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?