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?


What did you do on the weekend?


How is that big project going?


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.


References — 23 Comments

  1. 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!

    • Hi Jay,

      Well, that’s a lot packed in there. Let me back up a bit and talk about risk. For any references, there are two types of risks — the risk to you as an employee and the risk to them as a potential employer. Starting with the second one, their goal is to know if you have the skills and experience they’re looking for…some people think it is all about testing, but all tests are simulations. Anyone can fake it for a day. I want to know as a manager if you consistently perform that way over time. It’s not a replacement for my testing, but my testing isn’t a replacement for a reference either. If we were in the private sector, you start the job and two weeks later the person realizes you’re an idiot, they can fire you. We can’t do that in the PS very easily. So we need to make sure our decisions have the most info possible and that includes evidence of your past performance. If you hire a contractor for your house, you check references, you don’t turn your foundation over to some guy who stuck a flyer in your door and said “Yeah, I’m great”.

      So, if I want to know how you perform, I don’t want to talk to your friends or people in the industry who says you’re not a nutter, I want to talk to your boss. And sure, I might get a boss who is terrible who will try to prevent you leaving, give a bad reference like out of a Dilbert cartoon, but that’s why we do more than one reference. So we get several people’s views, not just one. If you had a series of bad bosses who will all say the same, well, there’s nothing I as a hiring manager can do about that. You can challenge the reference if you fail and we’ll look at it again.

      But if you contact us ahead of time and say “I need an accommodation because my boss is a jerk, my boss doesn’t like me, nobody likes me, blah blah blah”, that’s the exact same thing someone who sucks would say too. “Oh, don’t ask HER, she doesn’t like me.” Why? Because you suck. Or because they’re terrible people. I don’t know, but the explanation is the same in both cases. So, there’s not a lot we can do to mitigate our risk of hiring a bad employee…we need references of some sort. Some managers think refs are worthless because people only give names of people who will say good things, so why bother. But “good things” is not what we’re asking…we’re asking for your references to give us concrete examples of projects you’ve done well, etc. and most people who say “Oh, he’s great” don’t have those examples at their fingertips.

      As a manager, I’m flexible on which refs you give, but not on whether you give them or not. And no, to answer your specific question, you can’t take a “zero” on the refs…refs check different elements of the Statement of Merit (although often with some overlap) and you usually can’t fail a ref and still pass. You have to pass every element individually. So if interpersonal skills are only on the ref check, and you get “zero”, you’re out.

      Now if I segue back over to you as an employee of your current org and the risk to you, the risks are generally two-fold — your bosses might be pissed that your looking to leave and your relationship may suffer, OR they may just let you go and hire someone who’s planning to stay. Those are real risks, but they’re not all encompassing risks. You mention that you have a bunch of mentors but you can’t use them. I’ll be blunt on this one…if you call them a mentor, and they don’t know you would look outside the company for a job, they’re not a mentor because you’ve been lying to them about your career goals. Instead, you may “consulted” with them, or sought their advice on something, but they are not real mentors. Equally, to be honest, if you interview a 1000 employees, they’ll all tell you their boss “might” react badly. From the HR side the other way, you’re still in it for references which is not a definitive sign, but it’s at least not a negative one either. Rarely do we get “bad references” in the way the employee expects, partly because we’re the government. People doing reference checks with the govt tend to feel a bit more, umm, compelled to be honest.

