In the October 12, 2010 Ask The Headhunter Newslettera reader asks:

I have two questions about references. First, I would like to use my current boss and co-workers as references. What’s your advice about that? Second, some companies actually expect references from a current boss. Do I have to provide these?

Here’s the short version of my reply. (You’ve got to subscribe to the weekly newsletter to get the whole story!)

This is a sticky topic. Your current boss and buddies at work might be your best references, but if you let them know you’re interviewing elsewhere, that could jeopardize your current job.

In a moment, I’ll show you how to launch references preemptively, rather than just provide them when an employer asks.

But first let’s take your questions one at a time. You can indeed ask people you work with for references, but you must accept the risks. Once management finds out you’re job hunting, you might be tagged as a dissatisfied employee and if there’s a layoff, you could wind up at the top of the termination list.

Must you provide references from your current company if another employer asks? Absolutely not, for the same reasons we discussed. The new company has no right to put your present job in jeopardy. If you prefer not to provide such references, you can and should decline.

Now let’s talk about how to use your best references by launching them before Referencesthe employer expects it. I once landed a job I really wanted by using a Preemptive Reference. I didn’t wait for the manager to ask me for references. Before the manager even knew I existed, I arranged for a credible mutual contact to pick up the phone and recommend me. Other than my abilities, that call was what convinced the manager both to interview me, and to hire me on my terms.

Since then, I’ve taught job candidates how to do that, and I’ve used the approach to influence people to do business with me. A recommendation from a credible colleague can make a manager want to hire you before you even apply for the job.

(That’s just part of the newsletter. Don’t get stuck short next week — Sign up now for your own free subscription!)

Smart employers check references. But there aren’t a lot of smart employers out there. Too many will make a hire without checking out a person’s reputation. When an employer asks you for references, who you gonna call?

Sometimes it’s all about who calls the employer before you even apply for the job.

How do you use references? Ever have a reference “make or break” a job offer for you? Has a reference ever torpedoed you?


  1. In my experiences lots of businesses don’t allow their employees to give references for current or past employees. I’d be very dubious about a company that demanded them.
    As for preemptive references, I agree, but I’ve tried to be even more preemptive – to have a potential hiring manager ion a company I might want to work for know me well enough, through networking, to serve as a reference for me.

  2. I can offer some personal experiences.
    1. Years ago I was employed and job hunting. I had an interview with a high flying hi-tech company which went well. After investing the antsy time off to fly cross country etc. The hiring manager then told me I HAD to have my current boss as a reference. At this time we were new to each other & I didn’t have close to that kind of relationship, which is moot because I wouldn’t have done it anyway. I told him the conversation was over as he must be looking for someone who lacks common sense.
    2. But it’s not unheard of. In all my years of hiring & recruiter there was one time where a candidate did give his current boss as a reference. To me that’s the crown jewel of references. When I talked with his boss as you could guess they had a great working relationship as well as friendship going back a few years. The boss who in my opinion was a class act, said it simply came down to given the circumstances, he couldn’t do anything more for the guys career. He was at a dead end in that company and he didn’t want to hold him back.
    3. As Scott noted many corporations, at least the F100 ones I worked for forbid (that’s the best word) reference giving. Send them to HR who’d give name rank serial # and verification of employment. Yet I’ve never had a problem getting references for myself or candidates providing them. When I ran into this, the VP who had the honor of laying me off gave me the company line. No can’t provide a reference, it’s unholy. Then he volunteered a useful piece of information. That he could, and would give me a “personal” reference. The difference mainly consists of using personal contacts instead of business contacts. It’s a convenient and ethical gray area but a recruiter will get the information they need albeit under a personal wrapping.
    4. I checked a lot of references, and it still surprises me about candidates who don’t pay attention to the basics. The basic basic being to ask if they can use someone as a reference.
    And…to brief the reference on the job you’ll be expected to do. As a reference I get that information then tell the person, basically what I’ll say, what my recommendation will be warts and all. If they’re not OK with that, then they best find someone else. That’s hardly ever been a problem. But that’s much better then calling someone & have them dump on the candidate and close with “I can’t believe he/she used me as a reference.
    5. I think references are important. In the 1st agency I worked for it was SOP & you were trained on obtaining them. Three. My preference is a former supervisor, if a manager a former subordinate, if not a manager a peer, and a client (if not in sales/consulting/services as a vocation, then the concept of internal customers) Yet it’s not uncommon to find companies, recruiters who don’t get them. (legalities are one fear), not so much out of laziness, rather they don’t find them of any value. To me that’s amazing. All you have to so is talk to references to see the value.
    6. Finally…The candidate & the references perceive this as a sign of professionalism.

