Career Tips

Solving the “We Don’t Give References” Problem

By Lisa Parker

A growing number of companies are limiting the information they release in the referencing process. Many of the job seekers I’m working with, who have been laid off from large organizations, struggle to close the deal with a prospective employer because their former employer is so tight lipped. Their former supervisors, who still work with the company, aren’t permitted to give references on their work and human resources will only release dates and titles. Though I understand why references are harder to come by, when prospective employers can’t get meatier information it’s often viewed as a red flag the candidate may be a problem child.

If you’re looking for work and your past employers have reference policies similar to what I’ve described above, there are things you can do.

  1. Contact the human resource department of the company directly and ask if you can submit a letter granting the release of more detailed information and absolving the company of any liability for having done so.
  2. Pull together any copies you have of performance reviews from your time with the company, make copies, and submit those with your reference list to the prospective employer.
  3. If you did not keep copies of your performance reviews, contact your former employer and ask them for copies. They should be part of your personnel file.
  4. Contact individuals no longer with the company who worked closely with you and can speak to your work responsibilities and performance. These individuals aren’t bound by the same restrictions as current employees.
  5. Secure references from individuals from outside of the company who interacted with you regularly. Clients and vendors are often in a great position to speak to your professionalism, creativity, reliability, knowledge, etc.
  6. Probe your professional network to identify mutual contacts between you and members of the prospective company. If a company has to make a hiring decision on you with scant information from a past employer, it’s less of a risk if you can show you aren’t a stranger to the organization. Showing you know some of the same people and having those contacts endorse you gives you insider appeal.

Now that we’ve covered things you can do in this situation, let me close by saying the one thing you should never do. A sure way to set off warning bells in the ears of prospective employers is to roll out this little nugget of information with an “oh well” shoulder shrug…”You can call that company, but they aren’t allowed to give out any information.” That may be a fact, but it gives the impression the candidate is hiding something. Instead, lead with something like, “The company’s reference policy limits what it releases to dates and titles. Since you need more details to make an informed decision on my candidacy, I’ve put together a list of individuals from outside the company who worked directly with me in the past. I also have signed copies of past performance reviews and job descriptions for your benefit.”


Lisa joined the Michigan State University Alumni Association as Director of Alumni Career & Business Services on May 1, 2012. Her primary focus is to develop effective networking and resource channels for experienced alumni interested in professional development and job search strategy assistance. Additionally, Lisa works directly with corporate, education, foundation and government partners seeking to attract qualified talent, retain and develop good employees, and establish collaborative relationships in line with their established goals and objectives.

With 15+ years’ experience in third party recruiting, Lisa offers a balanced understanding of both employee and employer perspectives.

Lisa is a firm advocate of the networking process and considers it a vital element in a successful job search. In addition to helping job seekers develop and best utilize networking contacts, Lisa shares her knowledge and insight-gained aiding corporate recruiting efforts-to give Spartan job seekers an edge in terms of lead sourcing, resume presentation and interview strategy.

Among Lisa’s notable accomplishments: Prima Civitas Foundation Scholar; Michigan Works Association Volunteer of the Year; Pink Slip Mid Michigan Planning Committee; career content blogger.

The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Michigan State University.


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