What If Your Manager Won't Give You a Reference?

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There are a lot of reasons a manager might decline to give you a reference, and not all of them mean that you’ve alienated your soon-to-be former boss. For example, it’s not unusual for companies to have an HR policy of only confirming job titles, dates of employment, and salary.

Then again, there are times when you and a manager just don’t hit it off. In this case, your manager declining to recommend you is actually the best thing that could happen to you. There’s nothing worse than a negative statement from a professional reference, and a less-than-enthusiastic endorsement is only slightly less helpful. In any case, if you ask for a reference and your boss says no, consider that he or she did you a favor.

Regardless of why your manager won’t give you a reference, the important thing for your career is to find substitute references, so that you can prove to a prospective employer that you’re someone people want to vouch for.

Most employers will want a few professional references, but it never hurts to line up some personal references as well. Keep in mind that in most cases, a letter won't suffice. The company will have specific questions they will want to ask and, if the company does check references, it will probably be over the phone. So in addition to making sure that the person you’ve asked to recommend will have good things to say, you should be certain that they’ll be available and willing to answer questions.

Professional References

Employers want to understand the quality of your work and your ability to achieve results. As such, professional references should be anyone who can attest to your work:

  • Current or former boss
  • Coworkers, either at this job or previous jobs
  • People who report to you, either now or in previous roles
  • Clients or vendors
  • Professors or academic advisors from college (but only if you’re a recent graduate)
  • Volunteer coordinators

Keep in mind that these individuals should be able to make the case that you’re mature, responsible, skilled, and someone who solves problems quickly, works well with others, and thinks on his or her feet. (The exact qualities, of course, will depend on the role. But your reference should be able to make the case that you have them.) In other words, the person giving you a reference needs to have seen you in action and be able to convey their positive impression to a hiring manager.

When you ask a prospective reference to speak for you, it’s useful to provide them with a brief overview of the role and to explain what’s most important, so they can tailor their responses accordingly (while still being truthful, of course).

Possible Personal References

Personal references are testaments to your character rather than your professional aptitude. They’re likely to be less sought-after by employers, but may be valuable in addition to professional references. If you need security clearance or are looking to get hired at a company with an extensive background check, however, personal references may be encouraged or even required, in addition to professional references. Possible personal references include:

  • Roommates/neighbors/friends
  • Members of your church/synagogue/house of worship
  • Anyone who’s belonged to a club or civic organization while you were an active member
  • Former or current coaches
  • Professors or academic advisors from college

Who Not to Ask

Don’t ask a family member or spouse. Employers will assume that your close family will have something positive to say about you, so their endorsement won’t carry much weight. Also, avoid asking anyone with whom you share only a casual acquaintance. Remember that this person should be able to convincingly attest to your character and good personal qualities, which requires them to know you fairly well.

Employers who look for personal references want to know who you really are, what your personality is like, what your values are, what you stand for. A vague recommendation from someone who barely knows you won’t be persuasive.

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