Ask the WorkBuzz! Getting references

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helpHere’s a question from reader Ann:
My latest boss will not give me a good reference. Should I use a co-worker instead? There is no professional reason why she shouldn’t give a good reference. My other references are dated. I get interviews, but not jobs. Is it ever OK to tell employers not to contact a previous boss? I do ask for feedback regarding my performance on an interview, and it’s always positive, just someone else was felt to be more qualified is the usual reason I’m given. Thanks!

This question is good because I think it’s something a lot of people deal with but they don’t think about it until they’re in panic mode an hour before an interview. First, notice that Ann knows she won’t get a good reference from the former boss–that’s something too many job seekers don’t think about. Always ask a reference if you can put his or her name on your application. Do not assume everyone you worked with is going to give you a glowing review. You might be surprised.

So let’s go through each issue and question Ann brings up.

1. Why won’t your previous boss will not give  a good reference?
You probably know the answer to this better than anyone–and whether it’s a legitimate reason or not, you need to think about whether her opinion is shared by others. Did her negative opinion of you spread to other leaders or your colleagues? Are you safe asking anyone in your department for a reference? Hopefully so, but be certain before putting their names down.

2. Should you ask a co-worker instead?
This will depend on the specific requirements of the company you’re interviewing with. Some employers simply ask for several professional references. Others explicitly state they want to speak with the boss. If it’s the former, go ahead. If it’s the latter, try to find other high ranking people who will speak positively for you from that company. Maybe another supervisor you didn’t report directly to but you did work frequently with can be an acceptable substitute.

3. Is it ever OK to tell employers not to contact a previous boss?
Again, it’s all about context. Most hiring managers understand if you don’t want them calling your current boss since you’re probably job searching while you’re still employed. For a past employer, you can always omit their contact information from the reference list and hope the subject’s not brought up. However, do be prepared for questions if the omission is glaring. And whatever you do, don’t badmouth the boss. I repeat, don’t badmouth the boss. The last thing you want to do is leave the impression that you’re bitter or a whiny employee.

If the question does come up, you might say: “I left the position because, among other things, my ideas and work style were better suited elsewhere. Although my boss and I didn’t always see eye to eye, she was a strong leader whom I respect and I learned many things from her. However, I don’t feel as if she’s the best person to assess how I’d fit in in this culture.” Obviously put it in your own words, but you can acknowledge a difficult experience without belittling the boss and yourself. But realize that hiring managers have connections everywhere, not to mention access to the all-knowing Internet, and might very well contact whomever they choose regardless of what you want. So avoid the topic if possible, but realize they can find a way to contact her if they’re determined so be ready.

4. You have a great interview, but don’t get hired.
If you’re getting good feedback on your interviews but not landing jobs, a likely possibility is just that competition is tough. You’re not the only job seeker out there, as unemployment numbers constantly remind us, so sometimes it’s just difficult to land work. Being concerned about your references is a good start. Many people have no idea their references are sabotaging their career prospects until a hiring manager mentions, “Your last boss really badmouthed you. Why did you give me their number?” or “Your former supervisor had no idea who you are.” References can hinder a job hunt or tip the scales in your favor, so you want to give them due attention.

If you have any questions for us here at The Work Buzz, drop us a line in the comments.

12 Comments
  1. In some companies, it is against company policy for supervisors to give references. My last company was like this, so I found someone that used to be my lead to get a reference for a company that I applied for that just had to have a detailed reference that was a supervisor. I’m glad they accepted a lead.

  2. In my years in management the corporate rules about references became quite restrictive. By the time I retired it was forbidden to give references. If we were to answer any questions it had to be “Would you hire this person back to your company?” Optional answers, Yes or No. No other questions could or would be answered. I would not be overly concerned about a missing reference. Do the best you can in the interview and remember there is a lot of competition out there.

  3. Large companies have a policy that they will only give out your dates of employment or you signed a separation agreement with a neutral reference clause. The mom and pop companies is where the problem lies. Obviously, you can never know what your employer or co-worker will say about you. Having said that, there are companies out there like Global Verification Services or Document Reference Check who contact your former employer and record your employer’s comments about your separation, work performance, etc. You’re the best employee in the world when you’re working for the employer but when you’re gone and the employer stumbles on something that was misplaced or done incorrectly, you’re the one they blame and you’re not there to defend yourself. Suddenly, the phone rings from a prospective employer wanting a reference and guess what, you’re a horrible worker and you don’t get that glowing reference you expected. So what do you do? Prepare the prospective employer with the worst. Tell the prosepctive employer the problems with the former employer and let them decide. The truth will set you free.

  4. I was fired from a job because my last employer gave me a bad reference. I thought only verification of employment was required. Ihad told my new employer about the issue. Can I request a copy of the reference?

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