Who to Ask for a Reference When You Can’t Ask Your Boss

References are a common feature of almost any job search, and can present a dilemma especially for those already employed. Current bosses aren’t ideal references unless you’re relocating, or facing a lay-off, downsizing, merger, or other situations.  The bottom line:  You need references for your career search. So, who do you ask?

The Obvious

Prior Supervisors
This is one of the many reasons why it is important to stay connected with former bosses and supervisors; keep the line of communication open so they can serve as references in the future.

Your current or prior colleagues, even if not your supervisor, are valued references. They know how you perform on the job and act under pressure. If you are using a current coworker, make sure you ask them to keep it in confidence.

For young professionals or recent graduates, it is perfectly reasonable to go back to college professors, instructors, or advisors if it has been five years or less. Make sure you only ask those with whom you had a strong relationship and have kept in contact with since graduation.

The Not-So-Obvious

Customers & Vendors
You can approach your customers or suppliers to serve as references on your relationship-building and customer relations skills. This is especially helpful for sales, leadership, public relations, communications, and marketing positions.

Charitable Organizations
If you’ve served on committees, boards, or other volunteer opportunities, ask those non-profit leaders to serve as references. They’ve seen your commitment, how you work on a team, and many other soft skills that are valuable to any employer.

Served on a committee for United Way? Ask the United Way Director or committee chairperson for their reference. If you started a donation drive for a local animal shelter, ask the shelter director to vouch for your drive and motivation.

If you’ve worked on successful Parent-Teacher Organization fundraising campaign or served as an officer, ask the PTA/PTO president or school principal provide a reference.

Did you become a merit badge counselor for Boy Scouts to share your expertise? Request that one of the troop leaders serve as a reference.

Do you lead your local 4-H group? Inquire if other leaders or county extension representatives will be a reference to your leadership and organizational skills.

Mentored with FFA or other local organizations? Ask the chapter advisor to be a reference.

Have you coached your daughter’s little league team or been a volunteer referee? You may want to ask the league’s director or park & rec coordinator to give a reference on your ability to teach, connect and lead.

Religious Organizations
Do you teach Sunday school? Work on the church welcoming committee? If you are active in your church, synagogue, temple or other spiritual institution, ask religious leaders to serve as references. They can speak to your volunteer commitments, but also personal characteristics that make you a sound employee.

Hopefully, this jump-starts your brainstorming for unique contacts that can report on your performance. No matter what, make sure you ask first and keep references in the loop about your job search process.

This article was adapted from one published in AgCareers.com by Bonnie Johnson in March 2019.

By Paul Gagnon
Paul Gagnon Career Consultant, College of Agriculture, Health, and Natural Resources Paul Gagnon