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Advice / Job Search / Interviewing

4 Times You Probably Shouldn't List Your Boss as a Reference (and What to Do Instead)

If a hiring manager just asked you for references—congratulations! You’re one step closer to getting your dream job. But before you officially snag the offer, you’ll need to provide a few names, one of which is supposed to be someone you reported to.

How many times have you gotten to this stage of the interview process and immediately broken into a cold sweat? “My last boss wouldn’t know the first thing to say about me,” you say, “Especially when it comes to why I’m qualified for this new job.” Or, you may simply start worrying about a potential employer catching that person on the wrong day—leading to the worst reference call ever.

While you know you shouldn’t be doling out your boss’ information if you’re currently employed, there are a few instances in which it’s perfectly fine to avoid giving another direct supervisor’s information as well.

Here are those situations:

1. Your Boss Didn’t Really Manage You

If you’re someone who saw his boss so rarely that you’re convinced she’s a figment of your imagination who only appears for your yearly performance review, then you should skip this person. I know from personal experience that it’s a roll of the dice to give a recruiter the name and phone number of a boss who barely knows your first name.

During my last job search, I panicked about this exact situation. And I assumed that if I couldn’t come up with any other solution, I’d have to swallow my pride and just send that person’s contact info. However, someone I really admire stopped me in my tracks. “If that was really the case,” he said, “don’t be afraid to just lay it out there respectfully and explain the situation.” So, I hunkered down and prepared myself to flat-out tell recruiters I didn’t think my previous boss had a good grasp of my qualifications. And much to my surprise, they interrupted me before I even finished my spiel and said, “Ah, that totally makes sense. No worries at all.”

2. Your Old Boss Has Been Completely Unresponsive to Previous Reference Calls

This is a tough one, especially when you just know your old supervisor would put in a great word for you. But for reasons completely out of your control, there are just times when that old boss lets his or her personal email go unattended for weeks at a time. And there are other times when he or she just seems to forget cell phones even exist.

If you’ve been burned in the past by someone who has just been incommunicado, you know the rush of anxiety that can take over. “Will my future employer think I’m crazy,” you’ve likely asked yourself. “Or will this make him or her think my old boss doesn’t want to talk because I’m actually the crazy person?” None of those things are true, of course, and employers understand when this kind of thing happens. But, if you’re like me and want to make the reference process go as smoothly as possible, it’s OK to leave an unresponsive boss off your list.

3. Your Boss and You Barely Overlapped

For whatever reason (mostly layoff-related), you and your boss didn’t really work together. So while he or she was technically your supervisor, there isn’t really much he or she could add to a conversation about you. This happens (and it sucks), but employers understand.

If you find yourself in this situation, the silver lining is that you shouldn’t feel obligated to provide your boss’ contact information to any future employers. The reason for this is pretty straightforward—your previous boss didn’t work with you for a long enough period of time to be able to speak to your qualifications at all. Leaving him or her off your list of references actually shows a good deal of wisdom, which most reasonable recruiters will see immediately.

4. You and Your Boss Just Didn’t Get Along

Early in my career, I was convinced my boss didn’t like me. At all. And when I left that company, I was really nervous about giving out his information to future employers because I had no idea what he’d say about me.

So, not long after I moved on, I decided to send him a thank you email. And you know what ended up happening? He wrote back almost immediately to let me know he enjoyed working with me and that I’d better use him as a reference in the future. Crazy, right? Of course, I can’t guarantee that you’ll get the same exact response, but the point is simple.

Yes, your old boss might not like you. But, before you start getting jittery about what he or she would say on a reference call, go to the source directly and find out for yourself. It’s as easy as shooting him an email that you’d like to list him as a reference (which you should do regardless) and seeing how he responds. A “Sure.” response will tell you a lot, as will a “Definitely, of course! Let’s catch up soon.”

If going through this process leaves your reference list lacking, you should provide the contact information of a senior-level person you actually worked with on a more regular basis. A short explanation of your relationship to this person (and how often you collaborated) will typically be enough to paint the picture for most hiring managers—who likely don’t have time to chase after an official manager who really only supported you from afar. And bonus: Thinking more deeply about who can actually speak to your experience will show most recruiters that you know better than to do anything without considering everything first. And that only makes you look good.

Photo of man working courtesy of Shutterstock.