      Yes, you can choose someone other than your boss. Yes you can use academic references. But in the end, you need someone who can talk about your projects / files / initiatives that you worked on, etc. With concrete examples. It’s not wrong to worry about a bad reaction, but most of the time, the worry is greater than the reaction. Much of it depends on how you frame it. So, let’s talk about some basic elements:

      a. A boss should never find out by accident. It is YOUR job to tell them first.
      b. Focus on some aspect of the job that you cannot do at your current job, which is why you are interested.
      c. Feel free to note that most govt comps are “generic”, you’re not applying for a specific job, and that you just want to make a pool to find out what jobs are really like in the public service. It may not be quite accurate, but it’s not inaccurate either. Many specific jobs you won’t know the details until after it is done, and they are doing informal interviews or making offers.
      d. Some people say they are doing it to “stay sharp” on interview skills so if they ever see their dream job, they’re ready. Or they paint it as “I wanted to see if I could make it.” I don’t recommend either one as it is obvious BS, and if/when you do leave, the manager is likely to react badly too. Not much they can do, but why burn a bridge you don’t have to anymore than it will be just by leaving? Like any relationship, leave on good terms if you can.
      e. Personally, I think the more honest you can be, the more the manager/boss/whoever understands what it is you want to be doing and where you’re going. Managing upward is as important as good relations.

      Lastly, most of the time, a govt wide comp doesn’t mean they have no one and they won’t be picky. They want people, yes, but they still have to tick every box. Once they get the pool done, they’ll likely take everyone they find. But they don’t waive elements because you didn’t have them. They could, however, offer you a contract or something. And they will try to be somewhat flex. But not “we’ll waive references” flex.


      • 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!!


        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.

        • Hi Jay,

          Thanks for the additional info and feedback / pushback. I may not have nuanced things as well as I could on the first go around. So a few things…

          a. Mentors…I’m not disagreeing that someone might call person x or y a mentor, or your company calls them that. But if you are not able to have a conversation with them that includes career goals outside of the company, they’re not really fulfilling the definition of a mentor. Maybe within the company’s definition, but not the layman’s definition or what a true mentor does. Often it is exactly why mentors are not within the same hierarchy or even the same org. So there is no vested interest / conflict of interest in what you discuss.

          b. For bosses finding out by “accident”, I think you confused “surprise” and “by accident”. What I meant was you need to be the one to tell them. You don’t want them finding out from a potential employer who calls them asking for a reference, or from someone running a comp, or a friend who rats you out because they didn’t know it was a secret. Everyone deciding to leave is a surprise to their boss, private or public. You haven’t told them, then you have. Yep, it’s a surprise. But it’s a bit like any personal relationship you care about…romantic, friend, work, etc. You don’t break up by text, you don’t talk smack behind your friend’s back, you don’t let your supervisor/boss find out from someone other than you that you’re thinking of leaving. If they do, then the issue is no longer about you leaving, it’s about you leaving AND how you were doing it, and guarantees a bad outcome.

          c. For the references, I wrote a ton of nuanced stuff and then deleted it because it is sophistry. Here’s the shorter reality and I decided to be blunter about how this works:

          1. Everybody who joins govt came from outside at some point.
          2. All of them had concerns about references.

          Yet the govt has 250K people who cracked that nut.

          So anyone who tells us “I can’t give you a reference” is lying to themselves or us or both. What you’re really saying is “I don’t want to take the risk for x reason.” Okay. Then don’t. I’m not saying that’s fair, I’m not saying it’s “external friendly”, I’m saying it’s the reality. It may be uncomfortable, it may not be “risk free”, it may not be your first choice. But YOU applied for the job. This isn’t a company selling you a product and trying to get your business; this isn’t a govt program you’re applying for benefits from and they have to accommodate your “rights” or “preferences”.

          A slightly different way of looking at it is to look at the risk around your application:

          i. There is a risk to your current employer that you might leave, poor morale if you do or don’t, etc.;
          ii. There is a risk to you that your current employer won’t be happy or that you won’t like the new job, etc.;
          iii. There is a risk to the new employer that you actually suck or that you’ll decide you don’t like it and leave.

          Almost every time someone says, “But what about situation x”, they are trying to shift risk away from themselves and on to either their current employer or their potential employer.

          In this case, what people are saying is, “I’m a special applicant and I want it so there is NO RISK in (ii) and I don’t care about the risks in (i) and (iii), so we should change the entire process to accommodate me so I don’t have to give references.”

