Strategies for getting a good reference


When I was applying to graduate school, I needed three references. The only work I had done was not the reference-generating kind, like signing autographs for Esther Williams and chopping heads off chickens. So the references were a real stretch for me, and I ended up asking my boyfriend to write one.

I had done work for him, technically speaking, so he wrote it as a former employer. Amost all the recommendation forms had a section that said, “How would you rank this person among all the people you have worked with?” I demanded that he say I was in the top 1%.

He said that it was absurd to put top 1% because no one would believe it.

I said he was wrong. And then I raised the bar by having a tantrum until he agreed to say in the written part of the recommendation that I was the most well-read person he had ever met.

But it turns out that my boyfriend was probably right, and the recommendation was, indeed, over the top. People do not like sterling recommendations, according to a study by Cleveland State University (via An endorsement is more believable if it includes something negative about the person. The example in the study is “Sometimes, John can be difficult to get along with.” That seems like a really bad comment, but it actually got a better response from hiring managers than a reference with no negative comments.

This rule of thumb sounds right to me. When I was hiring, if I called for a reference and the person sounded like they were reading a canned speech I discounted the whole thing and called another person on the list. I was always hunting for someone with candor.

Legal advisors tell companies to give out only the title and dates of employment. However David Perry , executive recruiter and author of Guerrilla Marketing for Job Hunters, tells me that he has never had a situation where he couldn’t get someone to say more than that after a little bit of pushing. In fact, CareerJournal provides interesting examples of how human resource representatives toe the legal line and still give a terrible reference if they want to: “They’ll say, ‘Are you sure she gave you my name?’ or “Check his references very, very carefully,” or ‘Hang on, let me get the legal file.’ ”

So even if the person giving the reference is not your boyfriend, if you know him very well, you can still do a little coaching. For example, give a suggested answer for when they are asked about your weakness. And if you are worried you are going to get a bad reference from an old employer, hire a reference check firm to check your own references. (In that vein you will be happy to know that when necessary, I still get a good reference from that boyfriend.)

8 replies
  1. Alexandra Levit
    Alexandra Levit says:

    Hi Penelope, great post as usual. I’d also like to suggest that people not wait until they actually need references before trying to recruit them. The best time to ask someone to be a reference for you is right after you’ve worked with them, when they’re still riding the high of how wonderful you are. Once they’re on board, you can then give them a call to brief them on what you want them to say regarding specific opportunities.

  2. Jason Alba
    Jason Alba says:

    I agree with Alexandra on both points – great post and don’t wait to get the letter until you need it! I never did that because I knew it would be a pain to keep the letters organized (I think I know a GREAT website for that, now ;)), but George Blomgren just posted on a candidate that he helped that did not have any references ready – he practically had a job offer up to that point – and lost the job!

  3. Mike Hobart
    Mike Hobart says:

    I once had to give a reference for somebody that I suspected spent overly much time hitting the bottle at weekends. In the end I diplomatically said that he often called in sick after his day off and left it to the other party to interpret. After all, I didn’t actually KNOW.

  4. Brett
    Brett says:

    How is it even remotely honest or ethical to give an employment reference from a lover, without disclosing your relationship? I’ve even occasionally restrained myself from listing references of bosses that have crossed into the “friend” category…

    If “boyfriend” is your idea of a good reference, it’s no surprise that your references are too glowing to be believable- and to then suggest to your readers that they coach their references? Absolutely boggles the mind.

    Alexandra/Jason, you don’t lose jobs because you don’t have reference letters standing by. You lose jobs because you weren’t all that enticing to the employer and they didn’t truly value you as a candidate. Or (given the tone of this blog post and the comments) maybe they saw you as someone working ON their career more than they were, well…working!

    Here’s some more ethical advice: always ASK for references if you respect the person, and do so promptly (ie, exit interview or shortly thereafter. Ask when it FEELS right.) BUT- ask if you can LIST them as a reference, not to write a letter of recommendation- and be sure to ask what contact info they would like to be listed. Then, keep in touch- primarily because you respect the person, secondarily because you want to stay in their mind. If it’s been a while, CALL them (don’t IM or email) and say you’re back on the job hunt, and ask if it’d be OK for prospective employers to contact them. Often times you might get asked for a current copy of your resume, especially if that reference has moved to a new company. Have it ready before you call, and say, “absolutely, I can email it to you soon as we hang up.” If you pause to think before doing so, you weren’t honest enough in your resume, and the other person might wonder if you’re having to re-read the resume for lies.

    When asked for your references, provide them AND briefly describe the working relationship…what company, what kind of work (contracting, long term employment, consulting client, etc.) Saves the other person the trouble of cross-referencing, and smooths their initial conversation with the reference.

    Hiring managers will appreciate on-the-spot comments, candor, and ability to ask what’s important to THEM, more than they will a 1-2 year old gushy letter which talks about how great you are in an area the hiring manager really isn’t concerned about.

    Mike Hobart: how about helping the person with alcoholism, instead of hurting him by giving him a bad reference? Let’s not sugar coat things here- getting that (or any other) job can mean the difference between ending up on the street drinking himself to death, or taking a job and having a friend finally say, “Bob, you’ve got this great job now. Don’t lose it to your drinking. Get yourself some help.” Or when Bob asks if he can list you as a reference, call HIM and say “your drinking is my only concern. What are/have you doing/done about it?”

    Let’s all remember that some of us are just trying to keep the fridge full and the bills paid, not be “careerists.”

  5. stever
    stever says:

    it’s always good to get a friend (that’s quick with the wit) to call your questionable references and pretend they’re from some HR group… just ask the basics about teamwork, working alone — if they ever showed up etc.

    giving a reference should never be something you do with fingers crossed :)

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