IT Employment

Tackling the tricky dilemma of having no work references

With the rate these days at which people switch jobs and companies go out of business, finding and keeping good work references can be a battle. Here are some ways of getting around it.

With the rate these days at which people switch jobs and companies go out of business, finding and keeping good work references can be a battle. Here's an e-mail I received from a TechRepublic member who's having a real problem satisfying a prospective employer's request for work references.

"I interviewed for a position last month which required, among other things, the application letter of introduction, a resume, a list of three professional references, and a copy of unofficial transcripts. So, as is obvious, there was a little bit of work to do to apply. Since the references are supposed to be professional I had a bit of a problem. Unfortunately in my case I gave three references but they were only personal references and two of them had tossed their cell phones so when a check was made the number wasn't valid. I was able to get another number to one of these references but I was eventually asked for another individual for a reference which I provided. This organization wanted to contact my present coworkers but I work in a small outfit (don't even have an HR dept) and if somebody contacted my coworkers then they'd know I was looking elsewhere and I'd find myself in a bit of a delicate situation.

My question is this: How does one go about applying to positions when one doesn't have any references to use? I left the Foreign Service three years ago and anyone I worked with is now overseas and nearly impossible to get in touch with. This employer whose job I'd applied to wanted to talk to not just someone who I've worked with or knows what I'm capable of but someone who I've worked along side for the past couple of years. This would be my two coworkers but one used to be in marketing and then decided to go build custom homes and the other was a librarian and housewife/mother. I've got almost 30 years in the IT field, whereas my two coworkers combined have less than a dozen. As such, I was hard-pressed to want to use them and the fact that I don't need anyone knowing I'm looking elsewhere.

So what does one do if he can't produce a professional reference for a job application? I think the department manager of the position I applied to wants to hire me but the HR head is wanting some professional references and I just don't have any. Do I just keep to opportunities that don't ask for any?"

First, I wouldn't let the fact of your coworkers not having as much IT experience as you deter you from using them as references. They can't address the intricacies of projects you worked on, but they can somewhat attest to your work ethic and character. The trick is they aren't, in the minds of the hiring manager, as subjective as personal friends would be. I can understand your reluctance, however, to let them know you're looking elsewhere for a job. Are there any vendors you've worked with in the course of your job? What about contractors with whom you interacted?

It's sad that HR's fears of making a bad hire -- whether they be legal or financial -- could be the cause of your losing out on this job. But it may be a fact of life.

Let's hear from the crowd, do you have any advice for your fellow TechRepublic member?

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

38 comments
techrepublic
techrepublic

This is why you make friends at work. Your friends and you can constitute a mutual help organization. My dad used to do it with his friends. So even when they were in their sixties they were giving references for each other and pulling each other into whatever good company they'd found to work for. I guess my dad retired at $180K about ten years ago (as a programmer/analyst). P.S. Look up those friends with the lost phone numbers.

ddupuis
ddupuis

It's really hard to think that 30 years in the IT field has yielded you no one to vouch for your work. Remember the old adage 6th degrees of separation, also known as 6 degrees to Kevin Bacon. There are always references and contacts to vouch for you. You just need to seek them out. No one is going to seek you out. Look at the book 'what color is your parachute'. In the book a chapter illustrates that every place you worked, every friend you have has a contact and can be some form of help for you. You say your colleagues from foreign service are overseas and are hard to get in touch with. In todays day and age with all the technology as well as good old snail mail there are always ways to get in touch with someone if you really want to. I personally have called, sent emails, mailed letters, etc. overseas with people in hard to contact situations. It sounds like you are making excuses and playing the victim role, instead of getting out there and being pro-active. It's easy to say I can't and I don't. It may take some leg work, some phone calls, maybe a connection or two on linked in, maybe a past vendor, someone you helped at anyone one of your jobs in IT.. there are so many options out there, you just need to sit down and think about them. They are really just looking for information that you can do the job. Anyone can say they build bridges. But in order to be considered credible they need to have the actual product or someone to speak on behalf of their work. If you still really cannot find someone to be a reference after really looking into your past and present career, friends, vendors, people you helped, volunteer work in the field-- as the adage goes it's not them, it's you. By this comment, I am not stating you are necessarily doing something wrong in your career. It just means that the contacts are out there. They may not be obvious and you need to look into your past career to find them. Something as simple as one day 10 years ago I helped X with something and they really appreciated it. I did that one thing no one else could help them with. It can be that simple as one event, one encounter. The only way to get at the references is to go get them, they will not come to you. At that point you really need to do some soul searching and evaluate your career. By evaluating you career as stated above you may find some references and contacts you initially thought you didn't have. All the best of luck!

