why should your references be managers rather than peers?

In last week’s open thread, a commenter asked, “Why is a manager or supervisor always a better reference than a coworker? I ask because often I’ve had a better idea of the quality of work of my coworkers than I think the manager does.”

In some cases, it can be true that your coworkers know the nuances of your work better than your manager does. But in general, employers would rather talk to manager references because:

* It’s your manager’s job to assess your performance. It’s unlikely that your coworkers were probing into what you were getting done and how you were operating in the same way that you manager should be. (Of course, not every manager is good at doing this, but the assumption is still that they’re more likely to do it than your peers.)

* Your manager should see the big picture about your performance in a way that your coworkers don’t. For instance, your coworkers might see that you’re fantastic at X, Y, and Z — but when I talk to your manager, I might learn that the biggest goals for your role were A, B, and C, and you floundered at those.

* Your manager is better positioned to know certain types of things than your coworkers are, like how you respond to feedback, or that you’re an incredibly helpful sounding board when she’s thinking over strategy questions, or that you were almost let go for performance problems last year, or what kind of management you work best with.

In addition to the above, when someone offers up a coworker as a reference, it’s much easier to cherry-pick someone who will say positive things. When a candidate offers a peer reference, I assume they’ve picked someone who loves their work, and maybe someone who they consider a friend as well (which introduces more potential for bias / shading the truth). When candidates are required to offer managers as references, it’s a lot harder to do that kind of cherry-picking.

And sure, this isn’t a perfect system. Some managers are incompetent, or bad at assessing performance, or had personal conflicts with the candidate. (And a good reference checker will take that into consideration, talk to multiple references, and look at the overall pattern.) Some coworkers know their peers’ work and work styles intimately and can provide insightful and nuanced feedback. But in general, the points above are true enough of the time that they justify employers preferring to speak with references who actually managed you.

Now, not every hiring manager feels the way I’ve described, of course. There are some who will accept references from peers and not think anything of it. But you’re still better off offering up managers to begin with if at all possible, because for the managers who do care (and that’s the majority), the mere act of submitting a reference list that doesn’t contain managers is a red flag. I’m immediately going to think, “Hmmm, she doesn’t want me to talk to past managers for some reason. I wonder why.” That doesn’t mean that there might not be a legitimate explanation, but it does create a concern on the part of most hiring managers, and you want to avoid that if you can.

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