Awkward reference quandry... how to proceed?
June 25, 2012 7:54 PM   Subscribe

It it unwise to bank on a prospective employer not calling my references unless I am interviewed? I'm applying for a job that is admittedly a long shot, and I’d rather not call and ask people to be my references unless I am actually in the running (for various snowflake reasons detailed at length within). Is it a horrendous faux pas to list references without asking their permission, if I'm fairly certain I won’t get called for an interview? On the other hand, is it a horrendous faux pas not to send references with my resume and cover letter, when the job posting specifically asks for them?

I don't want to call my references because I am not actively "job hunting"; I am an ABD grad student and still want to try to finish my dissertation, even though I no longer want to work in academia. However, I found a job opening for what is basically my dream job, for which I would leave my program in a second. It’s a long shot because I don’t have the experience they are asking for, but I will make the case in my cover letter that my experience in grad school transfers over. The job posting asks for the names and phone numbers of three references.

I don’t want to ask anyone in my department for a reference because I don’t want them to know I am looking for work. One of my committee members, for whom I was also a research assistant, has previously agreed to be a reference for a funding opportunity I applied for, so I assume he would agree again—but it would be terrible if he knew I was applying for a job (unless I was about to be offered the job, of course). There are just a lot of weird politics going on: I’m having some issues with my committee chair, am not making good progress and don’t have much funding left, and so my status in the program is a little rocky to say the least. I don’t want to rock the boat by letting people know that I'm thinking of leaving, partly because I’m afraid they will take that as their cue to push me out, and I really don’t want to leave with no job lined up—I would be completely fucked and living in a cardboard box by year's end.

That said, I don’t really have three references from outside of school. I could probably come up with three names, and I know they would say yes, but they wouldn’t be great references because they're all from 2005-2006, when I was just out of undergrad, and they're unrelated to the job I'm applying for. Furthermore, it’s so incredibly awkward to contact them after such a long time that I would rather not do so until I am actively looking for work and applying for multiple positions. I dread trying to explain my current situation, and since none of them are academics, they’re not going to understand how it is that I’ve been in grad school for six years and haven’t “graduated,” and am now applying for some random unrelated job, but am not actually leaving grad school… it makes me cringe just imagining the conversations/email exchanges.

The consensus from this previous AskMe is that references are usually not called until after the interview, but not always—some people reported having their references called but never getting interviewed (WTF!). After reading that, I have pretty much decided against putting anyone from my program as a reference, just in case, but I would still like to put my non-academic references without asking them until I have more reason to do so. Would that amount to professional suicide? Thanks and apologies for the super long (and, I'm sure, annoying) post.
posted by désoeuvrée to Work & Money (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I think it's fine to just say "on request"
posted by spbmp at 7:58 PM on June 25, 2012

Just put "references supplied on request" in your cv and cross the bridge if you come to it.
posted by smoke at 8:07 PM on June 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

But didn't they already kind of "request" them in the job posting? I assumed that since they specifically asked for references with the resume, it would be obnoxious to put "available on request," or it would seem like I hadn't read the instructions. Maybe I was wrong... That would certainly make things a lot simpler.
posted by désoeuvrée at 8:25 PM on June 25, 2012

IIRC, it's actually illegal for potential employers to contact your references before an interview. 'references available upon request' is standard.
posted by sexyrobot at 8:25 PM on June 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

On one hand, there's a rule that you should never list someone without asking that person if they'd be willing to serve as a reference. On the other hand, I can't tell you how many times I've heard of people losing out on job opportunities (or starting out in the process at a disadvantage) because they didn't follow the instructions in the job ad.

I think you have to judge which risk you'd rather take. Would you rather lose face if this job called references (and risk getting a less-than-stellar reference because the person was unprepared)? Or would you rather risk pissing off the hiring manager because you didn't do as they ask?

