At some point in your participation in a selection process, assuming you get this far, they are going to ask you for references. Most people think that when they choose their references, they should choose people who will say “Jane is great”. Actually, even if they said “Jane is great, awesome, etc.” with 1000 variations, you would actually fail the reference. Because the point of a reference is not for them to tell the hiring manager you’re great, but rather to give them concrete examples that demonstrate you meet the various criteria they’re assessing.

Let’s delve a bit more deeply. If you think about the four main things in the Statement of Merit (i.e., experience, knowledge, abilities and personal suitability), references are mainly about personal suitability factors. Judgement, leadership, interpersonal skills, initiative…some of them may have been tested previously, some may not; some may have only been tested in previous stages, some may be tested in multiple stages, some may only be tested through references. It varies from process to process, but most are tested through references.

Jumping ahead a bit, when you give the names, here is what is going to happen with those names. Let’s say for example it asks for three references for you. The HR person is going to get those names, and they are going to send those three people an email to say “Good afternoon, Mr. Doe. Candidate X is participating in a selection process with us for an [PM-3/EC-7/AS-4/CR-1/CS-1/etc.] position and has provided your name as a potential reference. We are accessing four criteria through our reference stage, and we have provided the attached questionnaire to help us rate their previous performance. Please fill out the questionnaire in writing or we can arrange to call and discuss the questions orally if you prefer. We are hoping to wrap up everyone’s references by such and such a date and hope you will be able to complete it before that time. In the first part of the questionnaire, it asks you to identify your position, how and when you knew the candidate, and in what capacity.”

There are some more bells and whistles but that’s about it…it says “we’re accessing A, B, C, and D”, tell us how you know the candidate and then answer the questions on A, B, C and D. When your reference turns to Question A, perhaps on initiative, they are going to be asked questions that look a lot like the experience questions you may have seen in the interview. “Please describe a situation when the candidate demonstrated initiative, including their role and what actions they took.” In other words, “Tell us of a time when…”.

Once the HR person gets the questionnaire back or they do a phone interview, they (or the hiring manager) reviews the details provided and assigns a mark. This is very important. Your reference is NOT the one assigning the mark of 4/5 or 8/10 (i.e., “she’s great, 10/10”!); they are providing details to the hiring manager so the hiring manager can access those details and grade your performance (i.e., “she sounds pretty good, good examples, 8/10”). Hiring managers have to do the scoring, not the reference. Which means the hiring manager needs a reference that is detailed enough for them to make such a scoring decision. 

What does this mean for you? It means that you have to choose references that:

  1. WILL provide details when asked; and,
  2. CAN provide those details.

Both have implications for what you have to do as the candidate. So let’s break that down a bit further.

Someone who WILL provide details

Not every reference is created equal for personality. Have you ever had a conversation with someone where it seemed like you were pulling teeth to get them to tell you anything?

How are you today?

Fine.

What did you do on the weekend?

Nothing.

How is that big project going?

Okay.

How is that junior staff doing on your team?

All right.

This is NOT the type of person you want giving you a reference. You want someone who responds to open-ended questions with more than a couple of words. If they are asked pointed questions, usually anyone will respond with details. If they are asked open-ended questions, you need to make sure the person will be expansive with their answers, they will respond in detail, they will answer the question in a way that provides enough examples for the hiring manager to be able to grade your abilities in that area.

I hesitate to give a blanket statement to say avoid all Type A, short, terse people as references, as often these are high-flying managers or directors too. Impressive even. But it is almost like you are hiring them to be your spokesperson on the competition, and you want to know they will take the time to be thoughtful and do it properly, not slap together three words and move on. Because if they do a crappy job on your reference, if they don’t give enough details, the hiring manager will rate you low and you won’t pass. Because the hiring manager won’t have enough evidence of your performance to rate you high enough to pass. 

A colleague of mine was in a development program. Her manager was not one to respond well to open-ended questions, and when she did the evaluation of my friend, she wrote basic information — yes, no, fine, good, etc. with short to no examples to back any of it up. When they followed up (which they don’t have to do, but they did) to ask for more info, the manager did the same thing, nothing expansive. And without more details to justify a higher score, my friend didn’t get her promotion for another six months. Because her reference was not a good fit for those types of questions. Most experienced managers know how they have to answer reference questions because they have been the one asking the questions in other processes, and therefore know what info they need, but not always.

Choose your references wisely. If you were hiring a spokesperson to prove you’re ready for a promotion, is that the reference you would choose to speak on your behalf?

Someone who CAN provide details

While it is important to choose someone who WILL provide details when asked, it is even more important that they be someone who CAN provide details, who knows your work well enough to do that type of reference.

Usually this is someone who knows you well enough and for a sufficient period of time (preferably as your direct supervisor) to discuss your performance in detail. Normally, this is for a minimum of six months. A year or two is obviously better, not only for their own credibility, but also for having the likelihood of several examples to choose from as evidence in their response.

