They Want Supervisor References. Are These OK?

Dear Work Coach,

I’ve been in the interview process with a company who finally called to request references. While the position is at a lower level than my former position, it is for a company I’m eager to work with, in an area that really interests me. They have requested references from two supervisors plus one other source.

I have no problem getting three or four great references from the people I’ve worked with, but getting more than one supervisory reference might be tricky. I was with my past company for almost a decade and for half of that time, I was in a high-level managerial position, reporting directly to the President, the owner of the company. This person, despite being very intelligent, was often unstable and manipulative, and at times bordering on abusive.

While HR was aware of these issues, there was nothing that could be done about it. The stressful effect of my boss’ wild mood swings and screaming sessions was the key reason I chose to leave an otherwise great company, although I have been careful not to mention this in any hiring situations. As such, I don’t really want to use her as a reference if I can avoid it.

I have included on my list one person who was my manager during my early years with the company, who is still there in a different capacity and would have no problem discussing my growth and contributions to the company. Would it be feasible to also include someone who was in charge of a cross-departmental team that I was on more recently, even though technically I was at a higher job level than she was? She did manage and coordinate a number of efforts that I contributed to.

My only other option for an actual supervisory reference would be to call the person who managed me 10 years ago. I still keep in contact with him occasionally, but he doesn’t really have a sense of what I’m capable of now.

What are your thoughts?



Hi N.W.!

Welcome. Congratulations on being it this enviable position. 🙂

My first thought is that I love it when people who write me have already figured out the answer. As in your case.

Most places (except totally inflexible ones you probably wouldn’t want to work for anyway) understand that you can’t always find the exact references they’re asking for, especially in this case where you are taking a lower level position for the growth potential. And they also know that not every boss is an angel.

The former manager is a solid reference (I’ve used people from many years ago in my own successful job searches), especially since he’s still there and can offer relevant references. And definitely include the person who managed the cross-departmental team, since even if you were technically higher up, technically she managed you. She’s a fine reference and can give recent feedback and legitimately comment on your ability to work with others, take direction, and also act autonomously within the team effort.

I think these are both good references. They asked for people who know you in a supervisory capacity and these both qualify. You might want to add notes on your reference list, describing the relationship under each name you provide. I always appreciate getting something like that when I do reference checks. I only push further if I get suspicious and need to dig deeper. (Oh…for the cross-departmental person, just explain that she managed you. No need to explain exact titles and hierarchy.)

Hopefully these plus your other reference(s) will be enough. Most times that would satisfy any reference checker. No need to add a potential land mine if you don’t need to.

Of course, if they insist on talking to your former boss (and I kind of doubt they will), you let them know s/he wasn’t thrilled you left, but will gladly provide the reference. And then you call your former boss and have the most pleasant chat you can manage, letting him/her know that you provided his/her name for a new job. Odds are this won’t happen, but if it does and s/he provides less than favorable feedback, it still might not be a deal breaker. Most reference checkers look at the whole package, including the other references and how well they seem to know you and your work.

Still, the references you suggested should do the trick. Definitely go that route and see what happens.

Good luck getting though this part of the process and good luck in the new job!

Ronnie Ann


About the author…

Ronnie Ann, founder of Work Coach Cafe, bases her real-world advice on her many years as an organizational consultant where she helped interview and hire people, added to a certificate from NYU in Career Planning & Development and her own adventures as a serial job seeker. She can also be found on her new blog, and on Google+.

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