What to do if you don’t have referees

by K B , updated on April 8, 2011

If you’ve been out of the workplace for a while or changed jobs a lot you may have trouble supplying recent referees. You may even be concerned about the type of reference you’ll receive. Many people have had bosses they don’t trust and jobs that are just rubbish. First step, don’t panic. I get this question a lot. There are ways upon ways around this little dilemma. Here are few things that I know have worked.

How hard have you looked for them?

At the risk of sounding like my Mum did when I said I’d lost something, just how hard have you really looked? How many people are on Facebook now? Is it 500 million? How many degrees of separation are there? Six, five, four? Think Google and think laterally. Then proceed with caution. If you do decide to approach someone who may know someone on Facebook, just be respectful of their privacy and don’t demand that they help. Not everyone likes to be approached this way.

Alternative referees

If you can’t provide a reference and the recruiter seemingly won’t budge, be helpful. Don’t let the conversation stop there. Explain why you can’t supply referees and skip the BS. Good consultants are not silly and will have heard a variation of the excuses you can think  you can get away with. Ask the recruiter to ask the employer what they would accept as an alternative. I’ve heard job seekers who have provided recent performance reviews. I’ve heard other people negotiate a longer probationary period.

There are alternatives as well. Some employers still will accept character references from other areas of your life such as teachers, lecturers, clients, customers, colleagues, suppliers and referees from voluntary work or sporting teams.

How to and when to bring it up

State that you have no referees at the start of the recruitment process you risk sounding defensive. This is the last impression you want to create. At the end of the interview explain your dilemma. Explain also the work you have done to find your referees. You don’t want the recruiter to think you are covering something up.

You may not be asked for a reference

Recruiters and employers will not tell you this, but it happens a lot. I was once hired by a recruitment consultancy who did not ask me for a reference. If you impress during a job interview and the employer is really keen (or desperate) to take you on, the question of references might not come up. You’ll just be hired.

One place I worked took me on quickly but then put into my letter of offer that my employment was subject to successful reference checks, which they never undertook. We both got busy – I did a good job and my employer forgot the whole reference issue.

I once recruited for a small business. The owner insisted I didn’t do a reference. She said they were rubbish. Watch this clip for a funny take on how people get around this question. It’s a plug for their business, but funny just the same.

The thing I’ve found in my years as a recruiter is that if an employer wants you badly enough, they’ll find a way to take you on, references or no references.


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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Craig Beechey October 28, 2010 at 6:02 am

It is very rare now with modern ‘find it’ technology (aka Google) that somebody can disappear from the face of the earth. If there is somebody out there, a previous boss that you have reported to that can give you a good wrap and you have lost contact with, make it your mission to hunt them down and include them on your reference list.
Another piece of advice I would give is to make sure that your referee is a good referee. Make them aware that they are on your reference list and to expect a phone call from a person that can make or break your career. I have referenced people from their referee list, that let’s say…should never have been present on their list in the first place…(“well, the best thing he ever did was a really good burnout in the carpark on the day he left” comes to mind)
Do not take it for granted that your recruiter, agent or prospective future employer will not reference you. Take it as given – most employers believe that the best indicator of future performance is past behaviour, so wisely appoint your referees and tee them up to the fact that they will be contacted.
If you truly have no referees of worth and you really feel a fit with the company and the role on offer, then extend the tongue to the tune of something like “I have no former referees, I am hoping that in the future you could be a good referee, but I am even more hoping that I will not need it because I want to work for this company forever”….or something of the like.
When it comes down to it, referee(s) or not, you have to sell yourself into the job. You will have a probation period which you can offer to extend in the absence of referees and the confidence in your ability. The day you clock on, all and any referees are null and void, and the rest – that is your future, is up to you.

