were a good employee who left on good terms, I’d absolutely have the conversation…on my cell phone or offsite or personal email.

  2. TB*

    I’d always rather be short staffed than hire on people that will have way too much overhead without adding value. Your team is only as good as it’s weakest player, and I learned a long time ago that (even when desperate) it’s just not worth the downstream impacts to hire just to fill a body. Sorry you had to go through this, OP

    1. JohannaCabal*

      Exactly! Every time I’ve hired someone because “we need to fill this seat quickly; backlog is piling up,” it has been a nightmare. Plus, the workload increases because we hired someone who wasn’t a good fit for the position and I had to take time cleaning up the mess.

    1. Anonym*

      That’s so interesting! So hiring managers have to just take people at their word and deal with the fallout? Or is there at least employment verification? What if the manager and candidate have people in common in their networks – would they not reach out to them to ask their views on the candidate? Would love to know more about how that works.

      1. münchner kindl*

        In Germany, we are given “Arbeitszeugnis” by the employer when leaving – a written reference, listing the type of work we did, dates, and our behaviour.


        There’s a coded language employers use that sounds positive – “he mostly tried to reach the goals” means “failure”.
        Employment law states that employees have a right to be given this written reference when leaving a position (and that it must sound positive, hence the coded language). People have gone to court to get their written references.

        People can also ask for interim references, e.g. they’ve been working for same company for 15 years, but their

        It gets around the whole trouble of “my manager died/ moved on/ is a mean jerk who sabotages me”, especially if you get an interim reference before you leave.

        1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

          I’ve heard of that in the States as a “Letter of Reference,” but it’s usually considered outdated and old-fashioned (and it’s really saying something when *I* go that route).

          1. Baffled Teacher*

            I’m in k-12 education and they’re almost universally required here! Most schools use AppliTrack or Schoolspring now and you attach them as PDFs.

        2. KayDeeAye*

          Yes, letters of reference definite were a widespread thing in the U.S. (they were back when I graduated from university in the 1980s), and no doubt they are still used in some places. But let’s face it, they cannot be nearly as informative as a conversation. Plus, how can you tell a real one from a faked one? So a lot (*lot*) of industries have dispensed with them.

          1. münchner kindl*

            Why would you start out assuming that things are faked?

            For that matter, oral references can easily be faked, too: how do you know it’s not a friend posing as ex-coworker/ manager?

        3. allathian*

          Yup, I’m in Finland and the system here is similar. Some written references only provide the dates of employment, though. We have employment contracts, and the right to letters of reference when we quit.

        4. RebelwithMouseyHair*

          In the UK, we use phrases like “you’ll be lucky if you can get him to work for you” that could go two ways.
          I remember Morecambe and Wise saying that entertainers on the road would always put “and I shall certainly tell my friends” at the end of comments in the visitors’ book at grotty B&Bs, that was the sign that it truly was grotty. Meaning “I shall certainly tell my friends all the stuff I can’t put in writing right here”.

    2. Forrest Gumption*

      Assuming you can see from the fallout of the situation described in the letter, that asking for references can be a good thing and not weird at all.

      1. münchner kindl*

        I can only see how asking for direct references (instead of written ones, as we do in my country) disadvantages so very many people:

        People in their first job have no references

        People quitting a toxic job or bad manager won’t get a good reference no matter how good their work was

        People who did very good work, but their manager has moved away, died, otherwise unreachable.

        A written reference avoids these problems.

        1. Eldritch Office Worker*

          I think I need more information on what a written reference entails in order to understand how it avoids those things.

          1. münchner kindl*

            It’s usually at least 1 page (letter-size for US). It lists date of employment, title, all the work duties done, and behaviour/ conduct: how employee got along with coworkers, with bosses etc.
            It’s very detailed, and while the language is coded (employee was friendly with coworkers = he’s drunk), the code is well-known and can be easily looked up.

        2. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

          People quitting a toxic job or bad manager won’t get a good reference no matter how good their work was

          Would you mind expounding on how a written reference solves this problem?

          1. JSPA*

            I can think of several reasons.

            1. The reference must list factual accomplishments. If it’s incorrect / full of holes, that’s something that can be taken up with the company (or even the courts).

            It must be professional in tone / not disparaging. It most likely goes through a HR-type department, person or process, so one supervisor who expresses themselves carelessly, offensively, or with a personal axe to grind, will be told to re-write. (Or alternatively, if they’re being defamatory / inflammatory, that’s again something that can be taken up with the company / the courts.)

            You can see what’s written, so if it’s not a reference you’d choose to use, you can not use it (or write your cover letter to make it clear that whatever the off-base description may be, it was a misperception, not a reality).

            Basically, it’s not a secret exchange–unlike a phone conversation.

            1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

              [I]f they’re being defamatory / inflammatory, [or i]f it’s incorrect / full of holes, that’s something that can be taken up with … the courts.

              I’ll grant you that; liability for libel does fix some of my issues with the reference system, but it all hinges on what can be proven true, and for the next employer to care and not just move onto an employee whose work history doesn’t involve the same kind of baggage.

              1. Midwestern Scientist*

                I think there’s also a cultural/general hesitancy to put negative/potentially false things in writing that you know the person will see. What a manager tells a hiring manager over the phone with no accountability for what is said is almost assuredly wildly different from what they have to write down and give to their employee

            2. münchner kindl*

              And also, employees can request an interim letter, before they quit -we’ve had a lot of stories where employees get along with their manager, but know manager will flip a lid and turn into a jerk once they quit, so getting a letter beforehand solves that.

              Also, because it’s a right, people can (and have) gone to court over bad references, where the manager must provide hard proof that employee was as bad as they wrote – which is difficult if internal yearly reviews were all glowing before.

        3. Frank Doyle*

          I can see how a written reference avoids the third problem, but not the first two. And a written reference doesn’t allow for a natural conversation, for reading a person’s tone, or for followup questions.

            1. münchner kindl*

              As can an oral reference.

              Why this obsession with forging things? Most employees are honest.

              1. marvin the paranoid android*

                Not being familiar with the German practice, I’m wondering if it’s more difficult and riskier to forge a reference letter under that system. It sounds like it’s pretty formal, with its own set of conventions, and a fake might be relatively obvious.

                In North America, reference letters are fairly obscure in most fields and a lot of us probably were most exposed to them in high school, when some family friend or volunteer coordinator would pass one along. These would often tend to get embellished, but I doubt anyone thought they were very credible to begin with.

