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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, relocated, or are they otherwise unavailable? Perhaps the company you worked for has gone out of business.
  • Are you looking for work but don’t want your current employer to know?
  • Have you ever left a job on bad terms or been fired?

If you answered yes to one or more items on this list, you may feel like you don’t have solid references to give a potential employer.

Unavailable or problem references don’t necessarily mean you won’t be considered for a job. Hiring decisions aren’t based only on references. Follow these suggestions to make the most of your references and reassure employers that you can do the job.

Why employers ask for references

When employers are thinking about hiring you, they want to find out if you’re a reliable and effective employee who can handle the job. 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 and formed an opinion about you. They want to contact your references to check what you’ve said about yourself and see if you’re a good fit for the job and the organization.

Because of potential legal issues, some employers will not provide details about former employees and will only confirm dates of employment. Even so, many employers still regard reference checks as an important step in the hiring process.

Employers use references in different ways:

  • Some employers won’t interview you until they’ve checked your references.
  • Some employers prefer not to accept references from out of province or out of the country. 
  • Some employers hire new staff on probation because they don’t trust references, expecting them to exaggerate the positives. 
  • Some employers will still consider hiring you without employment references if you:
    • do well in the hiring process
    • have a reasonable explanation for your situation
    • can provide an alternative, such as a character or volunteer reference.

When you fill out an application or go to an interview, you won’t know ahead of time how the employer deals with references. Your best approach is to be prepared.

Make the most of your situation

The following suggestions will help you overcome problem references or lack of available references:

  • Polish your career planning and job search skills. If your skills, experience and attitude fit what employers are looking for, they may be less likely to rely on your references when deciding whether or not to hire you. 
  • Use other contacts or documents as an acceptable alternative to an employment reference: 
    • People from other areas of your life—volunteer work, community organizations, religious affiliations, teachers, instructors or landlords—may be able to vouch for your character and skills. 
    • Material or documents you’ve produced or projects you’ve been involved in can demonstrate your skills and attitudes. 
    • Copies of evaluations, letters of recognition, thank-you letters, written comments from customers or clients and awards can show your value as an employee.
  • Manage your references:
    • Offer references only when requested. 
    • Instead of listing references on an application, attach a resumé that includes the statement, "References available upon request." 
    • Always ask potential references for permission before using their names and tell them when an employer may be contacting them. Ask your references what contact information (home phone or cell phone) you should give to the employer. 
    • Coach your references. Share relevant information about the position you’re applying for to 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 references. If your reference is unwilling or unable to 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 out-of-country references.

As an alternative, 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. To find out more about creating a portfolio, see Using a Portfolio. Ask people in your local community—supervisors where you volunteer, staff at immigrant serving agencies, community groups and religious organizations or teachers or instructors—to provide character references. Even though they haven’t been your employers, they can vouch that you have characteristics employers value, such as honesty, reliability and a willingness to learn.

When your references have retired, relocated or are otherwise unavailable

Larger companies keep human resources files. In this case, employers can talk to human resources staff with access to your file.

If your reference has retired or moved to a different company and you know how to reach that person at home, do so. Ask if they would rather be contacted by phone or email.

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

Most potential employers are sensitive to this situation. They know you want to keep your job search confidential. If you’re short-listed or have been offered a position and the employer insists on contacting your current employer, ask that you be notified first so that you can talk to your current employer before the reference check is made.

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

If you’re on good terms with other former employers, use them as references instead.

If you feel you have to include a reference from a job where you were fired or left on bad terms, try these suggestions:

  • Think about why you were fired. Be willing to own your part in the situation and accept your mistakes. Contact your previous employer and see if you can reach an understanding 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’d be willing, on the basis of your conversation, to provide a reference.
  • If you’re uncomfortable with the previous approach, is there someone else in the organization you’re on good terms with such as a manager, supervisor, co-worker, customer or client, who would be a reference?
  • If a potential employer insists on contacting this reference, be honest about the situation. 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 objectives, I don’t agree with his methods. After several attempts to work this out, we both decided it wasn’t a workable situation."

Make the most of your references

References can play an important role in your job search. If you have unavailable or problem references, the suggestions on this page will help you gather the best references available to you. Strong job search skills will bring you face-to-face with an employer who’s looking for what you have to offer. At that point, your enthusiasm and attitude will go a long way towards emphasizing your potential and making your references work for you.

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