Let me give you an example where I ticked all the boxes above, and it almost burned me. I used to work in a division where we had no director, just directly reporting to a Director General. EX-03 level, if you’re interested. As part of a huge interdepartmental initiative, he was made co-chair of a working group. And as a PM-03, I became his officer on the project, managing all aspects of the workplan and content. I hesitate to describe him as the figurehead, as he gave more guidance than that, but I was the lead for the file. I did everything for the day-to-day project, kept everybody moving along and giving us inputs, and wrote the final report and recommendations for the group. It was almost 80% of my job and it culminated in a series of recommendations to PCO and the larger group that were adopted. Everybody was happy, thanks all around, etc.

Fast forward three years, I’m up for a competition, he’s willing to be one of my references, and since he wasn’t managing me directly anymore (he had changed directorates), I sent him a quick little summary of some of my past projects as a little memory-jogger. I wasn’t trying to script him, but I did want to nudge him with some good examples of things I had done. Top of my list was this big interdepartmental group. And he replied to say, “Thanks, very helpful, I had forgotten about that working group.”

I was stunned. I *killed* myself for almost 18 months on that project, making it so he didn’t have to do much more than chair the meetings, and it was a great project for me, plus great experience for the competition. He did his part, I did mine. But he didn’t even remember it enough to mention in a reference? As I said, I was stunned. Not hurt, that’s not what I’m talking about…I’m talking about stunned that I assumed that since he thought I was amazing and gave me glowing reviews, that he would have multiple examples of my work to mention, and yet he didn’t / couldn’t remember my biggest file. 

Stunned, one of those “Are you freaking kidding me?” moments. At the time, I promised myself that I would never do that with MY staff, I would remember them better than that, smug little me. Which was warm and comforting right up until I was a manager myself, and a co-op student contacted me two years after she reported to someone in my team, wanted a reference, and I had to stop and think, “What did she work on that summer?”. I remembered her, I remembered she was good, sure, but I couldn’t have answered details about her projects to give good examples for a detailed / quality reference.

So let me go back to that moment. After I thought about it, I realized that, of course, he couldn’t remember. I was a PM-03, one of eight officers working for him, most of the others with much bigger files, and he only needed to chair the meetings, not manage it day-to-day. And when it was over, we moved on to other files. Plus he had had probably another 20 staff in total over the subsequent 3 year period. He remembered I was good, but he didn’t have the details at his fingertips. Maybe he would have remembered on his own, maybe not. But I’m sure glad I sent the prep information. Which I now do for ALL my references, just in case.

Equally, I ask for the same when I’m acting as a reference for someone. You did the prep work for this competition, you know what they are looking for, not me.  For example, maybe you did a computer project and a finance project for me. On the reference, they might ask me about a project you managed for me, maybe demonstrating initiative, and since I remember the computer project really well, I might mention that one. However, if there’s a finance component to the job, you might prefer I use that one instead. The only way I’ll know, or at least consider the other project, is if you remind me of both of them. If I’m going to be your spokesperson, helping me prepare will help you succeed.

However, what you absolutely cannot do is try to script your references with what to say, because they’re the one providing the reference, not you. But you CAN subtly nudge your references towards better examples. How do you do that? You do it by doing some preparation for them ahead of time.

Here’s what I do with my references.

A. First and foremost, I consider which potential references will respond thoughtfully with details.

B.  In advance of a specific competition, I ask them in general if they are willing to be a reference. Some people have what they consider to be a fantastic disruption in this area, widely touted as a breakthrough in the industry — they suggest asking your references what they’ll say about you. I think it is both brilliant and disruptive, but I would never do it. I feel you are asking them for a favour in doing the reference, and then you put them on the spot to tell you their opinion of you. If they hedge, you know not to use them, sure; but even if they like you, and would say good things, you might be making them really uncomfortable by asking them direct. And I can tell in the next step if it’s positive anyway.

C. At the time of a competition, I re-confirm with them their continued willingness, and mention the specific context. If they shy away for ANY reason (too busy, whatever), I drop them for that competition. Maybe they ARE too busy, maybe they didn’t really think you were that good, maybe they don’t think you are ready for the promotion…doesn’t matter the reason, you want people who are ready, willing and able to give you a good reference. If they aren’t willing, move on as quick as you can. Don’t make it a “thing”, just let it go. You don’t even have to tell them you’re NOT listing them, just leave them off the list when you submit. Choose somebody else.

D. Assuming they agree, I send them an email before they ever get a questionnaire saying:

  1. Thank you for agreeing to be a reference for this process;
  2. I have applied for the position of X at level Y in area Z (this gives them the context of what you’re applying for);
  3. I am attaching my cover letter for info (they likely won’t read it);
  4. I am also attaching my resume, and you’ll see my time with you is summarized on page 2 (or you could just paste it in the email…this gives them some good memory joggers of all the things you did with them); and,
  5. The reference is likely to focus on these personal suitability factors (* or if you know what is left to be covered, you can say it more specifically, or even ask the process people what the references will be asked to rate); and,
  6. Here are some examples I’ve been using in the competition that you may want to draw upon when you respond to the reference (and list a few key examples, no real details, mostly projects or files) for each of the factors they’ll have to respond to in the reference.

