When you're on the short list for the job you'd love to have, the only thing missing to tip the scales in your favor is a positive recommendation from your boss. But if your boss doesn't know you're looking or if you're not sure she'll give a fair, unbiased reference, then you could be out of luck. Not to worry, though, because you could have a few alternatives: colleagues, clients, and former supervisors. In this case, it's not about who you know, but what they -- your referees -- know about your performance.
Outsourcing To Minimize Liability
Many employers are shying away from providing references on current or former employees. They're concerned about the potential exposure from ill-gotten and poorly given references; it's not unheard of for job seekers to file lawsuits against employers whose references somehow cause them to lose out on an offer. To take themselves out of the equation, many companies outsource their employment verification process and restrict the information that potential employers can obtain. They limit references to dates of employment, position, and, in some cases, beginning and ending salary.
Company Policies Tie Supervisors' Hands
Workplace policies that prohibit supervisors from being referees protect the supervisor and the company. Although you're probably better off providing prospective employers with your boss's name, the truth is you might have a hard time getting your current or former supervisor to provide you with a reference. And even if you have a great working relationship with your supervisor, who would do anything to help you succeed, company policy could prohibit her from speaking on your behalf. There's nothing you can do to change that, except think outside the box and get someone else to be your referee.
Consider Colleagues and Clients
An alternative is to provide the name of someone with whom you've worked closely, such as a colleague or a client, who has specific knowledge about your qualifications and the quality of your work. If you provide a colleague's name, be upfront about why you're not listing your boss as a reference. Either it's company policy that prohibits supervisors from giving references or you would feel more comfortable providing the colleague's name, especially if you're still employed by the company and your job search is a secret. Reassure the recruiter or hiring manager who's checking references that your colleague can attest to your qualifications and skills. Another option to consider is a current or former client. Make this Plan B, because you don't want to put the client in an awkward position by asking for permission to list her as one of your references. The only other thing that would prevent you from having a client speak to your work quality is if your employer prohibits contact with clients concerning non-work-related matters, so check the company rules on personal contact between employees and clients.
Supervisors Who Moved On
Another alternative is to find out whether your previous supervisors are still with the company. If not, they're probably no longer bound by that company's policy and can, therefore, give you a reference. Of course, they should disclose that they're not working for the same company. Or you can tell the recruiter that you are providing the name of someone who's familiar with your work, but doesn't work for the company. Even if your former supervisor moved on, it doesn't change what she knows about your work.
Ruth Mayhew has been writing since the mid-1980s, and she has been an HR subject matter expert since 1995. Her work appears in "The Multi-Generational Workforce in the Health Care Industry," and she has been cited in numerous publications, including journals and textbooks that focus on human resources management practices. She holds a Master of Arts in sociology from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Ruth resides in the nation's capital, Washington, D.C.