chaz15
chaz15

You've had an unpleasant experience with an employer who you worked with for years. Colleagues have moved on out of contact with other organisations or to spend time with their families/ or have retired. Apart from going back some years to another previous employer what can you do? BUT employers often just state position held and length of employment. (for legal convenience). This can be quite general eg IT lecturer, IT technician which is no help whatsoever if you have specialist skills/ experience. Additionally, you have no idea (or recourse!!!) what may be said if a prospective employer phones your past/ present HR dept. If they phone a long time previous employer the HR department are likely to just reply WHO??, our records don't go back that far/ records lost/ destroyed etc. This is especially a problem if you didn't have friends from where you worked or have lost touch with them. You need a reference to get a job..... to get a good reference again.... I don't know ANY answer to this one.....

Jalapeno Bob
Jalapeno Bob

I did software development for a small government contractor in New Jersey, while I live in Texas. Most of the work I did was classified Secret, or higher. When the multi-year contract ended, the company dissolved, with its assets sold to another small contractor. Due to the secrecy rules, no one on the project was permitted to talk about the project - not the name of the project, not the technologies used, not who I worked with, nor any other aspect of the project. Since I did not want to sign on with one of the other contractors on that project, I was left with a hole in my resume - 6 years of experience that I could not talk about, except that it was a classified project for the US Government. It took me three years to secure another software development position because HR departments insisted on answers to questions I will never be permitted to answer.

salam
salam

Just join the different social networks that are out there facebook, linked-in. I was in the same dilema, and facebook and specially linked-in helped a LOT. I found almost all my previous colleagues.

sidekick
sidekick

I find my biggest problem is keeping in touch with people. I've had to ask people that I haven't been in contact for years to be a reference. This last time around a friend got me into LinkedIn. At least this gives me a way to keep contact info and see what they are up too. It is also important to build relationships with potential references before you need them. I've been downsized and outsourced enough to know you shouldn't wait until you need them to get them.

jmarkovic32
jmarkovic32

I graduated from college 6 years ago so none of my professors would even remotely remember me. Same with my jobs during college which employed tons of students. In my current job, my mother is the HR Manager so I've been using her as a reference (maiden name) and my brother who I've done contract work with. Applications even ask for your supervisor as a reference. Hell no! I have a programmer I'm working with here and I don't even want him to know I'm looking. That's why you have to be creative. Half the time they don't even call references and I've heard some people use friends as "fake" references. Just give them a script and the employer will have no way to verify it, especially if the company no longer exists.

Questor1
Questor1

The answer to "no job references" is somewhat complicated, but here are my recommendations... 1.) Don't give job references until a job offer is made! Only releasing references after an offer is made allows you to control the outcome of the interview and permits you to arrange a specifc time and methods the interviewer will contact your job references. You do not want the interviewer to call personal or professional references when no offer is on the table because it will waste the reference person's time. Besides, what is to prevent the interviewer from trying to recruit the reference person for t5he job you interviewed for? 2.) Ask the interviewer if personal references can substitute for professional references - i.e. acquaintances in a professional groups you may belong to. Explain to the interviewer after an offer is made that your company references will only confirm your date of employment and title. 3.) Have a friend call your references as a hidden test - you never know what yiur references will say or how they present themselves and you when they say it.