Note that you want to keep this as informal as possible…kind of like “Here’s some info, if you want it, if it’s helpful or useful”. You have to make sure they don’t feel like you’re turning them into a puppet or a mouthpiece, that you aren’t totally scripting what they’re going to say. Which of course you totally ARE trying to do without looking like you are. The goal is subtly nudging, not psychologically shoving.

And it works so well that now, if someone asks me to be a reference, I tell them, “Sure, but please send me your resume and any examples you think it could be good to mention if/when I get a reference.” It’s still my choice which ones and what I’m going to say, sure, but I might as well have you do some of the work. 

And yes, I do this EVEN WHEN I’m still working for them or they’re working for me right now. You’re the one who knows best what makes a good example for the job you are applying for, and so you might as well suggest the best ones you have to suggest. 

E. Write them a thank you note afterwards. Most people just do it by email, although it stands out more if you do it with a paper card. And do it whether you make it through the competition or not. Those questionnaires can take me an hour or more to fill out with the proper level of information and detail. It’s like I’m going through an interview myself, on your behalf. You can, sometimes, also include an update on how it went, etc., just so your former managers know where you’re at in your career management.

But what about…

So that’s the basic outline, and you see the steps for choosing and prepping your references. For most of the chapters, I stop at this point in a description of the process. But on references, there are some basic questions that immediately get asked every time I do a presentation in this area, so I might as well address them now.

The second-most popular question I get asked about references is from people trying to gauge their progress / success in the process. For example, “Hi Paul, I did my interview and I found out today I passed because they asked for my references, yay!”. Except that isn’t necessarily what that means. Or they ask more pointedly, “Hey Paul, if I get asked for refs, does that mean…”? No, it doesn’t mean that. Let me explain.

References are generally sought at one of three stages — at the time of a written exam, at the time of an interview, or after an interview. Once you realize that, you can see that when they ask you doesn’t really tell you anything. If they ask at the written exam, they haven’t even assessed you yet, so it means nothing. If they ask at the interview, again, it means nothing. Where people get tripped up is when they have finished the interview, and they get a subsequent request for interviews. And think, “That must mean something, right?”. It does mean SOMETHING, but not necessarily what you think.

Prior to 2005, competitions were done fairly linearly. Apply. Write. Interview. References. Language. Security. And most people didn’t get to do the next step if they didn’t pass the previous. So if you got asked for references, it meant that you passed the previous round almost 90% of the time. Maybe even 95% of the time.

But after about 2010 or so, under the new systems and techniques, HR people realized that references take TIME. So, while it costs money to send them out to lots of people, it is cheaper for the hiring manager to have the references done for some people who might fail another stage than to wait until the end and be delayed in hiring someone because one person’s references are taking FOREVER. So the standard HR advice is to ask for references as soon as possible to help them get that part of the process going. Equally, some legal advisors actually tell HR to complete the references for anyone who passes the written too since if they challenge the interview (i.e. appeal), it is good to have the files complete and know what is at stake in the appeal (i.e., if they know you failed the references, it helps in the rejection to say you failed more than one element rather than a single one). Either way, for process or legal reasons, HR is asking for references often before the interviews are scored (or as I noted above, even before the interviews happen!). So if you finish an interview, and a couple of weeks later they ask for references, the only thing it means is that they’re continuing the process. It doesn’t mean you passed the previous stage.

On a personal note, I feel asking at the written exam stage is too soon, but since references can be checked in parallel with other processes, some HR groups ask for it earlier. I prefer to ask after the interview and only check those of the people who pass the interview. But that’s just me.

The most popular question, and the most tricky, is actually several questions in one and applies to providing a name when you have a problem with your current manager. The multiple forms are as follows:

a. Hate my manager / my manager hates me, but they asked for the current manager;

b. I haven’t told my current manager yet that I’m looking;

c. My current manager has only managed me for 2 months;

d. My manager died / retired / moved to Africa;

The list goes on and on. But what it really asks, very simply, is “What do I do if I don’t want to or can’t list my current manager?”

Let’s start with the easy one. If your manager doesn’t know you’re looking, you are digging your own grave. You don’t need to say “I’m trying to get the heck out of here”, but you can mention, certainly in annual performance reviews, that you would be open to new opportunities, promotions, etc. and you intend to participate in comps in the future if something interests you. More general, less specific. While many people worry about vindictive bosses, my reaction is more pointed…if you think they’re going to be upset if they find out you’re participating in processes, how upset are they likely to be when you come to them at the reference stage and they find out then or even worse, if someone mentions to them you’re in a comp they’re running and you haven’t even told them? You can downplay it as practice for future comps, seeing how you do, getting more experience, etc., but people have ruined relationships with GOOD bosses by having them totally surprised at the end. Tell them early. If you didn’t, tell them now (and if you have to, downplay that you did it for practice, didn’t think you would make it, etc.).