                Conversely, in North America, I think a spoken reference would be difficult to fake, because unless the reference checker was only going through the motions, the referee would be forced to make up quite a lot of details about the employee’s work. Although a real manager giving an overly positive reference for someone they want to get rid of does happen.

          1. Rose*


            Very confused about this. Even the third one is confusing. Do you always get the reference as soon as you leave the company rather than when job hunting?

            1. allathian*

              Yes. It’s also possible to get interim references when you’re still working for the employer, even if you have no intention to leave.

            2. münchner kindl*

              Yes, because it’s a right for the employee, and when you leave, your work and conduct is still fresh in the manager’s mind, unlike several years later.

              And most people who leave a job will search for a new one, unless they are retiring.

        4. Cal bear*

          As a hiring manager, I find written references pretty much useless. They are usually really generic and I can’t ask for specific information about the applicant. I prefer reaching out the the references directly with my own set of questions. I’ve never seen an employer expect a reference from every job you’ve had. 2-3 is standard and they don’t always have to be a direct supervisor.

          1. JohannaCabal*

            And a written reference is easy to fake! Anyone can take their company’s letterhead and write their own LoR.

            1. Seeking Second Childhood*

              In a country where someone can take a reference writer to court for a libelous or negative sounding reference letter, I’d bet people can be taken to court for faking one as well.

            2. münchner kindl*

              It’s not like Allison had a story here of a manager who lied to LW (who thought her a friend) about a bad employee in order to easily get rid of them?

              Yeah, obviously oral references have no problems at all, ever. Hence why Allison gets so many letters about them…

            3. tamarack and fireweed*

              That’s *really* high risk though.

              I am amused to watch fellow Germans try to explain the company of German-style written reference letters to Americans.

              Sure, it’s a fact that a competent hiring manager will get a lot less information out of them than from talking with a referee on the phone. However, they DO reduce a number of iniquities that oral references introduce (nepotism, bad references from bad bosses, people with fewer potential referees), and that’s also something that some find worthwhile.

          2. münchner kindl*

            Except for where it’s really detailed, as I explained?

            But obviously, oral system is better (except for all the parts where it fails…)

    3. Elle*

      I would love this. I hate bothering people for their time, and I’m SO self-critical that I hate asking people because I’m convinced they may not give me a glowing review (because I remember that one time I forgot to reply to an email, etc). I stopped providing references unless asked for them several jobs ago, and I’ve never been asked for them since I stopped. I don’t think bothering to check references is as common as people think. I’m in the USA, and that applied for both part-time, entry level work and for professional, degree-requiring jobs.

  3. De Minimis*

    I suppose this went badly in that they had to fire the person but it could have been so much worse! A former employer hired someone with no references from former managers (they had some professional references from people in organizations that they’d worked with) and they turned out to be a con artist…

    Employers are unfortunately going to run into this from time to time due to the current job market. When you really really need a position filled, I can see the temptation.

    1. qvaken*

      To be honest, I’m impressed that your former employer both identified that they were a con artist, and (I presume) cared enough to do something about it to protect all stakeholders. Con artists are notorious for, well, conning people into being on their side through all kinds of dodgy and nasty behaviors.

  4. Keymaster of Gozer (she/her)*

    We did it once as well. On paper, and even at interview this guy seemed great and we trusted HR to look up his references. He said that owing to a long period out of work for family reasons he couldn’t provide anything recent. Okay.

    He started, worked pretty well if a bit abrasive. HR eventually came back and said that he’d not been able to give any references because the people he’d worked for had all died/moved out of country/were otherwise unobtainable.

    We didn’t push further, should have asked for any reference from a coworker or something. Because that guy turned into the most nasty piece of work I’ve ever hired. Started showing up drunk, called our clients ‘stupid’ and ‘not worth his time’, threw slurs around and eventually harassed an openly gay coworker.

    We fired him. He tried to sue us for unfair dismissal. It was a mess.

    Now? I wanna see references. And I will check.

    1. Keymaster of Gozer (she/her)*

      (The claim for unfair dismissal was that we’d violated his rights by ‘forcing him to go against his beliefs’ – I,e, not treat LGBTQ people like subhumans and ‘failed to accommodate his health problems’ – I,e, not letting him show up shitfaced)

      1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        Wow – the denial of reality was strong with that one.

        I’m sure the office was much more peaceful with him gone.

        1. Keymaster of Gozer (she/her)*

          While I could have done without the headache of the legal situation, it was very noticeable that people were a lot happier that he’d been booted out.

          As is often the case; when he’d gone a lot of other things he’d done came out of the woodwork. Stuff I hadn’t seen, heard or had reported.

          Eventually, urlg, HR/higher management gave him a couple of months salary to get him to shut up and leave us the heck alone. Definitely against my opinion. I’d have rather sent him a piece of tuna that had been left down the back of a radiator for a few months.

          1. Going Anon Anon Anon*

            Oh, more stuff always come out of the woodwork after the harassing bully is gone- and the thing that makes them never learn is they rattle cages just enough to get enough money to go away and spread their miserable behavior at another company.

            I worked with your idiot’s American cousin. Pulled all the same stunts, plus:
            -constant refusal to wear his mask properly during Covid
            -constant smoking in non-smoking areas
            -sneaking off for smoke breaks that weren’t allowed on our shift
            -deliberately blowing cigarette smoke in people’s faces in the parking structure (during the start of the Delta Upswing!!!!)
            – coming to work Covid positive, and LYING about it to management (this is what finally got him fired)

            I don’t miss him at all, the office is much more peaceful, and best of all no longer constantly smells of his cigarette brand.

            (Oh – and I’m a federal employee – yes it is possible to get fired from one of these jobs – it just really takes a lot of “trying to get fired behavior.”)

      2. allathian*

        I hope he was laughed out of court, at least? What a sorry excuse for a human being he was. Glad you’re rid of him.

    2. Librarian of SHIELD*

      I had a near miss for a situation like this. The candidate gave a reasonably good interview, but I had a weird feeling about some of their responses and they were only able to offer very outdated references. Thankfully, when I went to review their resume I realized that one of my colleagues had worked at one of the candidate’s former workplaces and there was some time overlap. I popped by her office and asked “did you ever work with Terry at X Location?” And she gave me some incredibly useful background information that saved me from hiring a candidate that could cause some serious problems.