Leah Gibbs, Business Manager, Lifestyle Careers October 28, 2010 at 5:22 pm

Great information here Karalyn and that video is hilarious

karalyn October 29, 2010 at 2:09 pm

Thanks Leah. It is close to the bone isn’t it!

karalyn October 29, 2010 at 2:16 pm

Hi Craig, It’s true that it is hard to disappear, but you’d be amazed at how many people ask me this question. I think one of the issues is that people are a bit reluctant or embarrassed to track down referees, especially if they are not sure of the reception they’ll receive. Makes me think there is a whole other blog post in there.

You’re last line is very true. The day you clock on, it’s up to you. Love it.

Eug November 2, 2010 at 2:27 am

Hi Karalyn, thanks for information however at first place you have to put some referees into your resume to get to the point of an interview, and I found that if I put something like “referees are provided upon request” I do not even get selected for the interview…At which point an employer will check referees? after the interview?

Karalyn November 2, 2010 at 4:52 am

Hi there,
Some places check before your interview, but they do need to get your permission first. I’ve seem this happen in government roles. Mostly it’s at the end of the interview, if they like you or are just being polite. I tend not to put references on a resume and put “upon request” That hasn’t gotten in the way of people getting interviews. I do that as I want people to be in control of the discussion and I have heard of inexperienced recruiters calling the referee without permission.


Craig Beechey, Principal Consultant, All Manufacturing Careers November 3, 2010 at 4:30 pm

Correct Karalyn! Some inexperienced recruiters do check references without your permission – which is actually in breach of the Privacy Act. Other unscrupulous recruiters will just use your references as contacts for marketing calls and don’t even mention you. By law, recruiters need your permission to release any details about you to their clients, including your resume. My advice is to use the “upon request” as in normal circumstances reference checking is at the end of the recruiting process. This is why it is important to make sure your referees are good ones because generally speaking, you would have advanced through the qualifying and interviews stages and are close to being offered a job. A bad reference can bring this all crashing down.

4danj November 17, 2010 at 6:45 am

@InterviewIQ Then I guess you can’t play the game. Sorry, the term caught my eye. http://nicecallref.com/?c=1

InterviewIQ November 17, 2010 at 6:30 am

What to do if you don’t have referees #jobhunt http://interviewiq.com.au/what-to-do-if-

InterviewIQ November 17, 2010 at 10:23 am

@4danj Very funny!

Citizen Clone February 9, 2011 at 8:37 pm

I never give recruiters my referees on a first date. Seriously I have lost some good referees because of the constant hounding they received form recruiters who I had done an online application for. I was silly enough to have referees details on my CV.
I don’t trust recruiters at all. Been to “interviews” which turn out to be nothing more than a way to get me on their books or to find that the recruiter has gone to lunch, or is too busy and gets another recruiter to do the face 2 face. Many don’t even have the job to offer in the first place.
People just need to be a bit more proactive at asking the recruiter questions. Remember you’re not there to be interrogated and made to feel that you have something to answer for, the recruiter has put the ad out, they are the one who needs to answer the questions. I had one that actually refused to give me information as to who the employer was until I gave my referee details. I couldn’t even find out the the pay rates. Well as you can imagine i laughed to myself, thanked the jerk for their time and left.
You need to be on your toes and don’t let yourself be pushed around by recruiters most of the time they have less of a clue about the position than you think.

Ivana February 20, 2012 at 5:09 pm

Im having this very problem. Worked in soo many places ‘voluntary’ more than ‘paid’ and i can count on one hand all the references i have received. Finding out the rest have moved abroad i dont know what to do! I’ve gone to agencies to all sorts and im still with no job after 9months. Because they tell me the ones i have got are not up to standard, like seriously what do they expect me to do tell them to write me a serious reference when they are somewhere around the world i cant get hold of. This really is pulling my hair out! I would of thought they do trials??

Lavanya (@corp2corp6) (@corp2corp6) November 5, 2012 at 11:54 pm

What to do if you don’t have #referees
http://t.co/amJ7E4oL #career #blog #usjobs #article #jobseekers

Jessy (@jessy_jesse) (@jessy_jesse) November 5, 2012 at 11:54 pm

What to do if you don’t have #referees
http://t.co/NVd8LEcw #career #blog #usjobs #article #jobseekers

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