Now for the hard one. If you have a conflict with your manager, you have three choices if the process asks for your current manager. To be blunt, none of them are good. First, if you can think it will be “okay”, do nothing, provide the name, let them assess you (i.e. expecting a fair reference), and leave it at that. Second, you can provide the name, but tell the HR people that you have a conflictual relationship with your current manager, and suggesting another name that you think provides a fairer assessment (preferably the previous manager). By telling the HR people, they will likely do an extra reference and average the scores. Because if you get screened out, and you appeal, they’re on the hook — they knew there was a potential issue with your current manager, and they did nothing to mitigate it. Third, you can ask your manager’s boss if you can list them instead if you think they will be fairer in the assessment. As a potential aside, I will also note that if you have a problem with your current manager, your best option may be to first do a lateral to another area before participating in a formal comp. Comps always do formal references, while laterals are more likely to do more informal ones (and while they will still want to talk to your current supervisor, it usually isn’t their sole method).

If your current manager has only managed you for 2 months, or really anything less than 6, almost all HR people will let you list your previous manager. Just tell them why (short duration) and they will let you list someone else because the tribunals have ruled that anyone managing you for less than 6 months is generally not in a good enough position to accurately assess your performance. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but it’s about the norm. From 6 to 12 months, often HR will add another reference to your list (i.e., 4 instead of 3 people).

As a variation on that question, I frequently hear from people who say they have had four different managers in two years in the same division. In other words, the person hasn’t changed jobs, but their manager’s cubicle looks like it should have a revolving door. This was a huge issue back in the staff cuts in 2010/11. Lost of people needed assessments done, including references, and had NO ONE who had managed them for six months straight. You also frequently see it show up in HR grievances and appeal cases as contextual factors. A frequent formal solution is to find someone “above” them who has hopefully been there for longer and who can be the one to “sign” the reference / evaluation based on input from the people underneath. Kind of like cobbling together three or four inputs, and signed by the Director. Unless your Director is a jerk, or there are other factors at play, this is usually something they are willing to do because they know the bind you are in. Or the HR people will let you list someone else.

The last variation that comes up is really hard to deal with. Lots of people have had their references retire, often with promises to act as a reference anytime, etc. Except they aren`t in the office anymore. They are totally OUT of the culture, processes, etc. And getting them to focus on doing an hour-long reference for you might not result in the right amount of detail, particularly not without a great deal of preparation.

For example, one of my references who would sing my praises loud and long and take the time to write a good reference when he was my boss actually retired about four years ago. Subsequently, he changed his ISP and home phone providers, which changed his email address and phone numbers. All of my contact info for him now bounces. Yes, I can track him down, but not likely in time if I have to submit a name today.

Plus, in all honesty, HR prefers to ask active references, not retired ones. Not necessarily for any good reason, other than convenience, and because the ethical obligations of day-to-day management still apply. Managers almost HAVE to do it, and they have to do it fairly. Retired people may take longer, and may not fill it out as carefully. It is hit/miss depending on the retiree and how long ago they retired, and some HR people have had bad experiences that colour their views for the future.

My personal view is that a retired reference is good for about a year, maybe two if you’ve stayed in touch somehow. If they’re no longer available — moved, dead even, no contact info, etc. — there’s nothing you can do. You have to make do with who’s left in your contact list. Most people compensate by either using another manager at the same level in the same team (if they’re willing) or bumping up a level. But it’s tough.

One last caveat for choosing your references. If they ask for current manager, do not think you can fudge it by listing someone else. Because as soon as that other “replacement” choice goes to fill out the reference, the profile section says, “When did you manage Jane?” and/or asks them to identify if they are a previous or current manager. Don’t expect your previous manager to lie for you, and assuming they don’t, your HR people will catch that you don`t have the current one in the list. And then it becomes a THING. Likely one you can’t manage as well. Deal with it upfront, openly.

Subscribe
Notify of

48 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Guest
Daniel
11 days ago

(I posted this previously, but am unsure if it went through)

Hi Paul!

I have a question! Thanks to your guide, I made it into a pool, and was given a verbal offer! I am so happy!

My question is, how long show I wait to follow up with the hiring manager? It has been 3 weeks since my last follow, when they said they were preparing the paperwork. However, since then I still have not received any security forms to submit to start the security process? Should I keep waiting or ask for an update? I am an external candidate if that makes a difference. I know security can take a while, which is why I’m eager to start the process. However, I don’t want to annoy the hiring manager with too many follow ups! Any insight would be greatly appreciated πŸ™‚

Guest
Daniel
10 days ago
Reply to  Paul

Hi Paul!

Thank you very much for the response! It is greatly appreciated πŸ™‚

Have a great week!

Guest
Celine
1 month ago

Hi Paul,
Thank you very much for the very comprehensive guide that helped me pass the exam, and get the interview!
I had the interview 2 weeks ago and they sent out emails to my references today. Does it mean I pass and get the job? During the interview, I asked if they would notify me prior to contacting the references, they said they would; however, my references let me know when they received the email.

Guest
Celine
1 month ago
Reply to  Paul

Hi Paul,

Really appreciated all of your responses.
Couple of questions for you. As you mentioned, references were contacted, meaning I am still “in”; but still might be out.
My first question is, how long does HR take to get back to me?
My second question is: Should I send a follow up question to them and when would be the “best” time to send that email?
My third question is: if you receive an offer letter for a different job with a different agency while waiting for the Federal HR. What would you do in this situation?