          Why would we make that change and assume all the risk? This is someone who has a job that you want. If you want the job, be the duck. If they are hiring ducks, you walk, talk, act like a duck. Every time from start to finish that you say, “Well, you KNOW, I’m a special duck and you should accommodate me”; if it’s not some human rights issue to accommodate, their response is almost always going to be, “Yep, not looking for special ducks, just a regular duck, see ya”.

          If you want zero risk, you don’t apply. There’s nothing the government or ANY employer anywhere can do to give you zero risk.

          If you’re willing to take the risk of applying and not getting the job, do it. Maybe you’ll say, “Well I’ll risk it but I don’t want to risk doing a lot of work, so I’ll apply crappy so I don’t lose anything.” Annnnnnd you’ll get screened out.

          So instead, you’re willing to take a larger risk, trying hard to get it (like everyone else who’s applying and actually wants it), then you voluntarily assume the risk that goes with that decision. But again, at each stage you’re making a risk calculation. Nobody can do that for you. Maybe the question becomes, “Would you rather give an alternate ref and hope for the best or a real ref and deal with the consequences?”

          Maybe you say, “Okay, I’m going to give refs BUT I want to minimize the blowback” so you give alternate refs like the three you did. Okay, good. Oh but they’re not able to talk to judgement precisely? Well, CAN you make it so they have a shot? What if you provide them with some info? So, could you write your coworker and say “thanks bob — they’ll likely ask you about judgement and you may want to talk about project x, where I did a, b, c as I already talked about that with them.” Semi-scripting Bob to be able to answer the questions you expect Bob to be asked. This isn’t unique to an alternate ref, you should do that with ANY ref. You want the job, not them, so even if they were your boss, that doesn’t mean they’ll remember you did a, b, c two years ago without prompting. Less risk, but still trying to maximize the reward within it.

          HR when dealing with externals are and will be as flexible as they can be about who and how, but they’re not flexible on whether. For info, the issue with refs is lower risk if you’re applying for lower level jobs…entry level people always have that problem, usually from lack of experience and so the weighting / scoring might be different. At higher levels? People expect you to have SOMEONE somewhere that can say you’re not a nutter with actual details of your work. If you have a company that does not give refs as policy, that is more reason for the HR People to be flexible on who and how, but it still doesn’t change whether.

          d. Hires are mostly internal because of what we do is surprisingly unique. Take something seemingly universal like payroll. People who do pay for a large insurance firm might have 3 different policies and individual pay levels set by the manager and promotions. But is basically three policies and 1 process to merge. Govt has 250K people, 70 different classifications, 6 different levels often per classification, five different bands in each AND all of it governed by slightly different rules, collective agreements, and legislation all tied to start dates and signing dates. If you’re hiring entry-level, private sector is a great option. If you’re hiring above entry level, the tier 2 person in the private sector has good supervisory / business process experience but no knowledge on how to manage such a complex system of pieces. So if I need a Tier 2 person in govt, I’m more likely to find that experience in Tier 1 govt than I am Tier 2 private sector. That’s not simple arrogance, it’s experience from hiring superstars who come in above entry level and crash and burn. Academics are a great example…good at their field, and can’t write anything but academic style. Equally, you see universities hire experts every September for sessionals and they can’t teach worth crud. If you want someone doing the job well, you’re more likely to find someone who’s doing the same job at a lower level. Headhunter firms in the private sector do the same thing, basically. If you want a new hedge fund manager to come into your company, the HH firm will generate a list of people with similar + equal and similar + slightly more junior jobs in the industry, who are doing the SAME job already. You don’t hire someone to learn on the job so easier to hire internal if govt stuff is unique, external if not.

          In the end, I can put on a real mentor’s hat for a moment and say, “In the end, it’s up to you. Yes, I get what you’re saying, you see it as a real issue for references, okay. I may not agree, but it’s your career. But there is no option that will be zero risk for you. Normally most advice is, “If you want the reward (job), take the risk.” It seems more like for you, the appropriate advice is “If you’re not willing to take the risk, don’t apply” or “lower your expectations if you’re using alternate refs.” Nobody can give you zero risk, nobody can make the decision for you.”

