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Ask the Headhunter: Can I ask my boss for a job reference?

Nick Corcodilos started headhunting in Silicon Valley in 1979 and has answered over 30,000 questions from the Ask The Headhunter community.

In this special Making Sen$e edition of Ask The Headhunter, Nick shares insider advice and contrarian methods about winning and keeping the right job, on one condition: that you, dear Making Sense reader, send Nick your questions about your personal challenges with job hunting, interviewing, networking, resumes, job boards or salary negotiations. No guarantees — just a promise to do his best to offer useful advice.


Question: 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?

Nick Corcodilos: 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.

Asking for references

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 that creates. You might think the big risk is that you’ll be fired instantly if your boss finds out you’re looking. But even if you’re not worried about that, there are more subtle risks.

Once your boss and co-workers find 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.

Resentment could reveal itself in other ways. Your co-workers might shun you because they view you as disloyal or because they’re jealous. Or, they might give lousy references when you expected good ones. If you trust your manager and co-workers, that’s up to you.

I’d test the waters by asking your best reference prospect whether they have ever been asked to provide references for other employees, and how they handled it. I know managers who will provide references — if not gladly, at least because they respect their employees’ careers and truly want what’s best for them. Make sure you know what kind of manager you’ve got!

Declining to give a reference

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. (For a discussion of other times it’s not wise to share references, see “References: 5 reasons to withhold them.”)

If you prefer to decline to provide a certain reference, just say so. Most companies understand this and are usually willing to talk only with references from prior employers.

But, there might be an alternative in both cases. (Again, you must use your judgment.) Consider as potential current references a vendor or customer you deal with and trust. Select them carefully, or you may offend someone (or violate a company policy). Recent co-workers and bosses who have moved on to other companies are good choices, and so are people who know you in a professional context but don’t actually work with you (credible consultants, for example).

There’s a variety of references you can use to help you land a new job. Just make sure your references don’t cost you your current job! To learn another way to tell an employer about yourself, see “Don’t provide references, LAUNCH them!”

Dear Readers: Have you ever given a reference that “nuked” your chance at a new job, or that cost you your old job? How do you select your references?


Nick Corcodilos invites Making Sense readers to subscribe to his free weekly Ask The Headhunter© Newsletter. His in-depth “how to” PDF books are available on his website: “How to Work With Headhunters…and how to make headhunters work for you,” “Keep Your Salary Under Wraps,” “How Can I Change Careers?” and “Fearless Job Hunting.”

Send your questions to Nick, and join him for discussion every week here on Making Sense. Thanks for participating!

Copyright © 2017 Nick Corcodilos. All rights reserved in all media. Ask the Headhunter® is a registered trademark.

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