ProfessorCurt
ProfessorCurt

One suggestion would be ask somone from a previous (not the current) job. Of course, it's not much help if you are in your current position for about 4 or 5 years or more. Another idea is to belong to a professional organization (AITP, IEEE, ACM, etc.) and develop contacts that can be used as professional references.

reisen55
reisen55

Be bold and up-front about it. When you are leaving a job for whatever reason, ask ASK ASK for something in writing. Keep business cards and letterhead too. If the firm does go out of business, these two items come in very handy. And network with your colleagues from past jobs, they can serve as references too. Work documentation, written projects you have done, of any kind, automatically become valuable to YOU so take it with you, if you need a USB key they are cheap. You can prove you worked at a company by virtue of these items. Never EVER burn a bridge except if it is one you can truly loose without regret. And even then sideline it as long as you can. Never EVER destroy or damage computer or office equipment of any kind. (I found, however, the thought of putting a dead fish in the overhead ceiling panels of the server room most delightful).

Reb413
Reb413

A new way to get around this issue is the movement to social networking sites such as Linkedin. At these sites, a person can network with past managers and co-workers and also get 'endorsements" regarding the work performed and the interaction with other people in the enterprise. Once the endorsement is provided, it stays on the profile until the profile owner chooses to remove.

tlyczko
tlyczko

What do you do when you don't want people to know you're looking AND your references no longer exist?? Offer to work for free for 1 week??

bboyd
bboyd

My company has a policy that tells us the only thing we can do about that issue is refer it to HR, who will verify dates of employment and nothing more.

onepersonsopinion
onepersonsopinion

I know someone who applies to newwork support(help desk) positions and gets at least $60/hr. He has been fired from every single job he has ever applied to in the last 7 years. His resume is 14 pages long, listing each peice of software he has HEARD of, he lies through his teeth about everything. The problem is he doesnt know he's lieing and causing problems for everyone. He's just one of the ones who really 'cant' do anything but people still hire him because of the 'social' biases that people have, and eventually end up firing him. The point is that this guys has NO professional references. The only references he has are a couple people who he has never worked with and not even in IT. They basically lie about him too. So Ive been convinced that after 30 years...you dont have references?...not even one person to vouch for you hard work???....I mean...dude...we have VOIP phones for crap sakes. It doesnt cost anything to call people around the world and use them as references. It just damages society as a whole when HR people constantly make mistakes and hire people and waste everyones time like this. Sorry. Oh btw this guy is now living on welfare and everyonce in a while he gets a $60/hr job and still is on welfare....um...so its also bad for the country.

chaz15
chaz15

I've had a VERY successful career, through a succession of jobs. BUT firms have closed, people in charge have vanished elsewhere,or retired, GENUINELY leaving me out on a limb. No amount of work is going to trace these people. They've retired or left the employment field. HR will NOT give contact details for people who have moved on, nor for past clients. My job went on a series of pretexts, to give the employer the 'opportunity' to save money, the post wasn't replaced. They are not going to admit they made up the pretexts as they would find themselves sued in an instant. There are just some VERY unscrupulous employers.... usually, though not always big corporations. I know it can be unlikely not to have ANY past useful contact, but to prove the point, it HAS happened to me. And yes, I AM doing some voluntary work to at least get SOME kind of reference, but it wont be nearly as good as the one I should have had for many years VERY successful work in a very responsible position!!!

ccollins
ccollins

When I sold my business in 2004 I thought I would go to work right away but that was not the case. So I took some temporary work using a skill that was more in demand but at much less pay. Now I am looking for work again and I don't WANT to use those references but the recruiters and friends all say that no HR office will look at jobs over 3 to 5 years ago. So, even though I have been in the work force for over 30 years, only my work experience and those I worked with a few years back are relevant. Added to that, they want to know everything about my college degrees, including transcripts, that I earned 37 years ago. Seems that you can always count on a college degree but not on the word of someone you worked for 30 years ago, even if the reference knows what you can do in the position you are seeking. There is nothing rational in how companies select employees today.

achez
achez

I have worked in HR for the past 13 years. I quit checking references about 10 years ago. Why? Because I think they are a waste of time. Some of the worst hires, were given great references. Professional References tend to always be good out of fear - retaliation for a bad reference is lawsuit material. Personal references - Never had someone give me a bad one. With a good background check, some Google(ing) on the internet, and a perhaps a short visit to social networking websites will probably be much more telling. Combine this with some good behavioral interviewing...and most of the time...you will be fine.

