Ask the Grindstone: Job Reference Etiquette

by Leda Marritz and Stephanie Stern

Hi! I have a question for your Grindstone series: The etiquette with references.

Do you use references from your current job? (No! Then they’d know I’m applying for other jobs and that could create resentment in the workplace that would linger after not getting the job I applied for). How old can references be before they’re not current? Can I use people I’ve never worked with as “character references,” or does everyone know that you’re just putting your best friend on there to say nice things? Every time I apply for a job do I have to warn all my references and re-ask them if they can be my reference?

This is like 60% of the reason I hate applying for new jobs.

Yeah, applying for new jobs can be difficult and demanding (but! You should almost always still do it!). But reference etiquette needn’t be the thing that stands in your way.

We don’t think listing references from your current job is absolutely essential for every job application, but there are situations where you should seriously consider it. We’re thinking of scenarios where you’ve been in your current position for a long time, and/or it’s the one that is the most relevant for the new job you’re applying for. If this is the case, or just if you think you’ve done really great work in your current job and want to make sure that’s recognized by a third party, there are some ways to do it. For example, you could ask a trusted colleague to be your reference — someone you work with, not for, who can commit to keeping your job search confidential. You could also ask someone who you work with closely, but who is not an employee of the company, such as a vendor or consultant (for example, at my company we hire graphic designers who I work with all the time, but they have their own firm). We don’t think it’s professional to submit a character reference unless specifically asked for one.

As far as notifying your references, they are doing you a favor and you want to be considerate of their time and effort. Having said that, we don’t think references need to be notified every time you apply for a job. Set up their expectations by saying something like, “Thanks so much for agreeing to be a reference! I’m starting my job search now but expect that it could take a while to find the right fit. It’s possible you may hear from some potential employers without my realizing it if I get far enough in the hiring process.”

After that, check in every three/four months or so (or whatever would otherwise be standard in the relationship if you weren’t applying for jobs) if the search is ongoing. Make it easy and simple for them; don’t require a response. Give them a heads up if you know you’re getting to the final stages of the application process. And if you do get a new job, write or call them to let them know and to thank them.

One last thought: everything we’ve written here is good to consider if you’re asked for references as part of the application, but our experience is that you can often wait to provide references until after an interview has progressed and you’re a finalist for a position. This cuts down on when you need to notify your references and may simplify your life substantially.

Good luck!

Steph & Leda

“The Grindstone” is a series about how we work today by Billfold writers Leda Marritz and Stephanie Stern. Looking for advice? Want to see a specific issue covered in the future? You can email them here.

Steph Stern works in energy and environmental policy in the San Francisco Bay Area. She writes about careers and life choices at Small Answers (or follow on Twitter: @smallanswers).

Leda Marritz lives in San Francisco. You can read more of her writing at

Photo: Library of Congress

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