  5. CallingtoConfirm*

    It’s a helpful data collection point. Some candidates don’t even let their references know they’ve been listed as references and when I call the person is surprised that they were chosen as a reference. That helps me as a hiring manager understand a bit more about their level of preparation for important projects. More than once I have had references unload why the person was a poor fit (without any encouragement on my part) and that also gave me things to consider about the candidates … less about the specific faults listed and more that they felt so confident listing a reference that actually would not recommend them and they did not take a few minutes to check in with that person when I asked for references.

  6. Just a Thought*

    I’ll never forget when I called for someone’s reference (after tracking down the right number for the company). When I asked for the owner (by name), the receptionist asked about the nature of the call. I said I was calling for a reference for Jane Smith. The receptionist snorted! And then passed me on the owner. But her response told the story.

    They had not checked references — worst Office Manager ever – lasted with them 6 months (she had said 5 years).

  7. Kathy*

    Without knowing what questions you would have posed when checking a reference, I am not sure you would have uncovered things like lack of resourcefulness , inflexibility etc. Sometimes people are just in jobs where they can’t really demonstrate that, or the reference giver can’t think of concrete examples of theses types of “skills/personality traits”. (For example if you ask “tell me about a time when…” questions). So, even with references, the person could just not work out in your job.

    Anyway you do know that references are important and I think the answer was not to hire someone without references. Fortunately you were on top of things and you recognized the performance problem early.

    1. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

      That is what I am thinking, especially since the reference’s definition of “resourcefulness” and “flexibility” might be very different than yours or the job required them to a lesser degree than your position and the person was fine within those limits.

    2. irene adler*

      Good point.
      Were flexibility or resourcefulness questions asked at the interview? OR part of the job description?

      1. Rose*

        It’s pretty easy to BS an answer to a behavioral question though. A reference might have a different idea about what that means, but at least you can get an objective view point and a story where the person has no incentive to say the work/results/etc were better than they actually were. It’s one more piece of data you can use to create a full picture.

    3. bamcheeks*

      Yeah, I think it’s really interesting that OP zero’d in on “we didn’t check references” as the problem here, when:

      “she seemed OK but I had reservations”
      “we didn’t have many good options”
      “we were desperate”

      I feel like this is one of those situations where the focus is going on “didn’t check references” because that feels like the bit that was out of the ordinary, and you’ve convinced yourselves that if you’d spoken to the referees, these things would somehow have come out and you’d have saved three weeks. Really? It seems to me like the bigger problem is that you needed someone desperately so you decided to give her a shot and it didn’t work out. I don’t know if it’s helpful to look for The Lesson here!

      1. Tiffany Aching's imaginary friend*

        “we were desperate”
        I think the lesson is that sometimes an unfilled position really is the better option.

      2. Random Internet Stranger*

        Agreed! I’m wondering, assuming this company now needs to replace this person, what will they do differently in their recruiting? I assume they’re still desperate and won’t magically get a ton of candidates three weeks later.

      3. Rosie*

        Yeah we just let go of someone after two weeks whos references we’d checked and had been kinda eh on during the interview process but didn’t really have a better candidate in line. Definitely would have been better to keep looking until we found a candidate we were more confident in but lessons learned!

    4. Birdie*

      So much this! Last year, we hired a new Finance Manager. She interviewed reasonably well, had great references….and she’s been such a disaster, exactly as you say: lack of resourcefulness, inflexibility, just not getting the culture here, abrasive with employees who a “below” her on the org chart. We’re finalizing the budget for next year, and then we’re either going to cut her (my vote) or put her on a PIP (executive director’s vote).

      Either way, we’ve waited way too long to take action. We needed to address this stuff 6 months ago when it started to become apparent that she wasn’t just struggling to make the transition from a larger company with 20 people working for her to a non-profit with 20 employees total. But the ED really hoped it would work out (after all, such glowing references! Years of finance experience!) if we just gave it a little more time.

  8. Bookworm*

    I’m sympathetic. Once had a position where we hired volunteers but did not ask for references (it helped if they had connections to our work but it wasn’t part of the process at the time). A lot of the time it was fine and/or not really something that we could “fire” for since it was a volunteer position. Sometimes though, I wish it had been part of the process.

    1. Tiffany Aching's imaginary friend*

      Just checking in to say that you really can “fire” a volunteer. It’s awkward, but it’s possible, and Alison has addressed it in her posts. Plus she’s addressed questions about volunteer management overall. (Including that one about I think it was a museum volunteer? board member? who was hoarding museum holdings in their own house after they left their position. That was fun.)

        1. Bop*

          Hard-won experience, unfortunately.

          I’ve had more than one bad or subpar hire foisted upon me because some idiot manager further up the totem pole that me thought this person must be amazing because they got great references. Never mind that they were nowhere near the strongest candidate, and didn’t have the skills or experience for the job, as far more reliable measures like good interview questions, portfolio samples and assessment tasks all showed very clearly.

          These were instances when the strongest candidates either had great references from one or two people, but the other references were unavailable for perfectly understandable reasons (such as being dead, off the grid, overseas, etc)…or that they had great references from the two or three people listed, but some bright spark in management or HR thought it was perfectly acceptable to go hunting an extra reference via the back door and ended up coming back with a lukewarm or bad reference.

          Never mind important context like the fact that these references were either confused or cautious that some random person was calling them up asking about the candidate out of nowhere…or that the ex-boss being spoken to had literally done jail time for assaulting a former employee (and the candidate in question was called as a witness by Police). No, none of that mattered. The mighty reference check is sacred and will be the decision maker here!

          I’ve also had the problem where a spiteful ex-boss ended up lying for years about me, saying I’d been fired when I hadn’t, all because he’d left me with no choice but to pursue him through the courts for the six months of salary that he owed me.

          I’m sorry, but if anyone thinks reference checks are going to be some sort of guardian against bad hires or poor fits, they need to get a clue. They’re pretty worthless. And not in the least because 99% of the time, the referee has no reason whatsoever to tell you the complete truth about anything, let alone the candidate.

          1. qvaken*

            Thanks for your response and your insight.

            I have always found references to be a pain in the butt as a job seeker.

            Most recently, I left a job where I have good reason to believe I will get a bad reference despite my high performance, because I complained about the popular, charming manager’s pattern of sexual harassment, bullying, and mishandling of workplace injuries. I’ve chosen referees from my other networks, but I’ve been warned by professional mentors that a prospective employer might insist on contacting that former employer anyway.

            So I get that it’s confirmation bias because I already don’t like references. But having read your comments and other comments on this post, I’m definitely a convert to the idea that references are purely political and should be relegated to history.