sidekick
sidekick

You would think that the fact you were kept on a top-secret project for 6 years would in itself suggest you must be doing something right. I would think they wouldn't want any old slouch for that.

mdhealy
mdhealy

> Only releasing references after an offer > is made allows you to control the outcome At my company nobody gets an offer before at least two references have been checked.

srmcevoy
srmcevoy

Checking what they will say is vital. You may think you had a great relationship and work experience. I have a friend who is an HR manager who has done this from time to time for me.

ccollins
ccollins

You mention taking work documentation and use a USB drive. I can tell that you have never been blind-sided by the manager who comes to your office one day, has you sign a form that you understand that they can let you go, and escorts you to the door without allowing you to take anything with you. They, of course, pack your personal belongings and allow you to return on the week-end to pick them up. However, now that we are in the time of instant lay-offs your advice is good. Now, every time I get a job, I will off-load information that attests to my performance, but will make sure that none of the information is proprietary or confidential. That way I won't get fired for theft. Many companies won't let you use a USB device and turn them off so that you can't take any information, even if it is personal, from the company network.

srmcevoy
srmcevoy

there are some other options. One is a collection of letters of reference. I have a file with letter going back 20 years. really great managers and owners from the past. I keep the originals in protective sleeves and only take or give copies. I keep a small collection in my professional portfolio my certifications, resume, and awards. The other is use a site or service for references and link to it on your resume. I have references from VP's and others on linkedin.com and link to my profile on my resume and cover letters. http://www.linkedin.com/in/srmcevoy

gjadams
gjadams

I did not have references when I came to the USA from England, but what I did have was my last appraisal, which was also recent. This helped me enormously to find work, as it detailed my technical abilities and work ethic, as well as an insight into my personality. It seems to me that performance evaluations are not common over here, but I would ask your manager for a formal, written appraisal. It is imperative that you stress this is not on the grounds of seeking a salary increase, but so that you can see how you are performing, what areas need improving, etc. You can then provide this to prospective employers in lieu of references.

Hotdoge3
Hotdoge3

seen a bad one no so its no help see how they work is best,I got 2 job's sad like to see my Ref they no you got the job.

kbcprw
kbcprw

I've been a professional resume writer and career coach since 1994 and this question of "who can I use as a reference?" comes up frequently, often expressed with an edge of panic and/or despair. There are two steps that require some effort (on the first step) and some squelching of the fear of rejection (on the second step). 1. Find the people you believe would be good references for you. I mean, physically find them. Most people already have the persons they want in their mind, they just have lost contact or believe (erroneously) that because they are no longer in the relevant position that they can no longer provide a reference. In this querent's case, it sounds like the Reference Contacts they want to use are the ones from the foreign service. Even anthropological digs in the middle of nowhere have access to satellite telephones. Find those people. 2. Contact them first. I am amazed at how MANY people give contact information for a prospective Reference without contacting them first. It is courteous and also allows you to ascertain the quality of reference you will get. Tell them you are involved in a job search and would like to know if you can use them as a reference. Many people approach this step with trepidation. You'll find it is easier than you expect. These are people you already believe think well of you. Feel free to engage them in some conversation and ask them about the projects they are working on now - reconnect with them. They need not just be a "necessary Reference" but could become your allies and friends for now and in the future. Oh yes, and Number Three...once you've obtained the blessings of your References to use them, give them out sparingly. You don't want to flood them with phone calls/emails from every prospective employer. After 49 phone calls of your Reference singing your praises, they might be a tiny bit tired and that might be when #50 calls- #50 being the job of your dreams. Finally, if you ARE one of those rare people who doesn't REALLY have a Reference, start to get some, start now. If you are unemployed (or even if you are employed), find a worthy organization and volunteer your time in a professional capacity that engages your skills and reflects the direction you want your career to go. http://www.linkedin.com/in/karenbairdeaton

skrol
skrol

I agree it is a problem -- most vendors, with salesman you deal with, will be honored to give a reference of your work ethic.

