Should You Ask a Potential Boss for References?

boss references

David Reese, head of ideas and people at Medallia, gave this advice to job seekers in a recent piece in the Harvard Business Review: Reference-check your future boss.

Reese said the post was sparked by a request from a candidate for a senior level job at his software company. Asking about references, he said, “not only shows how seriously the candidate is considering the decision, but it also establishes a more transparent, bi-directional conversation between both sides.”

I agree, with some caveats. You want to work for a great boss and you want to ensure a job is a good fit. Companies should welcome the fact that you make careful decisions. But most candidates don’t ask about references because they feel, and in most cases, rightly so, that the the scales of power tip in favor of the company. The company decides whether to make an offer. The candidate’s power lies in accepting or not.

So, the question is less whether you should reference-check your boss, than how you should do so. A direct request like the one Reese mentions is best used cautiously. It is hardly appropriate for junior candidates. Even for senior candidates, much depends on the tenor of the interviews and the company itself. Reese mentions that his company is open to unconventional hiring, so the candidate read the signs correctly. Quite simply, the more power you have in the situation–the more the employer wants you, for whatever reason–the more likely the request will be taken in stride.

For other roles and other situations, make the effort to find out as much as you can about a manager. Most people know to review a potential bosses LinkedIn profile or social media posts. But many don’t go as far as to contact former teammates or colleagues (again, this could backfire, so use discretion). Reese suggests checking out alumni clubs and other associations where you might find people who know your potential boss. If you know someone at the company or find a mutual contact, I’d say go for it. But asking people you don’t know well for a reference isn’t all that useful. It isn’t all that useful for employers sometimes either. Some people are more honest and open, others criticize everyone. Others won’t feel comfortable with anything but generalities. And just because one person gets along with a manager and admires them doesn’t mean you will–human nature is just too variable.

In the end, I am not sure you will ever need to make that request. If you really learn how to handle job interviews, you will learn a lot about a person’s communication style. Most people offer plenty of clues to how they treat their employees by how they handle the process. Reading between the lines when interviewing a team also sheds light. And if you have an active network and are knowledgeable about your industry, you will likely know a company’s reputation and a manager’s.

And, too, your boss may not always be your boss. More than once I’ve gone to work for a great boss who was soon promoted or left the company. That’s why it pays to evaluate the larger culture carefully.

Your real power during the interview process is your ability to follow your instincts.

About the Author

Susan Price has been writing about careers, entrepreneurs and personal finance for more than a decade. She’s been an editor at BusinessWeek, Money, and, among others.