  9. QKL*

    My only decent reference is from 5+ years ago, mostly because the jobs I’ve worked don’t give references, “on principle,” which is a lovely recent trend they don’t tell you about until after you’ve started working there. I’m pretty awesome at what I do, but there’s nobody to vouch for me. I’m not too worried about it, admin work doesn’t have a lot of upward mobility from what I’ve seen and I’m almost finished with my degree for a whole new field, but references are more trouble than their worth. I have one reference who gave me an unsigned letter in word, so that doesn’t help as I could easily edit it. I have another one who lied and oversold me as a person who never called in sick which just shot me in the foot, but they thought they were helping me. Not a fan of personal references. Also, I dont work in a field that pays enough to keep in touch with former co-workers, it’s akward. This reference thing probably worked much better when communities were more close knit and a person’s word was worth more.

    1. Frank Doyle*

      There is a field which pays you to keep in touch with former co-workers?? (No but seriously, I don’t think I understand that comment.)

      1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

        I take that as the former coworkers are individuals she would only keep in touch with as references, not individuals she would consider friends.

        1. QKL*

          This. Yeah, I still have friends from my after high school retail job 10 plus years ago, but I don’t have friends from any recent jobs, they weren’t those kinds of offices.

      2. Gerry Keay*

        Once you’re at approx. director level (and making commensurate pay), it’s a little more expected that you’ll maintain a robust professional network outside your current employer.

        1. QKL*

          I can totally see that. The field I’m moving into is all about networking, but it’s also set up with a lot of events that make networking feel more natural in addition to good pay. I have no problem with it in general, but in my current field, it’s a lot more work and the only benefit is when your job hunting and it’s such a tiring job that I don’t have the energy to socialize over work topics outside of office hours.

    2. Bop*

      I completely agree.

      The vast majority of the time, reference checks are either utterly useless, or actively harmful.

  10. Me*

    While I think references are important, I think the best hiring tool are the interview questions. In this case the OP says issues are resourcefulness and flexibility. I think those are definitely traits you can ask a candidate to tell you for example how they solved a problem there was no manual for or to talk about how they deal with competing priorities.

    I know there’s exceptions, but savvy candidates aren’t going to provide references who will tell you bad things about them if they can help it in any case. So yes, check those references, but also look for ways you can suss out those qualities you are really looking for in a successful candidate.

    1. Just a Thought*

      Agreed. We use the reference checks to verify that our experience of the candidate and their skills coincides with how references talk about the candidate. We also might check out a particular concern to just get a read from someone who knows the person better.

    2. münchner kindl*

      I wonder how much those people who insist on references after doing an interview prefer following a strict rule (references!) because they aren’t trained enough to interview competently?

      The problem that some employees are awesome at teapot painting but suck at interviewing is a seperate one, but a good interviewer might be able to put nervous interviewees more at ease – since it’s not, as Allison often points out, a power play “dance for me so I can generously offer you a job” but more a “let’s see if this is a good fit skills- and personality-wise”.

  11. Stella70*

    I am three decades into my career, live in a major metropolitan area in the US, have worked with some very large organizations (one was 48,000+ employees, one was 85,000+ employees, both world-renown and those jobs were within the last 15 years) and I have never once been asked for references. I have offered them and been told some version of, “We don’t use them, who is going to provide the name of someone who would give a negative reference?”. In nearly all cases, my former employers will do nothing more than confirm dates of employment and bar current staff from saying anything additional.
    I understand references can be important, but they are surely not as universal in the US as one might think.

    1. Caraway*

      Here’s the thing, though: people absolutely do provide negative references! Either because they don’t know any better, or they had a really different impression of how great of an employee they were, or they thought no one would check. I spoke to a reference once who said, “I can’t believe she listed me. She didn’t ask me, and I wouldn’t have said yes if she had.” That tells you even more about a candidate than a negative reference would!

      1. Bop*

        Why do people always assume that someone giving a reference is going to be 100% honest? Plenty of people give negative references that are not deserved purely out of spite, especially if they are a ‘back door’ reference.

        1. marvin the paranoid android*

          In theory, if you have a decent number of references, that one spiteful one is going to stick out from the others, and you can check in with the candidate and other references to get a sense for whether there is any substance to it. It’s probably a good idea to not to be overly credulous about any individual account, but to pay attention to patterns and how the references’ impressions line up with what you’ve seen of the candidate so far.

          Of course, this whole system starts to break down in situations where the candidate has a hard time scraping together enough references just out of bad luck, and that part is crappy.

    2. münchner kindl*

      Those employers who insist on them keep harming the many good employees who for various good reasons don’t have current references.

      Which isn’t solved by some companies refusing to give references, just dates of employment, either.

    3. whocanpickone*

      We don’t request references – pretty much for the reason you noted. We rely on the interview and a good assessment of skill set.

  12. Old Cynic*

    I’m sunk if I have to find employment references. Of previous employers, 2 have folded so there wouldn’t even by any date verifications available. The other 3, no one I worked with is at the firm any longer. And if I do Google or LinkedIn searches, people are either deceased or retired. Ugh.

    1. I've Escaped Cubicle Land*

      I’ve was thinking back over references used in the past. Lots of retail chains that are no longer in business. Lots of now deceased people. Lots of contacts from my daycare days who’s wee ones are now college bound. Current place of employment (8years) has an official policy of HR giving out dates only. Which would be awesome but I was a classified employee for a good year and a half without HR noticing and correcting my file. Then when I transferred jobs in house from Data Entry Monkey for Team A to Data Entry Expert With Opposable Thumbs for Team B my position was once again not officially changed. Until a year and a half later when I submitted a grievance against HR and said I had all the documentation necessary to prove I had done the job of Data Entry Expert With Opposable Thumbs for Team B in its entirety plus and would be happy to go to court if I had to to prove it. Which made them finally change my title but only as of that date. Not when I actually started doing the job. (if we had gone to court/ labor board they would have owed me back pay difference for the whole time and they knew it) So somehow I don’t trust Current Jobs HR for a good reference thru them being miffed about I could sue you or just their own general incompetency with record keping.

    2. emmelemm*

      Same. I’ve now worked for the same company for a loooong time, and the previous two companies that I worked for in the 90s no longer exist in any form.

    3. Elizabeth West*

      I have one from a place that’s about to close down. My supervisor and I consider ourselves “survivors” of that place so we’re on each other’s permanent awesome reference list.

    4. Rainy*

      My poor husband has worked for a ton of companies that no longer exist. He spent his highschool and college years working for small businesses which closed when the owner retired–and for Blockbuster!

