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Job Reference Etiquette

Ask Savvy: How to Handle References When My Job Search Is on the DL


Dear Savvy,

I read your recent post on references, and have a question for you about giving prospective employers job references. What is the etiquette if I'm currently employed and actively seeking a new job, but am trying to do it on the DL as not to make it obvious to my current employer that I'm unhappy at the job? Do I give the prospective employer the go-ahead to contact my current employer as a reference, blowing my cover? I don't want to burn any bridges where I am now by having another person contact my boss and ask them about me, especially if I don't get that job.

To see my answer just read more.

A: Your problem is a common one for job seekers who are performing their search in secret. Ideally, you should be able to draw upon references from previous jobs with whom you've stayed in touch, or former employers that gave you positive reviews — they should have those formal documents on file.

If asking co-workers or supervisors from a previous job isn't an option for you, there are ways to tip-toe around the touchy prospect of getting references from people at your current job. Any co-workers that left your company in the last few years would serve as legitimate references, along with any of your current co-workers who you can trust to be discreet with your situation. You can help in that regard by giving prospective employers information that doesn't list your current co-workers' work phone number or email address. Depending on what industry you're in, outside vendors could be a source of referrals for you as well.

When compiling your list of people to ask to act as references, think about who could do the best job answering questions about your work style and ethic, give specific examples of your accomplishments, and describe special skills they know you have. The best reference bank is a list that contains people above you, colleagues and co-workers, people you supervise, and if applicable outside sources like vendors. You should be able to generate a thorough list of references without using your current boss, and your prospective employer will still get a well-rounded picture of your experience.

And no matter who the reference, remember to always ask a prospective reference before listing them. Good luck with your job search!

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