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When Providing References is a Challenge

Dear Joan:

I am updating my resume and need some advice regarding references, should a prospective employer ask for them. I currently work for a Ďtoxic bossí who would retaliate and make my life miserable if it were known I was looking elsewhere.

Those in upper management, including HR, have been made aware of this person by numerous employees, and either donít know how to deal with it, or refuse to deal with it. This poorly managed work environment is prompting me to look for employment elsewhere.

Iím not sure if there is any one here I can use as a reference, as those in a position to comment on my work performance, efficiency, initiative, etc. are my boss and those in our immediate work area. They are not ones Iíd entrust with the knowledge that Iím looking for other employment.

I have an excellent work ethic and performance here and at previous employers as well; however, my supervisors from those prior places have retired and moved away, died, or relocated to whereabouts unknown. I have tried to reach others I have worked with, but as it has been so long, no one I used to work with is still there. Same goes for the employer before that. The years with my current employer and my previous two employers cover almost 30 years, so going even further back has, not surprisingly, produced the same results.

I can provide some names for personal references, but I am at a loss on how to cover the lack of employer references. Do you have any suggestions?

Also, if a prospective employer contacts a current employer, despite being asked not to, is there any recourse for the job-seeker? Vindictive bosses such as this can inflict so much misery if they find out an employee is looking elsewhere.


No wonder youíre leaving. Hopefully the rest of the rats are abandoning shipóitís often the only thing that will make upper management take action. When they see the ship really is sinking, they are forced to address the problem. Sad isnít it? References can play a key role for a job hunter. They can erase doubts, corroborate your story, and sing your praises. Thatís why itís so important to leave your former employers on a good note.

In your case, your vindictive boss would probably take your departure as a sign of high treason, so you will have to be careful. Make it clear during interviews and on job applications that your current manager is not to be contacted. Itís unlikely that an interviewer would contact your manager; it simply isnít done. Everyone knows that checking a current employer puts the employee in a very bad position.

You should select at least three references. One personal reference is fine but they donít have as much credibility with employers, since employers are aware that your personal reference is often a good friend and ally who has never actually worked with you.

To find a good reference who knows your work, consider people who have left your employer and now work for someone else. They donít have to be your manager to speak about your work, work ethic and reputation. You could also ask former coworkers from past employers. You may have worked with some vendors, consultants, or contract workers. In addition, you may have some associates from volunteer work who have seen you in action. If you are still coming up short, you will simply have to explain that most of your former employers and coworkers are unreachable.

If they make you an offer and they insist on a current reference, consider using a coworker you trust. At that point, the news is going to leak out soon anyway. If you are pressed for your current managerís name, you can gently qualify it by saying, ďHe is part of the reason I am leaving and he has been quite vindictive to people who have left in the past. Rather than call him, perhaps you would like to see my past performance reviews, from which you will be able to see my excellent work performance and work habits.Ē If you dazzle them in your interview, they hear good things about you from others and see the documentation of your excellent work performance, they will likely be satisfied.

-Joan Lloyd

Joan Lloyd has a solid track record of excellent results. Her firm, Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding. This includes executive coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, customized leadership training, conflict resolution between teams or individuals, internal consulting skills training for HR professionals and retreat facilitation. Clients report results such as: behavior change in leaders, improved team performance and a more committed workforce.

Joan Lloyd has earned her C.S.P. (certified speaking professional) designation from the National Speakers Association and speaks to corporate audiences, as well as trade & professional associations across the country. Reach her at (800) 348-1944,, or

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