          And as I said, there are 250K current federal employees who cracked a similar nut already. Plus 100s of thousands of provincial employees, and that’s just in Canada. And only CURRENT employees. Not even ALL employees ever.

          FYI, lots of people have similar but different nuts to crack:

          – They only worked in academia and there are often no “supervisors”, more like faculty heads or coworkers;
          – They worked overseas and in the past at least, most people didn’t do international reference checks, too expensive and too rare (easier now);
          – They worked in multiple jobs as a consultant and thus have a lot of “short-term” deliverables but no real boss who managed them for 6m+;
          – They worked in small organizations (two people) and no real boss;
          – Their boss retired and they worked for them for 10 years with no one else to suggest.

          Again, as I said, HR deals with it all with flex on who and how, not whether. The more you stray from “current” and “supervisor”, the less relevant the reference and the greater chance of not passing with enough detail. The difference, as I said, is often now that there isn’t a “who” (like some of the above) but that they don’t want to use the best who.

          Good luck, and if you decide not to take the risks, our loss.


          • 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 “” some day to thank you as well.

            For now, thanks and be well.

            – Jay

          • Anytime…it was interesting as I wrote my response. THere were tons of little nuances here and there that I wanted to add, and most of them weren’t that useful, too many shades of gray. So I wrote it more from the perspective of “let’s talk turkey”. 🙂

            Glad it helped, and good luck!


  2. 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.

    • Hi Angela, thanks for the compliments and glad you found it enjoyable…I’ll take your four questions in order.

      a. PC-04…You’ve heard nothing and you want to know if rejection is on the way. The short answer, for every comp, is “nobody knows”. There is no service standard to measure against, and the only way to know about the stages they are in is by asking the HR person coordinating it all if there’s any news. You don’t want to pester them, but 2m is not pestering (2d would be hehhehe). There’s also a possibility that you were the first one interviewed and maybe they have 50 people to go through, all of which requires managers or directors to get their schedules together. In a normal world, there could be lots of reasons for delays — people travelling, lining up schedules, etc. Right now, the main reason is just people making the time available to do the interviews, agree on the scores, roll it all up, etc. They could also have had a bunch of priorities come up in the last two months given the budget announcements, and they’re just too busy doing the day work to focus on hiring. It’s a catch-22 — you need people because you’re so busy, but you’re too busy to stop what you’re doing to run a hiring process. However, the short version is while no news isn’t “good” news, it is definitely absence of bad news. It’s really easy to say “Nope, you’re out, you failed”, if you did. If you don’t hear back, it means they haven’t wrapped up everyone yet, or possibly you are still in the running. No news is usually neutral or good.

      b. Realistic time frames…same answer for both, and again, there’s no service standard and it depends on how “open” the call was and if they got 500 applicants or only 50. In my view, if they are being diligent, 2m isn’t unheard of for a good “max” time to do the initial screening; written another 2m; interviews another 2m; refs etc another 2m; and 8m for all of it.

      c. Using Performance Agreements…so, the short answer is they CAN use them, but there is no best practice around it yet. There are also some people who definitely do NOT want to use them. Let me give you a for instance. Suppose you’re working for someone as an EC-05, and you get an acting as an EC-06 for the year. If you were to be rated as an EC-05 (your substantive level), you might get a succeeded + or even surpassed (4/5 or 5/5). Which is awesome. BUT as an acting, you are rated against the level you’re acting in, which might merely be a “met expectations”. So someone who didn’t get the acting ends up with a higher overall rating than someone who earned an acting and only gets “met”.

      A few competitions have been run where the wording was they were only going to take people who achieved “succeeded + or surpassed” in their last two years. But an acting could easily be equivalent of that, yet the screening doesn’t allow for it. And people have challenged it because of it. More insidiously, some departments / branches / directorates / divisions / teams (pick whatever level of org you want) might have a more lenient policy for handing out higher ratings than another with a tighter view of what it means to “go above” expectations. Not everyone’s standards are the same. So most managers are a bit leery of relying solely on another managers overall rating.