Thanks again and hope you have had a great summer so far πŸ™‚

Guest
Celine
13 days ago
Reply to  Paul

Hi Paul,

Thank you so much for your guide! As an external candidate, I’ve somehow managed to get to and pass the interview/reference stages. Thanks to your advice and comprehensive guide. I am being offered an AS-01 term position. My question for you is, could you give me some insights on the differences between a term and a permanent position besides the end date? Like benefits, pensions and salaries wise… Also, what are the chances for a term to become permanent?

Thanks so much again and have a lovely weekend.

Celine

Guest
Celine
10 days ago
Reply to  Paul

Hi Paul,

Thanks again for all of your responses.
I have three other questions for you πŸ™‚
I will have my first initial discussion with the hiring manager this week, can I/ should I negotiate for the term position to be indeterminate? If I decline the term position, am I still in the qualified pool or am I out of the pool?
My second question is once I accept the position, will my name still in the pool for other positions or I have to apply again?
Lastly, can I still apply for the same position but in a different province?

I hope my questions make sense to you as I am very new to the pool process.

Thanks again and have a lovely Monday!

Celine

Guest
Moe
1 year ago

Hi Paul!

thank you very much for the very comprehensive guide that truly helped me pass the exam, ad get the interview!

after I finished my interview this Friday, they sent me an email asking for some asset information (they mentioned it won’t affect the pool) and proof of education etc … they also mentioned that they are contacting my references. does this mean I passed my interview and jumped to reference checks?

Guest
Sel
1 year ago

Hi Paul,

Amazing and super comprehensive guide, thanks for the time and careful thought you put into developing this! I apologize in advance as I didn’t know which section to post this question under. So I’ve been extended a verbal offer for the summer term, context: I’m an undergrad and it’s a casual role. I’m super excited about the role and department, I put a lot of effort into making myself stand out as well trying to pass all the stages to get here. I’m waiting on my reliability clearance, but I’ve heard stories of people waiting for weeks and months and really how unpredictable the timeline is overall. I have completed one very recently for a separate department, but I’m not sure if the previous one has been processed, and honestly, I feel like I may have made some minor mistakes/ommissions which I fear would further delay the process if they were to refer back to it. Other than that, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t find anything, I’ve lived here all my life and have no criminal record whatsoever.

I understand there’s basically no guarantee until I receive my LOO, but since I know that they want to hire me, what’s the likelihood that the entire process from reliability to LOO won’t take too long (e.g. a month)? Secondary question, to what degree does the team/hiring manager have a say in how long it takes, let’s say they anticipate it’ll take (e.g. 6 weeks) – is there a standard time across a department and can they expedite the process considering how soon it starts?

The start time is creeping up, and while I know it DEFINITELY won’t come before that, I’m worried about how long it will actually take and whether it’ll affect me getting an offer at all. Although it’s my 1st choice, if it doesn’t come through, or comes too late for some reason, I’d rather have something than nothing. I was planning to stop interviewing and applying to other places, but I’ve seen other people advise not to until you get your LOO. The tricky thing is, even if I was extended another offer in the private sector, they’d require me to make a quick decision, so I wouldn’t be able to just accept that and then quit if this one comes through. I feel like I’m straddling both options with a lot of uncertainty and very little leverage. I would just be really disappointed if this didn’t work out and I didn’t have a backup plan πŸ™

Also, if you have any tips on how to make the process go a lot quicker and smoother I’d appreciate it as well.

Thank you so much. I look forward to hearing what you have to share!

Sel

Guest
Rie
1 year ago

Hi Paul,

Thank you so much for your guide! As an external candidate right out of undergrad/graduating this month, I’ve somehow managed to get to the interview/reference stage thanks to your advice and am terribly excited, if not nervous. However, since I am coming straight from school with little relevant work experience (I am applying for an EC-02 position but have only worked in web development and other very unrelated work), who should I be looking for references?

Should I ask my former work supervisor who I only worked with before the pandemic, who barely knows me and probably won’t be able to speak to the skills they’re looking for, or should I ask my current professors, who know me more well and teach in the fields related to the position in question (sociology/health work)? Can I ask a colleague/co-president (who I co-presided with) from a volunteering position that knows me the best and can speak to my skills the most, but hasn’t technically been in a supervisory position with me? At least one of the references has to be a current/recently former supervisor, but in the case of the second reference the colleague would be the best fit, if it’s possible to list her as one.

Unfortunately I have a dearth of recent references, as my uni program did not have co-ops and I was not able to work during the pandemic, but both my professors and former volunteer colleagues would be amenable to being references; I’m just not sure I can list them as such.

Thank you again for all your generous help!

Rie

Guest
Rie
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul

Hi Paul,

Thank you so much for your response and advice! I’m rather relieved at hearing that, at least for entry-level positions, HR would be more willing to take on the references that I do have. And haha, I hope I can live up to whatever image they have of me currently! πŸ™‚

I’ll be reaching out to my professors then, and see if they’ll be willing to help me out, and if not, the other two! I’ll remember to specify.