ddupuis
ddupuis

You are not thinking outside of the box. Every contact you have can be useful in some way, don't discount anyone. Everyone knows someone. While a boss may make a great reference --- it does not necessarily have to be a boss. It can be a co-worker, someone you helped a vendor. Anyone to substantiate that you can do the job. If you have a stack of business cards, start going through them and see whom may be of help. Network. Some one who knows someone in your old company may be there. Get yourself on linked in, look into finding old co-workers via the internet ( google them), etc. You can't go back and change the past. So they won't give you contacts to former clients. If you know the company- call them, find them on google, linked in, etc. You cannot live in the past either. You cannot hold on to the bitterness, it will only hold you back. It happened; you are no longer there they left, they moved to who knows where.I know it's hard, but you need to pick up the pieces and move forward. Hold your head high and just move forward. Believe me, I know about unscrupulous businesses, I was attending a college as a sophomore as it was being closed at the end of the year. We were told the day before Thanksgiving Break. Everyone- faculty, staff, students, administrators. I had to find a new school and everyone else needed to find new jobs. Even those that were there over 20 years, some whom theirs spouses worked there and their children attended the school. Yes, it was tough, yes it was heart wrenching. But, you deal with it and you move on. You find ways to cope, you find solutions. When the school closed due to financial mismanagement and students needed to write their papers. There was no money for paper to print on. Instead old letter head was used. Again, think outside the box. No one is accusing you of anything, so please stop getting defensive. There are always solutions to problems, you just need to find them. You came here for help and people are trying to help you.

sidekick
sidekick

Even if your more recent jobs use a different set of skills that what you are currently looking for, references from those jobs can still attest to your work ethic, character, etc.

sidekick
sidekick

Just out of curiosity, is checking a social networking site a legal process for determining whether or not to hire someone? Don't get me wrong, I'm not judging or anything. Unless the applicant is a complete idiot, they are going to give references that will say good things about them, so I can see where references wouldn't be that valuable. That's also why I don't use any social networking sites (except Linked in, which is strictly professional), as I would expect that potential employers are looking for that. I also Google myself once in a while to see if I'm out there. Lucky for me, both my first and last name are common words, so there are a lot of results that have nothing to do with any person who happens to have my name. Even when putting it in quotes, if a sentence ends with my first name and the next starts with my last name, the search finds it. Just call me a needle in a haystack.

nico.verschueren
nico.verschueren

I have moved from Belgium to Australia last April. I have 9 years of work experience in IT in Belgium. I even have experience in hiring people. And I have never come across (or even heard of someone who knew someone) that asked for or needed a reference in Belgium. I don?t say that it can not happen; only that it will be very rare. When I had to hire someone, I had a chat with him/her, went over his/her resume and asked some questions. You generally have a gut feeling about someone sitting in front of you and with some questions, you can filter out some of the bogey ones. If the CV tells he/she is really good at something, but he/she can?t answer some simple questions? that?s an alarm bell going of. And if you do hire someone who does not fit in for technical or other reasons, you have the trail period anyway. In Australia you can?t get a job without it (in from what I gather here, in the US it is about the same). Not that I really had a problem getting references from my former bosses in Belgium, but I thought it was strange, not being accustomed to it. Also, quickly after starting my first job, I knew it was not for me. Not that I was bad at the job, but I did not find any challenge in it, so I decided to quit that job. I worked there for 1 ? months before I handed in my resignation. I left on good terms. I was doing a good job and they did not want me to leave. I also did an extra 1 ? month because otherwise they would have a problem with staffing in my shift. When I started to look for work again (I handed in my resignation before I had a new job), they knew I was looking for something, so if needed, I could ask them to be a reference (which I did). But for one of the positions I applied for (my current position), they specifically asked for a reference in Australia. OK, I did supply them with a reference from here, but I think that it would be better to have a reference from someone who has worked with you for 6 years than 3 months. And besides that: someone not function in 1 position can perfectly fit in somewhere else (or the other way around) So, in conclusion: I think it is a bit stupid, all those references. People seem to cheat with them and sometimes it can?t even be a decent representation for that person anyway. To me it just seems that the persons responsible for hiring just want to cover themselves (or plainly don?t trust themselves in hiring someone). And if that is the case, you hardly ever will end up with the best candidate for the job, because its not about filling the open position, but about the hiring person.

rhino777
rhino777

Get on Linkedin.com! I've re-connected with several old coworkers through there over the past year or so I've been that site.

