References — Who To Ask When You’ve Only Had One Job

Job References: Who To Ask When You've Only Had One Job | CorporetteReader L has an excellent question about references when you haven’t been working long…

I’ve been at my current job for three years come March. It is my first job post-college, aside from a six-month internship. I am looking to leave. While the actual place of employment and coworkers are fine, I don’t enjoy what I do and dislike the city. I am looking for a new job, but I hit always hit a hurdle: references. My coworkers do not know I am looking for a new job, so I can’t use them as references. Since this is my first job, who can I ask?

Ah, the who-to-get-for-my-reference question. The easy answer here, of course, is to ask all of those professors from college and grad school who loved you well for your witty class participation/office hour banter. If you were on the quieter side, it’s simple: buy a time machine!  (Pictured: two businessmen shaking hands, originally uploaded to Flickr by MyTudut.)

In all seriousness, I would say that for a junior position, the primary thing you should worry about for a reference is to find someone (preferably several someones) who can speak to the skills you’ll use for the job you’re applying for.  Know also that a) interviewers only get to the references near the end of the process, so you shouldn’t need to give someone references when you’re applying (just say “Available upon request” on your resume or wherever they ask for them).  B) LOTS of junior people are in your exact position re: lack of references, so it’s ok to get a bit creative with references.

Professors are great for references — at least one person must have supervised your thesis, or helped you get your internship or job.  I would also say that it’s ok to go to some of your current coworkers, if certain conditions apply.  First, this should be something that you only approach them about *after* you’ve had the Dream Job Interview — as in, you’re still a candidate and the interviewer wants references.  Second, you should hopefully go to someone who has a mentoring relationship to you already.  No one expects junior workers to stay around forever, and if you can handle this conversation it says a lot about your professionalism.

If that fails, here are some other places to turn:

a) Coworkers Who’ve Left For Greener Pastures. Come on, in three years at your job someone must have left — get in touch with them pronto.  Take them to lunch, talk about how incredibly thankful you are for the opportunity, and ask their advice for about a) how to advance in your current position and b) where else you should be looking.  After they’ve delivered the advice, if you worked with them *at all*, ask them to serve as a reference for you.  If you worked in totally different departments, though, ask them how you should handle the reference situation — they may know the personalities in your office enough to say that “X served as a great reference for Z and Y,” or even “do not ask A, because they royally screwed B and C.”

b) Supervisors from Internships — For your six-month internship, who supervised you? Don’t feel obligated to get the “top” person at your job to refer you — anyone who was senior to you and supervised you can serve as a reference. Even if you only worked somewhere for a few weeks or months, if someone there will remember your name and be able to speak to your working skills, they’re a fit.

c) Supervisors from Other Careers — Let’s say you waited tables at Applebee’s for almost every summer. There are still people more senior to you who can speak to your skillset — your punctuality, your attention to detail, your way with the customers.  For these kinds of references, I wouldn’t be afraid to do a lot of coaching — as in, tell them what skills or stories you’re hoping they remember about you, then meet with them to talk about those skills or stories and how they apply to your prospective job, and then email them again to thank them for meeting you for lunch and remind them again what skills you hope they can tell someone calling to serve as a reference.

d) Supervisors from Extracurricular Activities — Were you a junior reporter on your school paper?  Ask your editor to serve as a reference.  They may not have been a “work colleague” in the strict sense, but they can still speak to your skills and personality.  Similarly, if you’ve been doing a lot of volunteer work in the past 3 years, ask some of the people who know you through that.

Be sure to clearly ask all of these folks if they’re willing to serve as a reference, and when they agree, feel free to send them an e-mail thanking them.  If they’re a slightly distant connection, remind them what skills they’ve witnessed.  You can even say something like, “I enjoyed working with you on project X, and hope that when I helped come up with the solution for problem Y that did a lot to showcase my tenacity, my creativity, and my attention to detail.”  Finally, you may want to send them this article, depending on the person (and the job you’re applying for).