      In terms of voluntarily attaching them, you can, but most processes are never going to look at them. The screening criteria is really clear — you have to prove it in the upfront portal questions / cover letter components. Even your resume is “supplementary” proof, not primary proof. Your PA would serve the same function, validation of what you already wrote, but not to provide primary proof. So not sure it helps you.

      Where it COULD be useful is if you were going for a “best fit” interview and either before or at the meeting, offer to share them with the manager. You would want to be sure though that not just the rating and comments are positive, but the actual “results” shown are substantive representation of what you did i.e. not a tick box PA but something the two of you (you and your manager) spent some realistic time writing to make sure it’s succinct and impressive.

      If they want them, they’ll take them. The HR people doing stuff earlier would probably ignore them.

      Hope that helps…


      • 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.

  3. 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?

    • Hi xx,

      It’s a little hard to be too specific without more details but my reaction is that generally, wherever refs are required, they are looking for people who can speak to your work. A peer reference won’t suffice, normally.

      However, I’m not sure what you mean by you have no bosses…having spent enough time in academia myself, there were always heads of faculty, deans, heads of colleges, university presidents, etc. “Someone” who hired you.

      Unless you mean you have no official work experience, only academic / research experience with things like MA or Ph.D. In which case, your thesis or graduate advisor would suffice? I am happy to suggest others, but unfortunately, would need a bit more info about your situation.


      • 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.

        • I reached out to a friend who is ex-gov and now tenured, and he agreed with assessment that Dean would be useless (well, at least for THIS purpose hehehe), and he’d likely go with departmental chair and/or trusted colleague.

          Two other thoughts occur to me, not sure if they’ll work for you. First, it may not be as big an issue as you might think. For example, if it is a job that is open to non-govt AND is likely to attract the interest of academics, many could be in the identical position. Second, one of the most frequent questions people ask is “what if I don’t want my current boss to know because I’m in the private sector and they might fire me?”. And they think that is an unusual situation but it isn’t … almost every process open to non-PS people has candidates with the same issue. Generally, that means you contact the HR person who’s the admin contact, explain your situation, and propose alternate names. Which you could do for this exercise too.

          If you do have alternate names, such as trusted colleagues, think carefully as to who can respond to which elements. For example, if one of the areas they’re doing ref checks on is your ability to work with others / interpersonal skills, you need to ensure at least one of your references can speak to that point clearly, and COVID notwithstanding, preferably someone who has seen you do it in person, not just someone with whom you collaborated with over emails.

          Good luck, and happy to hear what HR contact tells you if you go that route…


  4. 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?

    • Hi Armelle,

      Thanks for the compliments and glad you found it useful. So this is a pretty common problem with no common solution. If you were already in the PS, where your current job wouldn’t be in “jeopardy”, just some relationship issues with your boss, I would generally tell you to weigh the consequences either way. On the one hand, you don’t want your boss to think you’re trying to leave but it’s a bigger risk if they find you ARE leaving but you weren’t the one to tell them. So I just generally advise within the PS to be as upfront as possible, including it as part of your career development discussions, you’re competing for jobs, etc. Some bosses in the PS are still jerks, but well, you can’t manage their reaction, only your own behaviour.

      When you’re outside govt as an external applicant, the world changes of course. You literally ARE putting your current job at risk, although in an ideal world, the same rationale would apply i.e., they could find out a dozen different ways and if it isn’t you telling them, it goes South faster and harder. Equally, you could even involve them in your job search (networking, referrals, etc.). But we don’t live in the ideal world. Most guides out there for the private sector say don’t tell anyone you work with and ask your new employer to keep it discrete. All good, right?