I hope you have a wonderful day, and truly, thank you again!

Rie

Guest
Katherine
1 year ago

Hi Paul,

Again, thank you for your detailed and excellent blog. I had a question for you. I am at the reference stage and the request was quite open: “work related references”. As I mentioned in a previous question I asked you, I cannot use my current boss. I feel I have other references who can speak to the personal suitability factors (advisors from my PhD and post-docs. As a secondary question, do you feel they would sufficiently fall under the category of “work related”). To one of the other questioners you mention the risk of HR contacting your current boss. If I don’t list my boss as a reference would they still contact him?

The company I work for is private and the CEO is volatile, unpredictable and cares very little about being above board in his interactions with others. When another manager quit, the CEO slammed (slandered) him to every person in our industry he knew. The CEO worked really hard to tarnish the reputation the manager had built over the last 20+ years. I have also seen him punish people within the company he knew had considered leaving.

Should I specifically request the HR team not contact my current boss? Or is leaving him off my reference list enough to ensure they do not.

Thank you again, the time you devote to helping aspiring public servants is really generous!

Katherine

Guest
Katherine
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul

Hi Paul,

Thanks to your suggestion (and the advice you provided to others to take a risk, especially if it’s your dream job) I took a risk and contacted a member of the executive team (ranked between me and the CEO). Not only did he offer to give me “the best reference anyone has ever gotten” he completely understood and has been feeling the same way about our CEO. I am so glad I read your blog. Not only did it get me this far in the job process, now even if I don’t get this position I know I am not the only one being bullied at my current company, and that will make life a lot easier.

Thank you,

Katherine

Guest
Nadia Hajam
1 year ago

The problem is when they don’t let you pick your references. They just ask you for the last 3 managers/supervisors you’ve had, no gaps.

Guest
Jay
2 years ago

PolyWogg — thank you SO much for your detailed outlines of the various aspects of this HR guide. It’s been invaluable to decipher the “hidden world” of the hiring process as an outside applicant.

I am currently in the process of applying for a specialized engineering position with Natural Resources Canada. I’ve moved pretty seamlessly from application, to written exam (preparing a powerpoint presentation), to language assessment, and am gearing up for an interview soon. However, my question pertains to references.

Thus far in the process, there has been nary a word about references, and I don’t believe that there was mention in the posting. However, I’m dreading the conversation when (if?) they do ask for them.

I am an external applicant that has worked with my current company my whole career (11+ years). I love my company, and am happy where I am at — but I am tempted to get into a new role within one of NRCan’s new mandates that interests me deeply (and would also be a pay bump).

Here’s the issue: I really, really have no idea who I could use as a reference. My current company has extremely low (less than 1%/yr) turnover, and I certainly don’t want to give my employer any indication whatsoever that I am looking to leave. I have had 4 direct supervisors (“advisors”) and 3 formal “mentors” within my organization over my time, and all are still with the company. My two most recent direct supervisors and who I continue to work closely with are senior partners, with one leading our division, and the other on the Board of Directors of the whole company. The only employees of my current company that have left (and could theoretically provide a reference) are more than two years removed, and frankly I only worked “in passing” with, and not directly.

I potentially have some industry partners that could speak to my personal attributes (eg, “is this guy a nut or not”), but not my day-to-day work. I also completed my Master’s degree part-time over the past couple of years and could ask my university advisor or professors to provide a reference (again, not speaking to professional attributes though). Obviously, none of this is ideal.

I guess my main question is how rigid do you expect they would be in this instance? Could I argue for some type of accommodation, or is there a “legal requirement” working in the background of this aspect of the hiring process? Could I just politely decline and explain my situation to the hiring manager, and “take a 0” on the references section? It is a pretty specialized engineering position, and they may not have a great pool to choose from and may not be able to be too picky (the job was advertised across Canada with a wide description, as you recently blogged about).

Any thoughts or input you may have would be greatly appreciated!

Thanks so much!
Jay

Guest
Jay
2 years ago
Reply to  Paul

Thank you so much! Once again, your attention to detail and willingness to provide such compelling answers is tremendous.

I’m cautious to not take up more of your (free and voluntary) time, however I feel compelled to perhaps clarify one or two items, and also push back lightly on one or two aspects.

First, I should clarify that when I use the word “mentor”, that is very much an “official” title and arrangement in my company — essentially meaning they are my region lead for my discipline. In this frame, the phrase “she was my mentor” and “she was my department head” would be essentially identical. Sorry for the confusion on that. I should also confirm that I am in no way worried about getting a “bad” reference. I am confident in my work history and skills, and have had nothing but fantastic bosses and colleagues. I would be more worried about them giving a poor reference so that they don’t lose me.