Readers, who served as your references in your early years? What advice do you have for Reader L?


  1. Anyone who is ready to check your references has already decided to hire you – at that point, the references are a formality. Any place that asks for references early in the process will understand “I’m leaving my first job out of school, and I prefer not to let them know I’m looking elsewhere until we’re further along in the process.”

    • Totally agree here with ADS; I was in the same boat as reader L above. When asked for my references, I told the HR person, this is my first professional job out of college, therefore you won’t be getting the current names of my direct supervisor. However, I am going to give you x, y, and z. As Kat mentions above, I used someone who supervises me in my extra curricular activities (a volunteer role) as well as a past immediate supervisor who had since moved away. I did send all of my references my resume and cover letter, to have them up to date on my current activities.

  2. Anon here :

    Quick somewhat related question. I am thinking of applying for a public position (hired, not elected.) Example: attorney to a town or police department. At what point do you think they go public with the names of candidates. I don’t want my current job to know I am looking because I am happy here and the application is a total reach. I know it would be public if I was one of the top 3 or something but I don’t want my name in the paper just for applying. Thoughts?

    • I would ask them before you send in your resume.

    • Don’t know your situation but in my state, all applications are public record. In my particular city, which has had a lot of public corruption scandals lately, the newspapers have been scouring applications of late and publishing lots of stories, which I have to say has made me wonder if I could ever dare to apply for one of those positions if something in my wheelhouse came up.

    • I’d ask them. However, if you’re at a firm, they might not be upset that you’ve thrown your hat in the ring for this kind of job if it’s a fairly competitive job. Firms tend to tout their “alumni” who land government appointments.

  3. Beyond supervisors/bosses, think of using clients, vendors, or coworkers as references. For example, when I worked at a start-up I used the attorneys from an outside law firm as references. I had counterparts I had been doing business with at other institutions and they were willing to serve as references as well.

    • Exactly — anyone outside your company may be an appropriate reference. For example, if you were on an industry committee, or worked in a coalition, you could use someone there as a reference who could say “yes, she attended all of the meetings, was an active participant, really contributed to the discussion, very articulate.”

      • microentrepreneur :

        A related thought–professional associations. Not only are they good for building connections, they can be excellent as references if you worked on a committee, served on a task force, or organized an event.

        • I didn’t want my employers at the time to know I was interviewing, so I asked other attorneys who I had had cases against and a judge I appeared in front of frequently to be references. I imagine most people you are interviewing with will understand why you don’t want to use your current employer as a reference.

  4. The other piece of advice I have heard (and agree with) is asking people in such a way that they can say no if they know they don’t have good things to say. I’ve been asked to write a letter of recommendation for someone who was not entirely worth recommending, and it’s not a pleasant thing to do.

    A family friend of mine was known for his I’d-really-rather-not-recommend-you-but-you-asked-and-so-I-will phrase: “when you know x like we know x, you’ll feel the same way about her that we do.” Funny as long as it isn’t being written about you! :)

    • I had a thesis supervisor who would remind his students to ask if someone would give them a *good* reference. I noticed, though, that when he asked if he could give my contact information to future prospective students who had questions about him, he never bothered to ask if I would give him a good reference. He probably should have, because it wasn’t entirely a good reference.

      • Ha! But would you have told him that if he’d asked? Seems like a bridge you wouldn’t want to burn.

    • I have told interns I would prefer not to write their rec. letters.
      I think it’s a disservice to write a half-hearted letter (or worse) if there is someone who might say nicer things. I usually say something like, “I would be glad to write the letter if you need me to do so, but there are probably others who are more qualified and know you better. If not, let me know. Best of luck.”

      If you are doing the asking, it may be helpful to ask to meet with the reference-provider. Even someone who regards you highly may need a little help knowing what to say, esp. if they are in a different industry from the one you’re applying in. So many reference-seekers get nervous about asking and so relieved to secure a “yes,” that they never actually take the time to coordinate a plan with their references that will get them the best possible feedback (esp. true with letters!).

