How to deal with unavailable or problem references

Potential employers may ask for professional references as a way to check whether or not you possess the skills and attributes mentioned in your job application. Most job candidates provide reference details of former employers or clients, but what do you do if your contacts have moved on, retired, or you just can’t get hold of them?

These quick tips will show you how to make the most of referencing opportunities when your original reference(s) become unavailable.

1. If possible, only offer references only when asked

In most cases, there’s no need to provide specific reference details when you initially apply for a job. Instead, you can simply write ‘References available upon request’ at the bottom of your CV. Many employers will only ask for your references at the final stage of the application process. This gives you more time to figure out who your most appropriate references would be for any specific role, and means you won’t need to reach out to disturb them until you know you’re a strong candidate for the role. Additionally, if you make it to this stage, then it will be because an employer really likes you and by this time they may be less focused on your references and more focused on getting you started in the role.

2. If your former manager is unavailable, consider other people who could vouch for your skills/character

In the first instance, you should try reaching out to the HR department of the firm you used to work for, it’s likely that they will still have records of your employment with them and may be able to provide a default reference to confirm your dates of employment with them – even if it was many years ago.

If you need a more personalised reference, it’s also possible that you may have former colleagues who can act as references for you. Just because your former boss(es) are no longer available, it doesn’t necessarily mean that all reference opportunities from that period in your life have vanished along with them. Try reaching out to one or two of your old colleagues, or your previous manager’s manager, explain the situation, and ask whether they can provide a reference for you.

If references associated with your previous roles have dried up, or the company no longer exists, then consider people outside of work that may be able to speak to potential employers instead. Perhaps you’ve volunteered before – in which case, this could be your volunteer coordinator or even another volunteer. Or if you belong to a community group, then you could ask the group leader to vouch for you.

3. Always get permission before giving out a referee’s contact details

If several years have gone by since you last used someone as a reference, then it’s common courtesy to get in touch with them and ask whether they are still happy to provide you with one now. People’s circumstances change and they may not be as willing as they once were to be called upon in this way. They may also feel like the passage of time means their reference is no longer as relevant.

As a referee, there’s nothing worse than receiving an unsolicited request from a company asking for a reference on someone when you haven’t been asked in advance, and this might not make them feel inclined to give you a glowing report! Conversely, most former employees and colleagues are only too happy to provide a reference when asked – many feel privileged to have been asked – so there is no need to be shy about asking.

If they don’t want their details being passed on to any of your potential employers, you could ask whether they would be happy to write you a signed letter that you can use instead. You can then make photocopies or scanned copies and pass them on to employers if they ask for your reference details – explaining that your reference is no longer available for direct contact, but that they’ve written you a letter.

4. If you’re reference has retired and you’re able to reach them at home, then do

There’s a possibility that one or more of your references may have retired since you last worked with them. If this is the case, then this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are unavailable to act as a reference. If you have a personal contact number or email address for references who have retired and you have, or have had, a good relationship with them, then there’s no reason why you can’t still contact them to ask whether they can provide you with a reference. They may even be flattered that you’re asking!

5. Make sure that you have a LinkedIn profile

LinkedIn is a fantastic tool for keeping track of your references. Some people change jobs often, but it doesn’t mean that after a move, they will no longer be able to provide you with a reference – as long as you have a way to get in touch with them and ask them for their new email address and/or phone number.

At its core, you can think of LinkedIn as a constantly self-updating Rolodex, where everyone’s business information and contact details get continually updated. If an old boss or colleague is on LinkedIn, then it could save significant time in tracking them down as you’ll be able to find them and message them directly through the platform.

If you don’t have LinkedIn, then it’s never too late to sign up and create your profile. Once you’re all set up, you can search for some of your old managers and colleagues, find out where they’re working now, and reconnect.

6. Make sure the rest of your CV and cover letter are really strong

Make sure you polish the skills and experience sections of your CV to show off your strengths, giving real-life examples of your skills in action. If an employer is blown away by your application and you give a great interview, then they may rely less on your references – especially if you are able to confidently explain your situation when asked.

7. Provide certificates, letters of recognition, or feedback that can be helpful in verifying your skills

All employers are looking to do when they contact your references is to make sure that you possess the professional skills and attributes that you say you have. However, if you can provide potential employers with other supporting evidence like certificates or letters of recognition or feedback, then this could be enough to compensate for a lack of references or for references that aren’t quite what you’d hoped for.

With this in mind, it can be helpful to keep both a hard copy and scanned versions of any old performance reviews that are particularly positive, or any work-based achievements such as an ‘Employee of the Month’ award or general pieces of positive feedback. While these won’t replace a reference, they can go a long way in trying to build trust and credibility if needed and will show that you are organised, proactive, and able to plan ahead to be able to do this.

And finally…

Not all companies will ask for professional references but many will, so it’s important to be prepared. If you can create a strong CV and cover letter and give a great interview, then chances are employers will be less worried about your references. If your problem isn’t that a reference has moved on or retired, but that you were dismissed from a role or didn’t have a positive relationship with your boss, then rather than risking receiving a bad reference, consider approaching a different colleague that you had a positive relationship with; for example, your manager from a previous company or someone outside of work who can vouch for your positive skills and attributes.

Did you find this page helpful? Do you have any additional tips that you’d like to share? Join the conversation over on the Rest Less community forum or leave a comment below.

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