  13. LizardOfOdds*

    Huh. I don’t put a lot of stock in references and usually skip that step of the process. It’s not like anyone is going to submit a reference that will say “this person was terrible at their job” and a lot of workplaces/managers refuse to give references anyway. It sounds like there were red flags for this employee when they were interviewing, and if the manager had decided not to hire based on those red flags, this all could have been avoided regardless of references.

    1. Omnivalent*

      People actually do give out references of managers or co-workers who have a terrible opinion of them. Sometimes an utterly clueless, self-absorbed person can’t even imagine that anyone else would think they were a terrible employee, so they just blithely give out references. And sometimes they’re con artists who are well aware that if you called the references they listed you’d get an earful, but many employers won’t bother and will never find that out.

      1. Damn it, Hardison!*

        Absolutely. I had a insubordinate, clueless, and lazy employee who told me I should expect a call to provide a reference for him. I suggested that he find someone else. He was flabbergasted that I didn’t think he was an awesome employee, even though I had been very clear and direct that his work and his attitude were a problem. I was so glad when he left; he did so little that it had a minimal impact on my own work, since I no longer had to devote any time or effort to address his behavior.

      2. qvaken*

        To be fair, it might be a young person who hasn’t learnt that they’re allowed to be picky when choosing a referee. Or someone who has very few options. Or someone who believed their behavior was justified, but it turns out the potential referee saw things differently. Or some other understandable reason.

        For example, I once quit a musical group, as the only female in the group at the time and also the person with the most experience, after a pattern of very disruptive hostility and disrespect from a few of the members that smelled an awful lot like sexism to me. I worked hard to keep my cool while I remained in the group (even while being yelled at by these members and having them angrily slump down in their chairs when I pushed back), but upon quitting the group, I complained on my Facebook about what I saw as a pattern of sexism in my field of music. This sparked angry responses from a few male colleagues I’d had across several musical groups. (On a contextual note, a national conversation was happening in my country around this time about the preference for males and the devaluing of females across several musical styles.)

        I was new in town and short on potential referees, so I asked the musical director of the group I’d just left to act as a referee for me in my job search, but he refused. I don’t know his reasons (he says he didn’t have time, but I’m not sure that’s it). My guess is that he saw things differently to how I did and he would not have been willing to give me a positive reference.

        So you may be right and it may be that a candidate who is unlikely to work out provided a certain referee because they assumed all references would be positive. But there could be other reasons for a person choosing a less-than-ideal referee that don’t necessarily mean they’re a bad candidate.

        (Also, for the record, I think that if a person doesn’t work out at one job, it shouldn’t mean that they’re never allowed to have another job again, by way of negative references.)

    2. I should really pick a name*

      When you’re checking references, you can ask questions about specifics than can help you tell if the person is bullshitting you or not.
      Checking references is more than just asking “Were they a good employee or not?”

      1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        And it can also give a manager a way to signal that an employee is a good worker – but was a bad fit for the specific job they are leaving.

        Spouse did this for one employee – they were a really hard worker, great engineer, but wasn’t good at troubleshooting. The role they had been promoted into was almost exclusively troubleshooting, so the employee was struggling. Spouse gave a reference that focused on all the things employee was good at, but when asked did say that employ was weak at this skill that comprised a large part of this particular role.

    3. Random Internet Stranger*

      I am a bit lax about references, too, unless I am reluctant about the candidate and feel like I need more information. But one time when I was asked the give a reference and the questions the hiring manager asked were SO GOOD I left the call feeling impressed. That’s a lady who knows how to get some good intel on a candidate.

    4. T. Boone Pickens*

      It’s rare that I run into someone that gives out a bad reference. The biggest success rate I’ve seen with accurate references have been client ones for when I’ve hired salespeople. In my (somewhat limited) sample size, those seem to give me a pretty good snapshot of what I’m trying to glean.

    5. Love WFH*

      I like to check references after a phone screen, but before bringing them in to interview. Saves the interview team’s time. I once had the first reference say “He gave you my name?!” He’d been fired for stealing.

      Out of morbid curiosity, I called the second reference. He’d been fired there, too.

      I guess he was applying for enough jobs to qualify for unemployment?

      1. Never Boring*

        My sister once sent me a LinkedIn invitation. After she stole money from my wedding gift envelopes and was arrested and convicted for multiple counts of felony check forgery and stealing a blank prescription pad from her employer. Ummm, nope, DELETE.

    6. Just a Thought*

      Referencing checking is the best tool for catching a con artist — for ex: when the number provided doesn’t match the company and the company has not heard of them. They are also excellent for hearing the level of enthusiasm (or not) that prior has for a candidate — for example, a call right back is usually either really good or really bad.

      I will say to someone — “you sound lukewarm – are you lukewarm?”. That gets some interesting information going — like whether the reference just has a flat affect but they think the candidate is excellent.

      We don’t hire without excellent references — and sometimes that means being creative about what to do when prior business will only confirm dates of employment.

      1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        I can say reference checking can also help with people that are just a bad fit for their current jobs. Spouse did this for one employee – they were a really hard worker, great engineer, but weren’t very good at troubleshooting. The role they had been promoted into was almost exclusively troubleshooting, so the employee was struggling. Spouse gave a reference that focused on all the things employee was good at, but when asked did say that employ was weak at this skill that comprised a large part of this particular role.

    7. Anonymous Educator*

      I don’t get this mindset. Why interview candidates, then? What candidate is going to say bad things about themselves? It’s not about “Do you like this person or not?” or “Do you think positively about this person or not?” It’s about asking good questions to get specifics beyond some vague adjectives.

      And, yeah, as someone else mentioned, sometimes people think their former managers will give glowing references, and that’s not actually the case.

      I think Alison has also mentioned that it’s okay to reach out to former managers, even if the candidate didn’t list those people as references.

      1. allathian*

        Yeah. But if they didn’t list them, they also didn’t ask the person to be their reference or even give them a heads up about a potential call. Don’t be surprised if the person doesn’t even remember the employee very well, particularly if they’re managing entry level employees in a position that has high turnover. They won’t have much useful information to share about an employee who worked for them for 6 months 5 years ago, especially if they’ve had some 30+ reports since.

      2. Nope*

        Oh, my goodness. Please, for the love of God, do NOT reach out to former managers or colleagues of a job applicant to get an unlisted reference.

        I lost a job I was the front runner for once because some idiot in HR contacted the ex-manager who sexually assaulted me. Naturally, he told terrible lies about me.

        I understand that this is an extreme example, but it is sadly entirely true.