      • I will remember that phrasing going forward! Seems like a great way to be direct without being hurtful.

        The one less-than-stellar recommendation I wrote was for someone who wasn’t great at their job but whom I could see doing well in the program to which he was applying. So, while it wasn’t the most glowing appraisal, it was optimistic.

        This reminds me of one other thing: I think it’s courteous to let your references know the end result of whatever you applied for. Do you all think this depends on whether or not your application was successful?

        • I agree! I think the tendency is to only mention good results, if at all… But I think it may be even more helpful to let your references know that something didn’t pan out. I have friends who reached out to say, “thank you for your time. unfortunately I didn’t get the clerkship/whatever. But, I hope I can use as a reference in the future…,” and then had the reference giver offer to connect them with someone else who helped them get a job, or offer to do a mock interview, etc.

  5. Contract Attorney :

    I pretty much use peer references these days, and I am a peer reference myself. This includes former classmates (who are now professionals) and co-workers.
    This is necessary because some firms have policies against providing references for temps.

  6. A trusted mentor at your current job who is truly cares about your success will be willing to serve as a reference and will keep her mouth shut with other coworkers. I have one colleague who happily wrote a letter of recommendation for me (didn’t get the job), and then happily recommended me for an internal promotion (got the job). She’d never breathe a word about my having looked elsewhere because she cared about my career advancement, not just company loyalty.

    Beyond that, references do not have to be senior people or supervisors. I have actually served as a reference for people who were senior to me. It just has to be someone who knows your work and personality well and often a subordinate or same-level colleague will actually know much more than a supervisor. Law school classmates who know your work intimately, such as a fellow journal editor, moot court teammate or club co-chair also make good references.

    What you don’t want to do is ask someone who doesn’t know you that well just because you don’t know who else to ask. If you only were an intern for a couple of months, your supervisor isn’t going to be able to provide a thorough reference. Ask someone who’s worked with you closely for at least half a year, maybe a bit less depending on the level of intensity of your work (i.e. colleague who co-chaired a three-month trial with you is probably a good reference).

    Hope this helps.

  7. I recently switched jobs from private sector to public sector and had to provide references very early in the application process fully knowing that my references would be contacted as part of a rather vigorous and very systemic application process. And, because I have been at my firm for 10 years, I really had very few people outside my firm who could be my professional references (certainly it was too late to be contacting law school professors).

    So, I went to a former colleague of mine who left for greener pastures and who was happy to be one of my references, and then had to make a difficult decision to tell a couple of partners within my firm that I was applying for this position. I knew that while they would be disappointed to see me leave, they cared enough about me and my career to provide recommendations and keep this information confidential for the rest of the firm until I knew the result. And, since I was not going to another firm, but switching career tracks entirely, it was easier to explain to them that while I loved working with them and in my firm in general (which I did), I wanted to do something different. They were difficult conversations to have, but it worked out, and they ended up giving me great references.

  8. My husband just took a new job after working at his current position for 5+ years. It seemed weird to ask for refs from his past job since it had been such a long time since he’d worked there. In his case, he asked his would-be employers if it was OK to hold off on the references until they were ready to make an offer. Once it was clear that he was their prime (only) candidate, he asked his current coworkers. He did not use his supervisors as references. Everything turned out fine. A decent person does not resent someone for wanting a better position, another city, etc.

    Digression – my former grad school advisor, if called upon to provide a ref for someone who was not a great student, would make the reference letter short and vague: “[Applicant Name] was a graduate student in my laboratory from [date] to [date]. Please call me at [phone number] if you would like further information.” For whatever reason (libel?), he was very careful NEVER to put anything negative in writing.

    Incidentally, if you are coming right out of school and DON’T list your mentor/advisor because you had a bad relationship, your potential employer usually can sniff that out, too. I can think of one person who deliberately omitted our boss from his ref list, and the boss was contacted immediately and asked, “Why did so-and-so not include you in his references?” Oooh, and thus the can of worms was opened…

    • Yes, this is very important. If you specifically don’t include people as references, they may get called anyway. This happened to a friend of mine recently.