If I can “push back” slightly on one of your points, I think that after decades in the public service, it’s possible that you are perhaps a bit insulated from how leaving a company works in the private sector. You say “a boss should never find out by accident” (that you are leaving the company) — I’m sorry, but this is in fact the *only* way the vast majority of employees leave a private sector job. They ask to speak to their boss one day out of the blue and announce that they are leaving in two weeks. This happens at McDonalds, at high profile law firms, dentist offices, etc. Best case scenario for a manager is that instead of an employee announcing that they are leaving, they come to them and say “I have an offer with X, for Y amount of money; are you willing to match it?” But I would argue that it is exceedingly rare that a manager would for sure know that an employee is looking to leave — much less, actually aid and help them to do so. The manager’s manager would be furious with them for helping a good preforming employee leave the company.

Compounding this (and I recognize that this is specific to my situation and may not necessarily help others), my company is private (ie, not publicly traded on a stock exchange). Only current employees of the firm can own shares, and purchasing shares and increasing your ownership is of immense importance to being “committed” and “having a stake in the game” with the company. Top preforming employees are offered the ability to purchase additional shares based on performance, and the senior associates and partners in the firm are significantly leveraged and take care to ensure that all employees are committed to the company for the long term. Therefore, showing ANY form of non-committal is a huge no-no in such a firm.

I recognize that you don’t make the policies and are simply trying to help random people on the internet with your tremendous insights. I sincerely hope that I’m not coming across as “yelling at the cashier about things out of their control”. I’m simply hoping to push back slightly as it may help others in my situation also to consider their options.

As an aside, this may be a bit of an interesting view into the ways that the public procurement systems are not necessarily designed well to accommodate external hires. This likely compounds the reason why most hires are internal. It only makes sense. Hiring managers want to ensure and back up all of their hires with extensive proof — because they can’t easily fire an employee if they lied or exaggerated their claims. It’s very reasonable. Meanwhile, this doesn’t exist in the private sector. I have routinely hired junior staff without contacting references because (a) they only provide “good” references anyway, and (b) if it turns out they are dopes, I can fire them within their 3-month probation period without even needing cause.

Sorry, I’ve gone off on a bit of a tangent, but I hope you find this discussion as interesting as I do.

I think my final question may be: Assume that I am not able to give references from my current employer. I have lined up three references: (1) a former co-worker that has left the company and I worked in passing with over the past few years, (2) a professor from recent studies, and (3) an industry colleague. None are going to be able to provide concrete examples of many of the Merits. Is there any point in doing this? Could I still get to the stage of being approved and able to be hired? Or, if I can’t corroborate my experience with concrete examples from references, am I effectively unable to be hired due to laws and limitations of the hiring process?

I’m honestly okay if this is the case. I’m lucky in that I currently work for a great employer that compensates me appropriately, values my contributions, and provides great opportunities for growth. (thus the reason for such low turnover in the first place). The NRCan opportunity would certainly be a great upgrade, and of tremendous interest to me professionally (not to mention having the nice feeling of providing critical services to Canadians), but I’m not on the street if the process doesn’t work out. It’s just unfortunate that there doesn’t seem to be a good work-around for this situation, and essentially prohibits me from federal employment unless the circumstances of my current employment change.

As always, thank you SO MUCH for your great insights and the blog as a whole!!

-Jay

PPS — as an aside, it is common for some public companies to prohibit their employees from giving references. Either to current OR former employees. I’ve run into this before and it’s annoying. A prospective employee can’t provide a reference from their last job because their boss there still can’t give references even for former employees — it’s in their employment contract and they could be fired. However, I’ve heard anecdotally that not allowing references for *former* employees is on shaky legal ground, but for current employees it is solid. Supposedly it protects the company from legal risks of misrepresentation or libel, etc.

Guest
Jay
2 years ago
Reply to  Paul

PolyWogg… I just went through every line and sentence of your extremely detailed response, and essentially muttered “yup”… “okay”… “fair enough”… “roger”… “yup”…. No bones to pick at all.

I just want to once again thank you for your incredible attention to detail and time spent helping a schmuck stranger on the internet with your valuable time. It’s a tough time for everyone in the world right now, and I just want you to know that it makes me feel good that there are still fine people such as yourself that just want to lend their time to something that they are passionate about and help complete strangers for the goodwill. I will continue to be a champion for your blog and resources to anyone who asks or is interested in federal employment.

I have some tough decisions coming up (and still have to get through an interview!) but you’ve put me in the best position possible to make an educated decision.

Who knows, maybe I’ll send you an email from “@canada.ca” some day to thank you as well.

For now, thanks and be well.

– Jay

Guest
Angela
2 years ago

Hi Paul: This is a brilliant blog. I have enjoyed every word. I wish I had found this earlier so I could have prepared better for the federal interviews. I am currently in the running for three roles. One is an EC06 (reference check completed 3 weeks ago); ED-EDS-03 or 02 role (HR has been in communication asking for language group I want to be considered in 2 weeks ago); and finally, an NB-10-PC-04 role (only the interview was conducted March 17 and I have heard nothing back from HR). I have four questions. (1). Is it safe to assume NB-10-PC-04 role is completed and rejection is on the way? (2) What is a realistic time frame for the EC-06 and ED-EDS-03/02 role to now possibly move forward? Is there such a thing? (3) Does GOC HR ever consider your performance agreement from previous roles and could you ever attach them for consideration (as part of the process when you send in academic pieces and references)? Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. Have a wonderful weekend.