        1. qvaken*

          I am SO sorry that he did that to you. After they commit the abuse, so often they continue it as part of covering up what they did. I am also SO sorry that prospective employer contacted him without your permission, thus participating in the abuse. I hope you’re going okay these days, despite those… *angry ahem* people.

          I also wanted to point out this kind of situation. I also just left a job after an unsuccessful complaint I made about sexual harassment, bullying, and mishandling of a workplace injury I suffered which resulted in a worsening of my injury. I always suspected gossip about me among managers and HR and I believe they were subtly retaliating against me as I spoke up more and more about the perp. Then when I quit, the HR manager dismissed me early with an alarming comment that there had been problems with me since I was hired – which was news to me.

          I will not use anyone who works there as a referee, but if a prospective employer decides to contact them without my permission, I’m very concerned about what they would say. I’m in the process of requesting my employee file in the hopes of disputing anything false or misleading they wrote about me, to hopefully legally prevent them from passing on any negative information that isn’t true.

    8. Calling to Confirm*

      I have definitely called references that said (unprompted) that the person was bad at their job or unreliable or even just let me know the title or years worked were fabricated. If people do need to provide references, check in with them and get a temperature check, remind them what your title/etc were and don’t fib because it’s easy to figure out.

  14. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

    I worked somewhere that was mega uptight with checking references. We needed to talk to the direct manager for all jobs listed in the past 10 years, no exceptions. So far so good, one might think. However, hiring anyone straight out of college meant trying to track down their fast-food manager from HS jobs and HR made the hiring manager do the calls. It was the biggest PITA and I felt so bad for people trying to track down these folks. There definitely needs to be some discretion on which references matter the most

      1. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

        It was such a nightmare for new grads and a horrible taste of the working world. One woman had to FB stalk her manager from her summer job at Taco Bell when she was 16. Dude ended up being in prison AND HR STILL MADE HER GET HIS CONTACT INFORMATION. Obviously one can’t just call an inmate and if they call you it is collect, so you can imagine the beauty of highly bureaucratic HR meets insanely bureaucratic corrections system. We finally got them to decide that skipping this reference was ok because the guy was in prison for robbing an employer, but our poor candidate was in limbo for 3 MONTHS

      1. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

        We were supposed to retract the offer if the manager was anything except dead. We got to waive it for that, thankfully. Only in the above story did I get them to drop it for a living person and that was because I threatened to bill their department for the collect call charges.

        1. TiffIf*

          that was because I threatened to bill their department for the collect call charges.

          This whole story is just so incredibly ridiculous but this made me laugh. That’s what made them finally see sense…not anything before.

          1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

            that was because I threatened to bill their department for the collect call charges.

            This whole story is just so incredibly ridiculous but this made me laugh. That’s what made them finally see sense…not anything before.

            A collect call is, what, $5 tops? How many employee-hours went into getting this asinine requirement waived?

            1. TiffIf*

              Actually prison call fees are exorbitant, even if calling collect. There’s a long history of price gouging on prison phone calls.

              1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

                Even if it were a $100 call, how many employee-hours are worth less than $100 to the company?

        2. JohannaCabal*

          Were the actual potential managers supposed to call the former direct mangers? In that case, I would’ve had no issue BS’ing I’d called some poor recent college grad’s fast food supervisor.

          1. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

            We had to sign an attestation on each reference document that everything was true under penalty of perjury and HR randomly sampled references to double check that they had been contacted. It was the weirdest system ever and I REALLY wish I knew its origin story because I bet the story is epic

            1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

              I’m so horrified that I want to know what the logic (if it could be called that) behind this insane work policy.

        3. Never Boring*

          What if the manager is retired and the candidate simply doesn’t have their personal contact info? I definitely have prior managers in that situation.

  15. Former HR Staffer*

    most companies have the policy to refer to HR, but not everyone knows it/follows it.
    1. if they have linkedin, i would contact some random linkedin contacts
    2. of they list professional organizations they belong to, i would contact a few ppl from the local chapter.
    3. ask for the admin of the dept they worked in or an adjacent dept (for example the tax audit dept may work in close tandem with the corporate finance dept). as a former admin when i was younger, i was probably a little too honest bc i didn’t know better (or if the person in question was a jerk, didn’t care).
    4. if their former position is posted, call and ask for an informarion interview as if you’re interested in applying… then ask why the position is open.

    1. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

      How would you decided to pick linked in references? I’m thinking of my own connections and it runs the gamut from people I worked closely with to super senior person I presented/met with who added me at some point to random ex-coworkers who are trying to drum up business for their own company to recruiters. You would have to sift through a lot of chaff to get some wheat.

    2. I should really pick a name*

      Random LinkedIn contacts?!

      My LinkedIn contacts are all professional contacts, but very few could tell you what quality work I do.

      1. The New Wanderer*

        Right? I have over 100 connections with my now-previous company but unless you know the structure of my work group, you’d be hard-pressed to guess which of them were actual colleagues vs. very distant connections. Even the much smaller set of people who gave me those one-click skill recommendations aren’t familiar with the specifics of my work, or in some cases, ever worked with me at all.

        Also, trying to trick someone into possibly telling you why the candidate’s previous position was re-posted seems … ill-advised.

      2. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        And what about those rare ducks (like me) that don’t have linked in?
        Or those that have really common names so there are lots of them (I know in the nationwide company I work for there are 50 of us with the same first and last name. In that case how can you be sure you have the right John Smith?

    3. Hiring Mgr*

      On #1, you might be thinking of “back door” references, where you’ll contact someone the candidate worked with that they didn’t list as a reference.. If that’s what you mean they’re not random linkedin connections but people you have a good idea that worked with the candidate. That takes more time and effort than 99+% of hirers are going to put forth

      I’ve had this done on me, it was all fine..

    4. Bop*

      Please, please don’t ever contact references that applicants have not provided you with. In some jurisdictions, this is illegal.

      But it is also the best possible way for you to receive negative references that applicants do not deserve, which not only puts their livelihoods at risk, but also results in you missing out on an excellent hire.

      It might also help to imagine how you would feel if someone who was thinking of hiring you was contacting your least favourite boss or colleague ever to ask them what they thought of you.

      Please, please don’t do ‘back door’ references.

        1. Chiming in*

          Not a lawyer in a US jurisdiction, but seeking “back door references”, as they have been called, could actually fall foul of privacy and confidentiality requirements.

          They certainly fall into a legal grey area in a lot of non-US jurisdictions, and do breach privacy laws in others.

