How to handle giving personal references... when you don't know anyone?
May 22, 2007 12:44 PM   Subscribe

How to handle giving personal references... when you don't know anyone?

So - I've a interview tomorrow for a pretty sweet position that involves being around large amounts of cash [processing notes for a security company]. So it stands to reason there'll be a background check and I also have to give a 10 year work history. The fun part is that I need to give three personal references - not family and not work related. I only have to give their addresses [well, that's what the nice lady said on the phone] and not a contact number. The only problem is, I don't know three people.

I'm 24 - after high school I got in a controlling and isolating relationship that effectively lost me all my school friends. When I got out of that relationship, I threw myself into work for two years straight [and a work-at-home position, no less], so socialising was at the end of my agenda. Sure I have friends I know online, but yeah, internet acquaintances doesnt look too good as a reference for this position.

So what should I do? I'm really grasping for straws here - like my sister has a different surname to mine, I could put her down and make her pretend she's a friend [yeah, she owes me enough money that I could make that work]. I've been thinking of using my old school principal - but I havent spoken to her in... over 5 years and I'm sure she woudlnt remember me.

And maybe this job doesnt need to contact my references at all, considering they don't want a contact number. They said I could use people who are living abroad - do I make up random people? [wow that sounds so extreme] Any advice? I REALLY don't want to reveal that I dont know anyone - I mean I'm sure all that'll change once I get the job [well here's hoping, right?]
posted by Chorus to Work & Money (14 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I've got similar problems coming up with references. I've used my common-law uncle and my psychiatrist, if you can believe that. So IMO fudging is acceptable. I would say get your online friends' real-world contact info and use that. Arrange for white lies, if necessary, to explain how you know each other, if you don't want the interviewer to know they're online friends.
posted by scratch at 1:00 PM on May 22, 2007

Dig into your past and contact teachers, mentors, principals, etc. I bet you'll be surprised at how many do remember you. Even if you didn't have any kind of close personal friendship/relationship with any of them, one of their goals is to help their students succeed, so unless you killed their puppy, they'll help you.

Or you can send me cash and I'll be your longtime BFF.
posted by iguanapolitico at 1:00 PM on May 22, 2007

Also, yes, since they aren't even asking for a phone number, scratch is right that the fudging factor can be high. Use sister, internet friends, etc. (Doctors? Any professional type acquaintences that weren't through work, like your tax guy, etc?)

In my career lifetime I think only once has one of my references been contacted, and I'm not certain I didn't dream that.
posted by iguanapolitico at 1:02 PM on May 22, 2007

Use anyone with a different last name than you :-)
I've used in-laws and even my brother's girlfriends in a pinch.
If they are not asking for contact numbers, then I would guess they'd send a questionairre in the mail.. which is much easier to fudge...
posted by niteHawk at 1:05 PM on May 22, 2007

You don't put 'internet acquaintance' down for your internet acquaintance, you put down 'friend'. Do you have a doctor? A dentist? Neighbours? A landlord? Those all work, too.
posted by jacquilynne at 1:08 PM on May 22, 2007

I think its bad advice to "fudge" in any way. The potential harm of this duplicity being discovered far outweighs the benefit of listing them.

Two suggestions:

(1) If you have internet-only friends that you feel comfortable using as references, then simply list them as "friends" (after first contacting them to make sure its OK with them to be listed, of course!).

(2) Come clean with your employers. Tell them that after graduating from college you threw yourself into your job, and that most of your social relationships revolve around your job. Ask if you can list co-workers for personal references, or if you can list people who knew you during college but may not have had close contact with you recently.
posted by googly at 1:22 PM on May 22, 2007

I've filled out applications before where they wanted personal references, but they flat out told me they weren't going to contact them as part of the application. Rather, they just wanted some means to track me down if I stopped making payments.

Since they're not asking you for phone numbers, I would say it's possible that they just want some people to contact if you go missing with some of those bills you're supposed to process.

If nothing else, you could always ask them what they're looking for. I frequently ask for clarifaction on the various applications I've filled out in my life and have never had a problem.

"Personal reference" is a kind of broad category. I would ask them what kind of reference they're looking for. Do they want someone who will can talk about your hobbies, or do they want someone who can vouch that you're not a serial killer. The first requires someone who knows you better than the second.
posted by chndrcks at 1:32 PM on May 22, 2007

I'm really grasping for straws here - like my sister has a different surname to mine, I could put her down and make her pretend she's a friend

Never never never never never never lie on any kind of background investigation. These people ferret out lies for a living and it's an instant deal breaker, assuming it's not a violation of the law (if you lie to the OPM, for example).

That aside, remember: they're not checking you for normalcy, they're trying to determine if you're trustworthy. Liar: not trustworthy. Person who only knows internet weirdos: potentially trustworthy.

A friend who worked at NSA told me about a co-worker of his who let them all know they could tune in and hear him and his deaf dominatrix wife on Howard Stern. THAT guy had clearance - you can pass a BI even if your friends aren't good friends or have been out of your life a while.
posted by phearlez at 3:27 PM on May 22, 2007

I agree that lying is a bad idea. If I was your employer and you told me that you don't know very many people I would be impressed with your candor.
posted by ob at 5:50 PM on May 22, 2007

I sympathize with the 'not knowing many people in your past to use as a reference' issue. Think of anyone who can confirm that you're trustworthy (which is the heart of the issue if you're going to be bondable or whatever). Are there any friends of the family (your parents friends, that type of thing) who've known you a while who can at least a) vouch that you're a real person, b) say that you're fairly ethical and trustworthy, and ideally c) that they've known you for a while? I've used friends of the family in the past since they can prove all three. As long as you can get at least one reference ideally that speaks to your work abilities that would be great too - i.e. a previous employer, etc. If you don't have that, just inform the person you'll be using as a reference that you're doing it, and ideally what you'd want them to highlight if they get called (i.e. "this person is trustworthy").

Good luck! I'll be watching to see any other creative answers people come up with.
posted by rmm at 8:17 PM on May 22, 2007

i've heard of folks picking their references out of the obituary section. plausible deniability!
posted by bruce at 8:26 PM on May 22, 2007

At your age, Your high school guidance counselor is always a good reference. Maybe a teacher that you particularly liked? They're used to being used as personal references, so they'll know the types of things to say (if they even get contacted). My dentist (whom I've been seeing since I was a kid) has told me on more than one occasion that if I ever needed a personal reference, don't hesitate. Maybe you've got a doctor you can similarly use?

Good luck!
posted by Oriole Adams at 10:46 PM on May 22, 2007

I agree that lying is a bad idea. If I was your employer and you told me that you don't know very many people I would be impressed with your candor.

It's kind of a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation here. If they only are asking for addresses, the chance that they'd check on these people is pretty low. Of course it's not good to lie--and if they did check on a phoney person you provided, it'd backfire drastically--but if you tell them the truth there's a possibility someone might find that strange, and could be a knock against you.
posted by zardoz at 3:10 AM on May 23, 2007

I nth not lying or fudging. It's not worth the risk... not to mention the irony of lying to prove you're trustworthy.

I suggest friends of family members: do your sister or parents have friends who know you? They're fair game.
posted by ktheory at 6:50 AM on May 23, 2007

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