  3. Many companies do indeed have a policy: We don’t give references. The same companies demand references when they interview candidates.

    Again, this is a failure of the HR system. HR needs to stop kow-towing to the legal department all the time and start using common sense.

    References are the coin of the realm. Smart employers won’t invest $100k to hire someone until they have vetted them with other respected members of the professional community. And that’s as it should be.

    @Don: Some of the best references I’ve ever gathered came from a candidate’s current boss. These bosses said pretty much what the boss in your story said. These are fine people who look beyond a job and demonstrate respect to their employees and their business community.

    I find that the best way to get a reference from a boss at a company where references are forbidden is to call the manager, explain I’m a headhunter, and ask if I may call him or her at home in private. They almost always say yes. Then I ask for a confidential reference, and I promise not to disclose their name when I deliver the reference to my client. My client has to trust me. I usually get my reference. And I frankly don’t give a damn what the boss’s employer’s policy is. What matters is the integrity of the boss, and my own.

    Don’t trifle with references. Respect them, but don’t fail to get them.

    (I’d love to see the legal test, if a company fires a manager for giving a reference and the manager sues. How is one’s personal opinion barred? Any lawyers out there care to tackle this one?)

  4. Some companies want the current boss as a reference, but what if he / she doesn’t know you are looking for a job? Other times employees are trying to get away from a dysfunctional boss or a broken job without trashing the former boss or company. That makes a sticky wicket. Other times there is simply personal animus between 2 people (not always the employee’s fault.) I think that people should have references to show they can play nice and make friends, but not necessarily from current employers or other specific people. I have also known an employer to give BAD references to great employees to block them from leaving.

  5. I have been a SAHM for the last 10 years. I am currently looking for a job and am running into the issue of providing references. I have been out of the workforce for so long that I don’t have any previous co-workers or bosses that I could use as references.

    My brother and I have been co-owners/managers of a seasonal rental business for the last 10 months that we inherited from our dad. I have gained a lot of experience and skill from running this business, and my brother would be happy to provide a reference for me.

    My question is: Is it ethical to use a sibling as a reference? Should I state up-front that he is my brother? We do not have the same last name, so it would not be obvious.

  6. @Pipash – Don’t given anyone ammunition to turn you down. Use your brother as a professional reference. Make sure you ask him first.

  7. I had an interesting conversation with the HR manager once. He declined to call my references, because my references were my technical lead in my present company, as well as my co-worker in my present company. He was worried they would be giving me a good reference because “they would want to help me out the door”. That was so neurotic I didn’t want the job after that.

  8. I once had a prospective hiring manager tell me he never checked references; “after all, you wouldn’t have anyone lined up who could be negative, would you?” He preferred to go by his gut reaction to candidates.

    Something I learned the hard way: don’t mistake “work friends” for real friends. It’s great to develop alliances with associates but when push comes to shove, they may surprise you by putting themselves/their career interests above what you thought was a trusting relationship.

  9. @EDR: Employers give you a bad reference to keep you from leaving. In addition, they may feel insulted because they feel that they trained you, and now you are taking your skills elsewhere.

    I’m sure there are rare exceptions, but I’m convinced that most employers feel that you are a highly valued employee only as long as you are willing to work “on the ol’ plantation for minimum wage.

  10. Preemptive References have always worked for me – is there another effective way to get a job?

    It seems to me that most of the points discussed above are already taken care of by a preemtive reference. Once you have had a discussion with your reference about how you would like them to approach your target, you know what they are going to say about you and this approach already avoids any issues with company policies.

    The biggest advantage however is that the hiring manager is getting a reference from someone they trust.