          They’re also a really crappy thing to do. Don’t do it.

      1. Uh huh*


        For pity’s sake, people. Do NOT randomly call up people to get unauthorised references about job candidates! As if this reference checking nonsense isn’t already pointless enough, you want to add in references who might tell horrible lies purely out of spite to the mix?!

  16. KellifromCanada*

    References are essential, for sure, and I always check them. But I’d like to highlight that you should also trust your gut. The OP noted that “I had reservations”. Don’t underestimate the importance of trusting yourself when assessing a candidate.

  17. Love WFH*

    I applied to a company where the nature of the business legitimately required a more thorough background check than usual. They asked me for 9 references, from my current and past jobs. My current manager was fine with being a reference (I’d told him in confidence that I was looking*), but it was a bit of a struggle.

    *It’s great when you can have that kind of a trust. Too bad it came (in part) out of having a common enemy in top management. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

  18. The Prettiest Curse*

    Supervisor #2 of 3 that I had in my previous job was essentially fired for enabling her best friend (who she also managed) to bully me. When she left, I had to ask/tell said supervisor to never ever contact me again.

    Fortunately, I have other great references, so this wasn’t an issue when applying for my current job. But I really have no idea what I’ll do if I ever apply for one of those jobs where you have to list the contact info of every supervisr you’ve ever had. She was my supervisor for the majority of my time working there, so I can’t just leave her off the list!

  19. Quickbeam*

    I am in my 60’s…if I applied for a job now, almost all of my prior managers are dead. I’m retiring but I do dread the reference process should I ever decide to go back to work. I have kept hard copies of my annual evals.

  20. lex talionis*

    And then there are the managers who give a glowing reference because it’s easier if a problem quits than it is to document their failings and manage them out the door…

  21. New Mom*

    A woman my parents hired years ago came in to be an office manager and there was a specific software that she needed to use daily. She said she used it all the time and was good at it and had a glowing reference. After she started it became clear that she was not good at using the software and that was a really big problem. They tried talking to her about it a few times, and eventually said she would need to take a course to get up to the level required for the job and she quit on the spot. They then wondered if the reference was a friend pretending to be an old boss. And after that they had assessment tests as part of their interviews.

    1. Bop*

      Whether the reference was this woman’s real former boss or not, it is an excellent example as to why the reference checking process is often a complete and total farce and waste of time. Someone’s former boss has nothing to lose or gain by you making a good hire. They do have plenty of their own motivations, though, which may – or may not – be of benefit to you or the applicant.

      Plenty of excellent applicants are given bad references to at they do not deserve, and plenty of terrible applicants get great references that they don’t deserve.

  22. Pobody’s Nerfect*

    And then sometimes you talk to the candidate’s recent references and they all provide overly-glowing “yes please hire them they’re so great!” recommendations and you find out later it’s because the person was so bad or a horrible person and the reference was giving false statements just to finally be able to get the person out of their company. Not sure which situation is worse but you still unfortunately end up with a dud.

  23. Kittykuddler*

    I think asking for references is a little outdated. Everyone is so litigious that you have be careful what you say when giving references, and it’s hard to get references that go beyond verifying dates. position, position and whether they are rehirable. I think the letter writers issue us really that they had gut feelings that they ignored.

    1. Bop*

      Totally agree. But reference checks have always been pretty useless. I’ve never been able to figure out why so many people think they’re so important or useful.

      The most useless, incompetent people I have ever had the displeasure of working with all had brilliant references.

      Most of the best people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with had been fired at least once, and usually because of office politics, an utterly awful boss, being thrown under the bus, or a complete lack of training and support being provided. Obviously, most of these firings were illegal (and all were questionable, as most firings are), but that’s not the point when it comes to reference checks, is it?

    2. qvaken*

      I honestly wish the reference-checking process would go away. It’s awkward asking people’s permission to vouch for you. It takes up their time. You’ll start an application for a job, and you hit a stumbling block because it requires you to input several referees before the prospective employer has even looked at your resume.

      Managers and HR are human beings, and human beings get into conflict with each other, even when it’s nobody’s fault – but managers and HR are unfairly ascribed greater authority and an assumption of not being at fault than other human beings are. Workplaces have politics, including, often, that management and HR hate workers who speak up about genuine problems, contribute to unfavorable results on workplace satisfaction surveys, sustain a workplace injury, become a union delegate, or so on.

      You could select a referee with their permission, then get into some conflict with them (for example, they withhold your final paycheck), and now a prospective employer has the contract details of a person who has bad things to say about you. You could specifically not provide a certain referee or any referee from a particular employer, but the protective employer insists on contacting them anyway, or they do so without your permission, and now you’ll get a bad reference despite the care you took.

      On the other hand, you could do sub-par work, engage in questionable conduct and be a jerk to several of your co-workers, but you know the right people to schmooze and how to do it so you get several promotions and opportunities during your career, as well as glowing references.

      It doesn’t seem like a reliable way to learn whether a person would go well in the role, it just seems political.

  24. Usagi*

    This reminds me of a time I had a somewhat similar issue! I had a candidate who, on paper, was absolutely perfect. Like almost overqualified. Their interview went very well too. So we get to the reference check… and couldn’t get in touch with anyone. We receive a few more references from the candidate… and couldn’t get in touch with anyone again. Finally, we ask if there’s anyone else we could talk to, and get their permission to talk to their current supervisor (who, up until this point, we had been asked not to contact, understandably).

    You know how sometimes, when you call someone on your smart phone, the owner of that phone number’s name will show up on your phone?

    Yeah, it was the candidate’s name. But the person picked up, and I did my self-introduction spiel, and I kid you not, the voice on the other side did a cartoon-esque “OH. Oh. oh. ooooh.” with each “oh” getting lower and lower until their voice was a deepened parody of the candidate’s actual voice.

    We didn’t hire him.

    1. Carlie*

      Please say that you went ahead and did the entire reference check call, and asked a lot of extra follow-up questions.

      1. Usagi*

        I kind of wish I did ask extra questions! But as soon as I figured out that it was the candidate I just asked the basic questions to get through it, made a red flag note, and rejected him in our system.

  25. Tomalak*

    I think the letter writer may be learning the wrong lessons and is now putting far too much stock in lack of references and not enough in her own reservations. Obviously people can have reservations for trivial and mistaken reasons, but I would say the lesson here is to explore the reservations – both whether they are reasonable, and whether there is a legitimate answer to them. I wouldn’t make it primarily about the references.

