Should I List My Current Boss As A Reference?

I had an email a few days ago asking if employers consider it a “red flag” when an applicant provides references but excludes their present boss (or any reference from their current employment) from that list.

Here’s her actual question:

I am presently employed but seeking new opportunities within my industry. I am uncertain whether my boss would be fully supportive of 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 here.

I’m good at my job and I know they would not like to lose me. However, an opportunity has arisen that is in my home community and 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 of all, unless the job posting specifically states so, do not attach your 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 if you really 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 you are worth considering further.

However, sometimes employers do ask for references in their job posting. If so, it is fine to omit your current employer. The reason is obvious: 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 employer is serious about wanting you.

In your cover letter, explain that you have not included your current boss as 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 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 – as many as seven or eight people, even though you will only have to provide three or four names at any one time. If you have more than you need, you can then 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 providing 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 a great 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 typically drafted from the job description or advertisement. Send these documents to your reference in advance so they can be prepared for the call.

Question: Who have you selected as references? Are you confident they can speak knowledgeably about your work history? Will they give a fair and honest assessment of your skills, abilities and accomplishments?