  11. @Bob, don’t laugh. I know a manager who was burned on an internal transfer in just that way. The former manager said the guy was great. Not so much.

    Nick, we are allowed to write references – just not for anyone who has worked at the company.

  12. Preemptive references are always best but frequently a recruiter does not have that.
    A smart recruiter checks references.At least a recruiter who dislikes unpleasant surprises does.The exception, of course, is when the person who referred you to a candidate is someone you know & trust.
    If references feel too glowing and too similar I drill down in the industry until I find a reference not given to me by the candidate. Such ‘unofficial’ references can be reassuring or they can save you from presenting a candidate who will embarrass you in front of the person you work for, your client

  13. Every employment application I have ever seen, whether paper or electronic, asks for the name of the candidate’s supervisor. Why this is I don’t know. HR produces the applications, but HR won’t let a prospective employer speak to that person, ever.

    There seems to be some confusion in differentiating between ‘reference checking’ and ’employment verification’. The latter is strictly an HR function at most companies. I did a survey of 12 HR people at one of our Business Advisory Board meetings. I asked who does verification; in all cases it was HR. I asked what info they provided; in 11 cases, title and dates of employment were all they would provide, one would respond to ‘Would you rehire this person?’ None would provide salary info, but they all asked for salary input from candidates. (None saw any inconsistency in that, by the way, but that’s a different topic.)

    In my present situation, my boss would be prohibited from speaking about me in his official capacity as my supervisor form any company telephone. I could however provide his home/cell phones, and he could (and I think would) be a reference for me. He would be listed on my reference sheet as a Professional reference even though he could not be contacted at work.

  14. I had a former employee who, while not list me as a reference, did list me as the current employer. And on the application indicated that it was okay to contact the former employee, but failed to give me a heads up. Am I wrong to think that this was an unprofessional way to handle this situation (on employee’s part)?

  15. Nick, your my brother in arms. I’m reading this article and wanted to share the last week with your readers.

    I’ve had three interviews over the last ten days with an employer I’m highly interested in.

    Interview #1 was with a senior project manager. This interview went exceptionally well.
    Interview #2 was with the hiring manager and went just “ok” because I wasn’t prepared for or warned that there would be technical questioning. Therefore, I did two things. I asked for another technical interview and I asked two peers, senior technologist in the industry to send a technical reference email – both complied with my request. The next day I was told I would get a third “very technical interview” and it was just that with six senior technical engineers on the call. However, having had time to prep for the onslaught, I brought my ship off the bottom.
    After this interview, I had my last manager send a reference email directly to the hiring manager. My previous manager addressed technical qualifications and interpersonal skills, and she mentioned that she would hire me back!
    Today the initial recruiter called stating that they want to hire me!

    Ok, onward to the next problem. I gave them a salary range and they’ve came back at the bottom of the range! Come on man…their low balling me while admiting there is a shortage of my kind of talent nationwide. Advice please?

  16. It just kills me that companies always say they only want to hire A list employees but then want to pay just C list salaries. I just might die laughing.

  17. I intend to counter their offer, and that will probably be the end of our conversations.I know what I’m getting into and refuse to jump on a slave ship without compensation. My opinion is that there are to many fortune 100 executives simply out of touch with theit workers.

  18. an exec who stays in touch with his/her team is the kind of exec who believe in it and given their time constraints makes a point of doing it. being out of touch is nothing new.
    way back when I saw something along these lines I’ll share with you. This has always stuck in my mind and serves as a reminder to manage by walking around.
    It was a F100 company, an internal event of some kind, a group thing. I didn’t recognize the guy, but it was a no brainer to see that he was at the exec level, Director or up. A young man approached him, introduced himself and engaged him in a biz chat, germane to the event, some observations, ideas etc. To his credit the exec wasn’t patronizing the guy, he was focused as they walked & talked. Near conclusion, he asked him his name and who he worked for. Then it fell apart when the guy said, surprised & a bit disappointed, “I work for you.” to which the exec was pointedly embarrassed, backpeddelling, while changing feet in mouth. I think you can imagine the scenario. So much for being in touch. I’d like to hope that this one exec learned something about knowing who’s in his organization.