Should I List My Current Boss As A Reference?

A reader sent me an email asking if employers consider it a “red flag” when an applicant provides references but excludes their present boss (or any reference from their current employer) from that list. Here’s her specific question:

I am presently employed but seeking new opportunities within my industry. However, I am uncertain whether my boss would fully support my efforts to advance my career outside of my current organization. Although he’s told me he knows I won’t spend my entire career here, I do think he expects me to spend two or three years.

I’m good at my job, and I know they would not like to lose me. However, an opportunity has arisen in my home community and is consistent with my career goals, and I would like to apply for it. I have other references that would work, but I am concerned that excluding my boss as a reference will be a mark against me. What do you recommend?

Here’s what I told her:

First, unless the job posting specifically states so, do not attach any references when applying for a job. If you do, there is a risk the employer will call one or more of these references before you even know you want the job. This could prove embarrassing for you, particularly if it gets back to your current employer.

Most employers will ask for references later in the interview process—after they have decided they want to consider you further for the job.

However, sometimes employers do ask for references in their job postings. If so, it is acceptable to omit your current employer. The reason is apparent: You do not want to let your current employer know you are looking until you are serious that 1) you want the job and 2) the new employer is serious about wanting you.

In your cover letter, explain that you have not included your current boss as a reference for confidentiality reasons. You could then state you would be pleased to provide their name and contact information once a conditional offer is made. Offers are often made subject to satisfactory references from your current employer.

This topic brought to mind a few other questions I have received about references.

Who should be on my list?

It’s best to have a long list of “potential” references, perhaps as many as five or six people, even though you will only have to provide three or four names at any one time. Then, if you have more than you need, you can select the best ones for a particular job opportunity.

You should only provide professional references—individuals who can attest to your past work experience, work habits, interpersonal qualities, and skill levels. Don’t bother giving personal references, such as friends or relatives, as employers will not place any weight in what they have to say.

How do I know what my references will say about me?

Only select references whom you know will provide a favourable reference. How do you know what they will say? Ask them! “If Company X calls you, what will you say about me?”

Few people take this step, but it is an excellent opportunity to coach your references. I am not suggesting you should put words in their mouths. However, you might be able to craft how they speak about you or refresh their memory about your past accomplishments.

A final tip: reference questions are developed from the job description or advertisement. Send these documents to your reference in advance so they can be prepared for the call.