when your references aren’t responsive

A reader writes:

I’ve had 2 jobs in the last 3 years after graduating, both with very small companies of fewer than 10 people and no formal HR dept. I’ve emailed and left messages for coworkers and manager from my last position to ask if I could list them as a reference, and I haven’t received a response from anyone. I didn’t leave that position on bad terms, but I haven’t kept in touch either. I can’t list my current manager since he’s not aware that I’m job searching. There is one girl who has left my current company and agreed to be a reference, but we didn’t work on any significant projects together, aside from planning company events.

1. Should I still list people from my previous employment as references, even though they haven’t acknowledged my messages?

2. What if none of my references respond to messages from the hiring manager? Will this jeopardize my chances of being hired?

3. Is it sufficient to provide their e-mail addresses, since I don’t have their phone numbers (aside from the manager) and it’s not posted on LinkedIn?

I’m at a loss for professional references I can list, since I had worked for such small companies and only had 1 or 2 coworkers. I really appreciate any advice you can give.

The fact that they’re not getting back to you is troubling. And yes, if they do that to the hiring manager, it’s going to be bad, because not returning calls for a reference often signals, “I don’t want to have to give a bad reference for this person, so I’m just going to ignore your call.”

You say you left on good terms, but I wonder how your work was when you were there. You might have left on good terms and still not wowed them, which could lead them to be ducking your calls now. Generally, someone who impressed an employer doesn’t have trouble getting their messages returned, so this is worrying. Granted, if they don’t feel they can give you a great reference, they should still get back to you and tell you that, but they wouldn’t be the first people to take the easy way out, by conveniently forgetting to return the call.

On one hand, it would be good to figure out a way to get in touch with these people and see what’s going on … but on the other hand, if someone isn’t enthusiastic about serving as a reference for you, that’s a reference you probably don’t want anyway.

You’re in a tough spot since this is your only previous job and so you don’t have other employers who can serve as references for you … or do you?  Did you have jobs or internships in college that could serve this purpose for you? If so, that might be a better alternative. (Although you might still run into people like me, who will say, “What about the manager at your last job? Can you put me in touch with her?” and at that point, you’ll probably need to just explain that you’ve trouble getting back in touch with her and hope that the new employer won’t make assumptions about why.)

If your current manager thinks highly of your work, another option would be to say that you’d be happy to allow them to contact your current manager once you have an offer, and that the offer can be contingent on that reference check … assuming that you’re confident you’d get a good reference from her.

Regarding the email versus phone number question, most reference-checkers want phone numbers, since they want to have a conversation, not an email exchange. For this group, it’s a moot point since you don’t want to give phone numbers for people who aren’t going to return the call anyway, but I’d think that you could at least give the company’s main switchboard number.

Morals of this story: (1) Do great work so that you get great references. And this is one reason that it’s worth it to go above and beyond at work, even when you don’t see what’s “in it” for you. (2) And stay in touch once you leave.

This entry was posted in Leadership. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.