Generally, I favor not listing references on your CV nor saying that they're available "upon request" (of course they're available upon request; there's no need to take up space on your CV saying that). In this case, since they're specifically asked for, I think you need to weigh what you want to do carefully.
posted by Betelgeuse at 8:26 PM on June 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

It is extremely unusual for references to be checked until an offer is about to be made.
posted by bitdamaged at 8:27 PM on June 25, 2012

sexyrobot: Really?! "illegal"? Which law would it be breaking?

I'm not trying to be snarky. I'd actually like to know.
posted by Betelgeuse at 8:27 PM on June 25, 2012

It's conceivable that they may discount applications that do not include the requested references. But it's perfectly appropriate for you to explain briefly in your cover letter that your references will be people associated with your graduate program; and because you haven't decided to leave your graduate program, you will make references available after mutual interest has been established.

Not having the experience they've specified is probably more of an obstacle to getting an interview than withholding the references would be. You need to write one hell of a cover letter!
posted by Snerd at 8:35 PM on June 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

i believe i read it in one of those 'build a better resume' books...IIRC it has to do with employment law...say you put your current job as a reference and they call them without making you an offer could quite likely end up with NO jobs. that would be the why of it...
posted by sexyrobot at 8:38 PM on June 25, 2012

1. People overstate on the requirements all the time. Don't let that get you down. (Seriously - last job we posted in my dept, we had 10 "requirements" best candidate had _7_ and was too expensive. Person we hired had _3_ and the worst resume I've ever seen.)

2. I would do everything I could not to put one of my committee members down as a reference. Shit is crazy enough in the endgame of a PhD without something weird going on with one of your committee members.
posted by ansate at 9:12 PM on June 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

sexyrobot: IIRC, it's actually illegal for potential employers to contact your references before an interview.

Horseshit. Stupidity like this is right up there with "references can't give anything except the dates of employment" and "it's illegal to give negative feedback during a reference call."

désoeuvrée, you're right, they've asked for your references in the posting. Send them along. In this market, you need to make sure you're not removing yourself from consideration for ignoring stuff like this. It's very unusual for a potential employer to check your references until after at least one interview, so I think you have a grace period before you need to notify people you'll be using them as a reference.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 5:01 AM on June 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

If the posting requires references, then you need to provide them. In many cases your resume won't make it out of the pile without them.

Now, it doesn't say they're professional refrerences or personal references. Do you know people who are fellow adults, but not in your immediate program, who could be a good reference?

I usually list my friends, folks I've known from work, but who have become my close friends. They can speak to my abilities, but they're my buds.

Honestly, you've been in academia too long and you're taking this way too literally. This should not be a stumbling block. You don't need someone to discuss at length your academic career. You need someone who can attest that you aren't an axe murderer and that you won't abscond with the church funds.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:12 AM on June 26, 2012

Also, for me it would be a plus knowing that you're not actively job hunting but are willing to leave your program only for this perfect job. It makes you stand out from all the people who are sending resumes everywhere.

I assume you'll put that in your cover letter. You can use the reference page as an opportunity to reinforce the point by adding, under the three personal references as suggested by Ruthless Bunny, a note along the lines of:

"This is the only position for which I would consider leaving my current program. Because I am not in an active job search, I have not included references from my current program. I will be pleased to provide them should I become a finalist (or serious candidate, or words of your choice) for this position.
posted by evilmomlady at 6:45 AM on June 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

I've been in this situation, and it's been fine for the prospective employer to contact some references before an offer, but not others. In that situation, I've done this:



Please do not contact the following references without notifying me in advance (or similar language):


This approach allows you to follow the job posting's instructions, but not put your current job in jeopardy.
posted by craven_morhead at 7:23 AM on June 26, 2012

If the posting requires references, you need to give them references. However, your references sound questionable and unreliable and you shouldn't be giving references who don't know they might be called either. If your position is rocky, can they even give good references? Additionally, what if you didn't get the job anyway?

But I think your best bet would be Snerd's advice.
posted by sm1tten at 7:31 AM on June 26, 2012

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