  26. Dutch*

    So the company was desperate, there were no serious issues, but she was let go after just 3 weeks?

    I may be horribly cynical, but reading that then the line about her lacking “resourcefulness” makes me wonder if she received adequate training, or if they just expected her to be ‘resourceful’.

    1. MissDisplaced*

      Possibly. But I think you can tell in 3 weeks if someone just isn’t going to be a good fit though. Especially the skills part. Resourcefulness could mean anything honestly. Lots of places will SAY they want things like resourcefulness, or self-starter… but then aren’t too happy when they actually get it. Lol!

      Have to admit I’m feeling a bit sorry for this employee if they didn’t really do anything bad or wrong. We’re often told to try for “stretch” jobs and/or think we can do what’s needed. Now they have no references and a firing.

    2. Bop*

      Have to agree.

      The problem here was not a lack of reference checking.

      But it basically never is. Plenty of terrible or otherwise incompetent people have people who will give them good references. Just look at all the utterly hopeless managers out there.

    3. Anonnymouse*

      I don’t know. I’ve had several assistants that have not worked out, and I’ve known by the end of day 1 they weren’t going to work out. (The issue in both cases was lack of work ethic.) Both were given time to improve, and we were desperate for the help … but their “help” was creating more work than it was solving.

      Sometimes bad employees interview well but are just obviously bad from the get go.

  27. Wally1121*

    My favorite “wink-wink” reference from HR:
    “You’d be pleased to get to work for you.”

  28. LadyHouseOfLove*

    I know “listening to your gut” can be helpful. But I do think it is better to look at different factors combined when it comes to assessing a candidate.

    Whether we mean to or not, listening to your gut alone can mean listening in to biases ingrained in you at the candidate’s expense. I’m a woman that looks younger than her 31 years with a naturally soft voice, so it would be someone’s instinct to think I won’t be taken seriously in a leadership role despite my experience and achievements.

  29. RedinSC*

    I’ve been thinking about references. I’ve been at my job nearly 10 years, I would NOT want management to know that I’m interviewing (which I am) so I honeslty don’t know what I’d do about references. I have my manager from a previous job, she probably would, but that’s more than 10 years old. My manager from my last job was fired for having an affair with one of his direct reports, but there are other employees there that would be a reference. I would not want to list any of my current direct reports as references right now.

    This is tough!

  30. Retired (but not really)*

    How would someone who worked at the same job at a small local business for 15+ years be able to get the required multiple manager recommendations? Or would it just mean that they got references from the manager, the owner and some other coworker?

  31. rolling*

    I have been recruiting people for almost 20 years. I remain baffled by people’s devotion to the idea that reference checks are important, let alone useful.

    Let me just say this: an applicant having good references is no protection whatsoever against a bad hire. And an applicant having average or even bad references also means absolutely nothing, at least 90% of the time. (Especially if these come from people who are not the applicant’s provided referees.)

    Checking references is a process that is very easily abused, sometimes by candidates, but most often by either useless HR/recruitment people, or vindictive former bosses or colleagues (or others with a barrow to push).

    Good interview questions, a portfolio of previous work, and/or assessment tasks (or hypothetical questions that you can give the applicant some time ahead of the interview to think about) are all far more effective tools than a reference check. They are far more likely to provide you with a good hire.

    The only referee who is likely to actually be honest is an internal referee who will be working with the successful applicant for the role, or even better, someone who is actually on the interview panel. Obviously, due to “conflict of interest” concerns, these are not usually the people asked to provide a reference.

  32. sigh*

    I’m sorry, but this obsession with references and recruitment really gets my goat.

    Earlier in my career, this always caused me extreme stress. Because I had been unlucky enough that I was literally in the situation of having two good managers for them to speak to, but if they wanted a third at manager level, it was: “Which of my former managers would you like to speak to for an extremely unreliable, inaccurate reference? The one who is in jail for tax fraud? The one who tried to assault me? The one who I was left with no choice but to sue in order to get the $20,000 he owed me in unpaid wages? The one who tried to pin drug charges on me? I also have two dead managers, and one who is very sadly now in the advanced stages of dementia.”

    I’ve hired a lot of people. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve never made a truly bad hire. And I do think a lot of that relates to knowing when to ignore references that have been bad or so-so, and knowing when unavailable references aren’t going to matter. But that also comes down to having a recruitment process that works, and does not actually really need manager-based reference checks in order to function.

    Because I have heard every single type of lie that an ex-manager with some sort of axe to grind (or other motive in mind) can possibly spew out. It is utterly disgusting.

  33. Bop*

    The problem here was not a lack of reference checking.

    You need to offer more money (and better benefits) in order to attract the candidates you feel you deserve. This is even more important if the role itself is not a particularly attractive one.

    I strongly suspect that at least part of the problem here was actually a lack of support and training being provided to the new hire.

    This may not be a popular opinion or approach, but I put very little stock in reference checks, especially those from former managers of the candidates I’m interviewing.

    Not in the least because, as I suspect this letter shows, someone “failing” in one job doesn’t often reflect on the candidate, but more on the workplace, the environment, the manager, and the support and training provided (or lack thereof).

    Someone else’s office politics are not my concern, and it shouldn’t ruin the job prospects of someone who, under even halfway decent circumstances, will thrive.

  34. j00blefroots*

    I feel like the original letter writer had an agenda to push about “keeping the status quo.” References would not have given clues about this person’s resourcefulness or flexibility, whatever those words mean to the OP.

    The hiring manager should *ask questions* that help answer “is this person resourceful enough for this role?” The company and hiring functions did not do their job properly and that’s what they’re actually whining about.

    By the way, it’s only been 3 weeks? Is that even enough time to know what the role really encompasses? Aren’t you still onboarding? If you’re so desperate to fill the role, you should be desperate enough to train people for the job.

    How ridiculous.

  35. Prof Space Cadet*

    As is often the case, I suspect this varies by industry. In my field (higher education faculty), not checking references would raise huge red flags about the competency of the hiring committee. Possible exceptions might include hiring part-timers or a last-minute emergency hire, but that would be far outside the norm. (In fact, I think some places ask for too much reference information up front, but that’s a different issue).

    At the same time, I understand it’s not necessary in every industry.

  36. XR*

    I actually don’t think references should be a thing. It feels like a holdover from the days when you needed a letter of introduction to prove that upper class people approved of you and you weren’t just some random poor.

    What do we even know about the person giving the reference? Nothing except their job title, most of the time. Why does their opinion have any weight, then? They could be completely incompetent for all anyone knows.

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