Guest
Angela
2 years ago
Reply to  Paul

Hi Paul: This does help so much. I wanted to follow up to say thank you so much for your detailed approach here. There have been some interesting turn of events in the last few days. I have heard back from the EC-06 and ED-EDS-03/02 and I have been thrown into the pool for both of them. The hiring board has determined I meet the qualifications for both. Now I suppose it is a very long waiting game. I am somewhat disappointed as I did not expect to be thrown into any pool; I thought these positions (per the JD) were going to be filled immediately. Either way, I do not know whether to cry or celebrate – I feel like I’m in a massive holding pattern till someone goes fishing for my application. It’s the strangest thing to be on the outside in all of this. Usually, you get hired, an offer or you don’t…the pools sounds terrible. Thanks.

Guest
uselessrefs
2 years ago

Great post. This is perhaps a bit of an edge case with no answer, but here goes: academic moving from academia to PS. We don’t really have bosses or superiors, just colleagues. Would colleague/collaborators (plus say on old supervisor from grad school) suffice for references? Anyway to get clarity on this?

Guest
uselessrefs
2 years ago
Reply to  Paul

Thanks! Yes I guess technically there is a Dean that signs off on hiring you but they rotate frequently and really do not evaluate you at any great depth (at least in my university) nor would they be able to speak to your work or personal attributes. A consult to your official file (research activity, teaching evals) would not really tell much in terms of competencies. A dept chair is just a colleague in an admin role for a short period (again, personal experience). Typically evaluation for things like promotion would be done by arms length referees (ie academics at other institutions you don’t have a relationship with). I’ll fish around the ‘quit lit’ universe a bit this must be a generic problem for academics.

Guest
pswannabe
2 years ago

Hey Paul, thank you so much for this guide! It has been very useful for me. I am at the reference stage and I can’t quite seem to find the answer to a question that’s on my mind. I graduated from college in 2016 and have been working with the same employer since. That is the job in which I gained the abilities that qualified me for the job I am applying for (I am an external applicant). I do not want to provide my current manager as it could jeopardize my job. However, I can’t think of another manager or reference that could attest to ALL the essential qualifications (abilities + personal suitability) required for the job I am applying for. You mention that references are mainly about personal suitability factors in your article. Do you think I am worrying for nothing? Do you think it’s good enough to provide references that can comfortably attest to personal suitability factors only?

Guest
pswannabe
2 years ago
Reply to  Paul

What a thorough answer, you’re a saint! I can’t thank you enough. This really helps me to make a choice. The fact that I can ask the HR contact which elements are being assessed by the reference check is especially helpful. If I one day I work in the PS, I hope I cross paths with you.

Guest
ArmalyR
2 years ago

Good afternoon!

Thank you for this amazing guide. I have a question regarding the process after the best-fit interview. I qualified for a pool over a year ago, I received an email from the Director to gauge my interest for the position (the discussion was conducted the following week). The discussion went well, they told me all about the position/role, I felt like it went really well. I was aware that they were speaking to other candidates that week. It has been 2 weeks since the best-fit interview. When would be appropriate to follow-up? I did send a thank you email to the director the next day, he replied and thanked me as well minutes after I sent my e-mail. I am in the private sector, so I don’t know what is an appropriate wait time for the government. Should I assume I didn’t get the position if I haven’t heard back in 2 weeks? Any guidance would be greatly appreciated. Thank you!

Guest
mraziyen
3 years ago

Hi PolyWogg, thanks so much for the really useful article. I’m on a casual contract at the moment and I completed 3 co-op terms with the government– 2 with the same team (I am currently on the same team now, but as a casual this time), and 1 with another department last year. It was a 4 month co-op contract, and it did not go well at all. I was going through a lot of personal issues in my life at that time, and the management was not accommodating or understanding (in fact, the other co-op student quit halfway through because it was an awful work environment).
Right now, I have my old director as a reference and my current manager as another one (she worked with me for 3 terms now). Do you think it would be ok if I don’t have a reference from my last job?

Guest
ConfusedOnReferences
3 years ago

Hi PolyWogg, first off, thank you so much for your hard work on this blog! It is much appreciated and has gotten me (an outsider) to this phase for my first competition! However I am a bit confused…
First off the email from fast track solutions says “Please choose a different reference for each competency.” however within the official document that was provided to me “You may use the same reference for multiple questions”. When I asked for clarification all that was said was “You should use another reference”.
Second, it is also stated that the reference “should” be a current or former supervisor.
My issue is, I am not able to get my previous 3 supervisors to provide a reference (spanning 10 years I’ve no idea where they are now or have responded), I do have a former co worker (from a different department I did work for) who is willing to be a reference but I am not 100% confident in their ability to give a detailed response (more of a “yes they were great” and leave it at that person. I do have a current superior that is very willing to be a reference, and has been quite a mentor to me in life and would quite frankly be someone who I am highly confident could answer in detail.
My question is, is it wrong of me to use the choice of reference verbatim according to the actual document and only use my current superior for all the questions (only 2) or would this hurt my chances?