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Unavailable or Problem References? What You Can Do

  • Are you entering the job market for the first time?
  • Are your job references from outside of Canada?
  • Have your references retired or moved? Has the company you worked for gone out of business?
  • Are you looking for a new job but don’t want your current employer to know?
  • Have you ever been fired or left a job on bad terms?

If you answer yes to one or more items on this list, you may feel you don’t have great references.

While hiring decisions are based on more than references, they help employers see how you will fit into their place of work. Follow these suggestions to make the most of your references and let employers know that you can do the job.

Why employers ask for references

Employers want to find out if you’re a reliable and effective employee who can handle the job. That’s why they want to talk to your references—the people who know you and your work.

Employers usually ask for your references after they’ve interviewed you.  They want to check what you’ve said about yourself. They also want to see if you’re a good fit for the job and their workplace.

Because of potential legal issues, some employers won’t provide many details about former employees. Instead, they’ll only confirm the dates you worked for them. Even so, many employers still see reference checks as a vital step in the hiring process.

Employers use references in different ways:

  • Some won’t interview you until they’ve checked your references.
  • Some won’t accept references from outside the province or country.
  • Some hire new staff on probation because they don’t trust references. They may feel good references are exaggerated.
  • Some may hire you without employment references if you:
    • Do well in the hiring process
    • Can explain your situation
    • Can provide an option, such as a character or volunteer reference

Because you don’t know how an employer will deal with references, it’s best to be prepared.

How to work around absent or problem references

  • Polish your career planning and job search skills. If your skills, abilities, and accompllishments, and attitude fit what employers want, they may rely less on your references.
  • Think about other contacts or documents. For example: 
  • Manage your references:
    • Offer references only when you’re asked for them.
    • Don’t list references on an application. Instead, attach a resumé with the statement, “References available upon request.” 
    • Always ask references for permission each time you use their names. Let them know when an employer may contact them. Ask your references what contact details (home phone, cell phone or email) you should give to the employer.
    • Coach your references. Share relevant information about the job you’re applying for. This will help them prepare for the kinds of questions the employer will likely ask. You want what they say about you to help you get the job.
    • Provide written reference letters. If your reference can’t speak to your potential employer, maybe they'll write a letter for you instead. These letters can often be used for future interviews, so make sure to save copies.

When your references are from outside Canada

Employers don’t often phone references outside the country.

Instead, offer an email contact or provide a good translation of a written reference. You could also show employers a portfolio with examples of your work. Learn how to build a job portfolio.

Ask other people who you deal with now to give you a character reference. These can include teachers, staff at immigrant agencies, or supervisors where you volunteer, worship, or gather. Even though you haven’t worked for them, they can speak about your traits that relate to work. For example, employers value workers who are honest, reliable, and willing to learn.

When your references have retired or moved

Call the company where your reference used to work and ask if they have new contact details. Some companies won’t give out home phone numbers. But you could ask them to call and ask your reference to get in touch with you.

You could also try to find your reference on social media networks.

If your reference has retired and you know how to reach that person at home, do so. Don’t forget to ask what contact details you can give out.

When you don’t want your current employer to know you’re looking for work

Most potential employers understand this situation. They know you want to keep your job search secret. But they may insist on talking to your current employer once they offer you a job or place you on a short list. If this is the case, ask that they let you know before they call. This way you can talk to your current employer before your potential employer calls.

When you’ve left a job on bad terms or been fired

If you’re on good terms with other former employers, ask them instead.

If you must include a reference from a job where you were fired or left on bad terms, try these tips:

  • Think about why you lost your job. Be willing to own your part in the situation and accept your mistakes. Contact your former employer and see if you can agree about what happened. Explain that you know the reasons you were fired. Talk about the steps you’ve taken to change. Ask them to say what they feel are your strengths and what areas you need to improve. Ask if they could, on the basis of this talk, to give you a reference
  • If this approach won’t work for you, think about other people at that workplace. Did you leave on good terms with a manager, supervisor, co-worker, customer or client? Could you ask them instead?
  • If potential employers say they must contact this reference, be honest. Think of how to describe what happened without blame. You could say something like, “My previous supervisor and I had different approaches. While I respect his goals, I don’t agree with his methods. After several attempts to work this out, we both decided it wasn’t a workable situation.”

Using these tips will help you make the most of your references.

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