      It just pays to be good to EVERYONE.

      I think it’s fantastic advice to talk to past employees of your firm/company. I hadn’t thought of that. And someone from a volunteer/community activity would be good, too. (I still think of those as “extra-curricular activities.”)

  9. My company doesn’t allow us to provide any reference information about past or present firm employees; we can only direct those doing reference checks to HR and HR will only confirm dates of employment. I believe this is an increasingly common practice. If your current employer has such a policy, citing it might be one possible “out.”

    From Kat’s post:
    “at least one person must have supervised your thesis, or helped you get your internship or job.”

    I just wanted to note that my first job out of college didn’t require any assistance from professors, or anyone for that matter, and it was with a large, legit firm. (Though I had applied for some research fellowships and other things that required letters while in school, so I would have been able to find someone. But just saying. :-))

    • I would say that was the norm for most of the people I knew when I finished college. Granted this was some time ago, but at a large public university, it is pretty easy to go through college without developing close relationships with any professors. It’s one thing to ask for letters while in school, but a year or two out in that sort of situation and you are in trouble.

  10. I have never been in a situation where I was asked for a reference because all of my jobs have been gotten through personal connections. But I have employed many, many people. I think employers are concerned about personal traits – honesty, dependability. Skills can always be learned or improved. So what about getting a reference from someone you used to babysit for, or from you father’s boss who watched you grow up – i.e., from people who really know you but are not personal friends.

  11. I would love some advice on a professional situation that is making me feel like an intern, not an attorney. Short background is this– 2 partners in our firm, I mostly work for the female partner in criminal defense and now family law. They are moving me into the family law and out of the criminal defense now that I am back from maternity leave.

    So far, I’ve sat in the courtroom for one divorce trial, am sitting in the courtroom tomorrrow for the continuation of the trial, and have nothing at all to do during that trial. I am basically following Partner around like a puppy waiting to be told what to do. I feel weak and stupid. I’ve been in her office daily asking for work and have been given some, but waiting in the courtroom makes me feel weak. Any suggestions on how to improve my situation/image?

    • I would try show as much interest as possible in the trial – ask if you can do specific things that need preparing for the trial – it might be difficult if you don’t know what needs to be done – so maybe ask for guidance from someone mid-level for how this partner likes to be prepared (since it doesn’t sound like your general requests for work are panning out). OR suggest specific tasks relevant to the case: helping prepare witnesses, reviewing depositions for witnesses, outlining direct testimony, thinking of possible motions in limine, motions for directed verdict, jury instructions, etc… Thank her for the opportunity to observe. Ask pointed questions about what is going on. IT’s probably too late for this trial, but tell her you would like the opportunity to examine witnesses, do openings / closing, argue motions. Be bold in seeking meaningful work.

    • Did you do anything regarding this case before you left for maternity leave? Have you read the pleadings, depos and discovery responses? If not, you may want to use some of the time in the courtroom to do just that. Then I would make a list of observations and questions as you go through the trial (mentally or on paper) that you can discuss with the partner afterwards. Even if they don’t make a point of talking to you, ask them to go to lunch or for a few minutes of their time in the near future to talk about your observations. It sounds to me like you’re not very far into your career, so good topics for questions could be why did she/he use certain exhibits with certain witnesses, what were their techniques on cross, anything that comes up with objections to exhibits or testimony, or the theme of the opening/closing. Obviously tailor them to your trial and situation.

      I know you feel like less of an attorney by being asked to follow the partner around, but I’ve done some of my best learning just watching other partners try cases. Definitely take the other commenters advice about offering to help or suggesting ways to involve yourself, but don’t look at this opportunity as a bad thing necessarily either.

  12. L--The Submitter :

    Wow! I’ve been so busy at work I haven’t had a chance to catch up on my Google Reader…I check Corprette and there’s my question!

