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Great advice from The Lawyer Whisperer

February 3, 2017
Question

I don’t want to provide my boss as a reference for a job interview. How do I navigate this situation?

answer
Julie Q. Brush

Sometimes two people are just oil and water. It may not be anyone’s fault…necessarily; it may be that you just don’t really click – or see eye to eye on one thing or another. When that other “eye” happens to be your boss’s, it can make for not only a rocky employment period, but the relationship can become a liability come reference-checking time – as a lukewarm or negative review from a former boss will frequently spike a candidacy. So how does a candidate navigate this situation without compromising his/her candidacy?

If you have been asked to provide references as part of a job interview process and do not want to include your current or former boss, the following guidance may be helpful:

By excluding a former boss, you leave a potentially large reference hole for an employer to notice. So my recommendation is to provide at least three references of individuals who not only have worked closely with you, but who are also in a position of power and authority. Those who sit lower on the totem pole won’t cut it and will prove insufficient for even the most lax reference checker. An anemic list will raise flags and spark a deeper level of inquiry. So offer up other senior, meaningful executives to fill the gap.

Which professionals are best to include? For the in house lawyer, anyone at the VP or in the C level suite with whom you work/ed closely (CEO, COO, CFO, CAO, CRO, VP etc.). If you are a junior lawyer, you’ll have slightly more latitude on executive leveling, but not a ton. Director/Senior Director may suffice depending on your organization and working relationship. Provide at least two of these reference types from your current/most recent company and at least one from a second employer. What about a peer or someone you’ve managed? These profiles can be adequate references (supply only one though) as long as you have at least two to three others at a higher/executive level. For the law firm lawyer, clients and other partners who know your work are best (current firm or a mix of current and past employers).

But sometimes, regardless of how impressive your references are an employer will inquire about the omission of a current/former boss. If you encounter this situation, be calm, answer the question and avoid a defensive posture. Below are a few sample responses:

  • “I wanted to put together a list of references that reflected professionals with whom I worked closely and could speak to the intricacies of my expertise as well as my personality. This group is great in that you’ll get a deep level of understanding about me as a professional. I didn’t feel that including my former boss would provide as strong of value as the others.”
  • “I appreciate that your time is valuable so I only wanted to provide references of people who would provide the deepest insight into my abilities and personality. This is the best list, which I think will be very informative and helpful.”
  • “I’ve put together a list of references that represents the people who know my work and who share a similar outlook and values. This list most effectively represents that and I think you’ll find their insights valuable.”
  • “I didn’t include my boss on my reference list because our styles are different and didn’t mesh well. My style is collaborative with a value on open communication and mutual support whereas my boss was less communicative and functioned better in an environment of conflict. This role is more aligned with how I work best so I didn’t think his/her feedback would be as valuable as my other references.”

When providing a recruiter or employer with your references, you can also choose to take a proactive approach and include the following statement:

  • “I’ve provided a list of references that are diverse. Each person possesses a unique perspective on me as a professional. I’ve worked closely with all of them so I think you’ll find their opinions valuable. Please feel free to contact any of these people at your convenience.”

In a perfect world, we’d all enjoy a blissful, harmonious relationship with our bosses. But unfortunately we don’t live in a perfect world. At times, differences and friction dominate the professional relationship, and place those seeking greener pastures in a predicament during the reference check phase of an interview process. For those job seekers who wish to exclude a boss as a listed supporter but want to successfully manage the risks of doing so, the information and advice above will provide greater clarity and confidence as you move through the final step of the interviewing process and in the best of worlds…over the finish line.

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