Jalapeno Bob
Jalapeno Bob

As I said, it just becomes a black hole in my resume. From the HR point of view, I just dropped out of the workforce for six years, since no company was left to confirm it with. You have to admit, it does look very suspicious, especially to those who never worked for military-industrial companies.

Questor1
Questor1

It sounds like your company is "heavy handed" and distrustful of people you interview before job offers are made. Interviewers should map out their requirements in advance, select key questions to ba asked of the job applicants, and find and select only a few candidates for job interviews based upon qualifications important to the job. This is why "cattle calls" of many applicants for interviews are a waste of time. "Cattle calls" are often demeaning, show the hiring company is disorganized, and implies the company does does not seem to know what skill sets are needed for the job. Job applicants should be honestly evaluated on how they present themselves in interviews, what they know, and how they do it. The applicant should be advised in advance that everything they say in the interviews will need to be verified with professional or personal references that the applicant should be prepared to provide if a job offer is made. Failure to provide accurate and honest information would be considered just cause to rescind a possible job offer pending verification or cause termination of employment. The reference check used by hiring companies should be used to validate what the job applicant has presented in the interview process. Job offers should be based on interviews with the applicants and should be subject to being withdrawn if the job references don't check out to the employers satisfaction. "No job offer until references are checked" causes companies to lose qualified candidates who are quickly hired by other businesses. This delay also shows a lack of commitment by the employer.

terryea
terryea

Due to some rather self-limiting life-experiences I am unable to provide employment references on my resume. I am 55 years of age and in a precarious situation financially. I believe I could qualify for positions that are open on the entry-level platform- without valid references I am at a real loss. I have posted this situational overview on several networks( linkedin,konnects.britefuse and others where I am joined member) and have received some insight but really i require a more concrete assist here. If you are able to provide me some sort of a perspective that I am unable to provide myself Please email me at armstrongterry53@gmail.com and thanks for looking this message over. Terry

chaz15
chaz15

Hope it doesn't happen to you.... In my particular field I need a specialist reference, which simply isn't available. I have been to career consultancies even. I am NOT being defensive, simply stating facts. Specialists have stated that given the extremely bad treatment from the former employer and at age 57 I am probably unemployable. I live in an area with very high unemployment, live with my own family (am very much needed at home) so would not wish to move or temporarily live away with very excessive travel costs. Prior to my previous situation I worked in various temp capacities over 10 years ago for weeks or so at a time for a ten year time span. I simply can't conjure a professional reference out of a hat. The previous employer deliberately invented personal issues, misconduct, poor work standard and not following agreed scheme of work, all patently untrue. The point I am making is that there are some employers with morals of a jackass!!!!!

sidekick
sidekick

I don't have anything against them. Just be careful what you put on it. Most people are opening up there personal lives, perhaps in ways that they wouldn't normally share with a potential employer. I doubt they care if you had Mac & Cheese for dinner last night, but the stories about that party you went to... Or if they check your "friends" sites as well, and they have stories on it about that party you went to. I guess my point is be careful what gets out on the net about you.

Jalapeno Bob
Jalapeno Bob

If the situation was to occur to me today, the social networking sites would definitely be one of the places I would turn to. Unfortunately, when this happened to me 'way back in 2003, social networking sites were barely into their infancy.

Curious00000001
Curious00000001

I have been in a similar situation and the key is to be vague about the details and focus on the skills you used e.g. ?extensive programming? and if they ask for more detail explain to them that that is classified information. Any company that has had dealings with the government should understand this and leave it alone. A vague job description is better than a whole in your resume anyday.

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