    Thanks for all the advice. My job hunt is paused at the moment. My focus for the next 3 months is planning my wedding! This is also a busy time at work. The 10-12 hour days on top of wedding planning and daily life have pushed me to the edge.

    • I recently married and feel your pain. Three words of advice: hire a planner. I didn’t have that much money to shell out, but the headaches spared and the money she helped me save were worth every penny. Also assign appropriate tasks to your spouse-to-be (such as rounding up his and his parents’ invite list/addresses). Also remember that as long as there is good food, drink, music and people, everyone will have a ball. You could have it in a barn or the Four Seasons, and I bet that would hold true. Best wishes!

  13. As a former full-time and current part-time professor, who has had several thousand students, both undergrad and masters, pass through my classrooms, I probably would not remember anyone — even a great student — after several years.

    For those who are currently in school: If you think you will want to use a professor as a reference beyond the current semester (plus three to six months), stay in touch! A quick note or email, a comment about how something you learned in the class applies to your work, a “congrats” if the prof publishes an article, etc.

    • somewherecold :

      Along those lines, if you are currently in school and think you will want a letter of reference from a professor, you can ask for it while you are still their student or right after you finish working with them. They can either keep the letters themselves or send them to your school’s career/clerkship/etc. office to hold onto until you need them. Even if they want to update the letter before it’s sent, the substance of what they would say about their experience working with you is already there.

      If you are out of school and want to get a reference from a professor, I would send them a copy of an assignment you did for them (with their comments if possible) as well as your resume and cover letter after they agree to serve as a reference for you.

      • I’ve also reconnected with some professors on facebook. You have to keep your facebook profile clean (which you should be doing anyway), but they like reconnecting with alumni, because it brings potential donations to the school. And it keeps you on their radar if you ever need a reference.

  14. Do you know any current or former employees who are in good standing at the place(s) you’re applying? If not, maybe you could ask for an informational interview to get your foot in the door at your ideal place(s).

    Good luck!

  15. Mille – you are so lucky you are being trained – most small firms simply hand and attorney a folder and tell her to go to court. It sounds to me as though you are not really interested in domestic relations law. Maybe that is the problem. Watching another lawyer try a case or argue a motion is incredibly beneficial, whatever the skill level of the lawyer being observed. Your firm is making an investment in you….

  16. I have a related question. I’ve been thinking of starting to submit my resume for a change of jobs in the next year or so. I’m at my second job out of school. Would it be odd to not include any references from my first job? I have some good options for references from my current job, actually. My first job, however — not so much. Although I think people there would say my work product was of quality, I admittedly slacked off a decent amount before I left there, which was noticed negatively, and then they took it personally when I left. I’ve since seen my old supervisor and coworkers at professional events, and it’s been awkward (not of my doing, I think, but of theirs). FWIW, I was at my first job for 2 yrs, and I’ve been at my second one for about 2.5 already.

  17. I just started a new job a few weeks ago. I’m in a different field of work than most of the Corporette readers (nonprofit – was doing direct service with homeless, now doing fundraising) but I think in general the job-interviewing process is relatively the same across sectors. For the interview at my current job, I met with the CEO and the only reference he wanted was my current supervisor. She did not know I was at an interview that morning so she was surprised when I came back to the office and had to 1. break the news and 2. ask her to be a reference. As far as I know, the only question he asked her was if she would hire me again. I’ve never heard of this happening to anyone else! He indirectly told me I got the job so I didn’t feel too nervous when I had to talk to my (then) current supervisor.

    I’ve also used families I babysit for as references, too. There’s one family who I have know for about three years, and built a good relationship with. Though it’s a different kind of “work,” they knew me well and, having been in the working world for 20+ years, I knew they would say the right things about me when asked.

    • sixdayzies :

      Hi. I am considering putting someone that I babysit for on my reference list, but what is the proper title for this person? “Current employer” seems very formal. Thanks.

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