Quick Question

How should a person deal with the fact that his best references for a job have died?

Nick’s Quick Advice


Sorry to hear it — but it’s actually a problem we headhunters encounter from time to time. It’s a very real problem, and a challenge, but you must address it. People who can endorse us are actually all around. You just have to stop and see them. That’s how you’ll develop the new references you need.

References are everywhere

Consider people who worked in your department or in related departments. Your best advocates don’t need to be your ex-boss or even someone you worked with directly. For example, if you’re an engineer, there are probably people in your old employer’s manufacturing, quality, and sales departments who can probably speak about you.

Who else saw the work you were doing? Not just other employees — but perhaps customers, vendors, and consultants who worked with your company. Anyone you did work with can speak up for you. But you have to ask them.

Call, don’t e-mail

Call them. Don’t send an e-mail request. References are a personal favor, so demonstrate that you’re willing to make your request personally.

Don’t start by asking them to be references. Just reminisce — try to get them to talk about their memories of when you worked together.

How to Say It

“Hey, remember the X project we both worked on… What did you think of how it turned out?”

Then lead them into a discussion about stuff you worked on. Get them to talk about it. If they can discuss it a bit, you’ve got a reference.

Here’s the magic

Helping people talk about your work and past performance helps them formulate what they’d say later as references. It’s your job to help them talk about it. Then, when you ask them to be a reference, they feel like they’ve got something to say. (See Don’t provide references, LAUNCH them.)

Does this sound like manipulation? It’s not. It’s like priming a pump. By helping people remember, you help them find the phrases they need to talk about you to an employer. Just do it honestly.

(If you’re an employer, see References: How employers bungle a competitive edge.)

Ever provide a surprising reference that helped you land a job? How would you advise this reader?

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  1. When I wss a young job applicant with little work history, I used references from my volunteer work supervisor. This volunteer job was complex but not directly relevant to the job I wanted. I also used a reference from a supervisor from a ‘menial’ sales clerk job because, although this job was part-time and irrelevant to the job I wanted, the reference spoke to character and reliability. I got the job.

  2. This isn’t an uncommon challenge for job hunters, and, as Addie noted, you can be a young job hunter with little/no work history, so there is another group that will not have the typical references.

    References don’t have to be bosses; they can be current and former colleagues (be careful if you’re going to use current colleagues because looking for a job while you’re employed could result in your being unemployed), people you worked with when you did internships or when you volunteered. If your reference can speak to your character, your work ethics, your reliability, your soft skills, then ask, even if, as Addie noted, the reference is from a job or employer not related to the job for which you are applying. Maybe they can’t talk about your engineering skills, but they can say that you were a team player, that weren’t afraid to work hard, that you were responsible, etc. Those are transferable skills regardless of your jobs and industries.

    Also, if you worked with people from other agencies or employers as part of a project, then there’s no reason why you can’t ask those people whether they’d be willing to be references for you or not.