      However, to be clear, your question is two-fold:

      a. Avoiding your boss
      b. How to ensure coverage of the right elements for your reference

      To recap the guide, in the job poster, there are four categories — experience (obvious), knowledge (obvious), abilities (generally tested), and Personal Suitability (partly tested and partly through references). In the P/S group, it often includes judgement, reliability, interpersonal skills, etc. The best person to assess those is likely a current boss. But it doesn’t have to be — but it DOES generally have to be someone in an employment situation. To be clear, P/S **edit** DOESN’T mean just some sort of character assessment and that you can use friends or your church pastor. They’re still checking how you demonstrate p/s elements in a work setting, generally.

      The good news though is that when you are asked for references, you can ask the HR contact which elements are being assessed by the reference checks and even tell them that you have a couple of different references to choose from, but want to be able to ensure they can cover the aspects being assessed through the reference check. Part of their list you can figure out anyway — if they haven’t assessed it yet, but it was on the poster, it’s definitely in the reference check. You can choose whether or not you are blunt with the HR contact about not contacting your current boss and why … this is not an unusual situation … but you can also just say, as I suggested, “trying to ensure you give the right refs for the right elements”.

      The bad news though is that you CANNOT say “For element 1, ask Bob; for Element 2, ask Dave; For Element 3, ask John”. The references don’t work that way — they’ll ask Bob + Dave + John about all three elements. And the bad part of that is if Bob can’t talk about Element 3 or Dave can’t talk about Element 1, their references are weak on those elements and you can fail the reference. References are not asked “Tell me how you would rate Armelle, 1-5”, they say “Give us some examples of how Armelle does with X”, and then based on the examples, the HR manager assigns a score. So you need references who can give examples, not just say “he’s a good boy” or “I like her”. The best person to do that is likely your current boss.

      Which is also a long-way around to say that while you risk telling your boss, you also take risks in NOT telling your boss because you can’t use your best person as your reference. Almost all guides for the private sector say it’s a “case by case” decision, unfortunately. All I can do is tell you some of the elements to help you make a decision…

      Good luck!


      • 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.

        • No problem Armelle, although I was just reading over my answer and there were a couple of refs in there that weren’t clear and one where I said “DOES” instead of “DOESN’T”, so I’ve edited my response to be a bit clearer. Sorry about that…


  5. 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!

    • Hi Armaly,

      the bad news is that 2w is right in the middle of good news / bad news. My feeling is if you had not heard in a week, it would mean simply timing. If it was 3w, I’d say go ahead and follow-up, which could be simply “I’m still interested, and let me know if you need any further information…”. You could even say, if you want, “I know you have other candidates and that you may still be assessing, but wanted to reiterate my continued interest and ….”. But at 2w, you’re on the line between “timing” and “you should have heard something”. You can still follow up as I said, and it won’t seem pushy, just nudge-y. 🙂

      However, it could be they have someone else in mind. And they don’t want to yet say “Sorry went with someone else” because they haven’t confirmed with them yet. And if it was me, I wouldn’t want you to think I don’t want you, because you might be my second choice. So I might still be dancing with partner 1 and they haven’t said yes or no yet. But following up now or in a week won’t affect their response or seem questionable. In a week could be pushy, 2w+ is not.

      Good luck,


  6. 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?

    • Generally not a problem…the desire is usually expressed only as “current” + previous ones. Occasionally it says “last two” or whatever. But I would put the ones you have and leave the other one out of it. If someone specifically asks for it, you can give it or not. But most people know you will choose current (if possible) + the best other ones you have. Particularly given your level. Often it is challenging to have ANY refs for entry level, so people don’t often fuss as hard.
      Good luck!

  7. 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?

    • Unfortunately, the person answering your questions about which ref to use, etc., is likely a clerk. They have no real understanding of the process, they likely are the administrative contact whose job is to match email x with candidate y to create a table they’ll use to validate info. Which means anyone who is outside the “norm” of what they’re looking for is at a disadvantage.
      The short answer is that of course you are going to use the same reference for more than one element. Not the least of which is that they’re likely to be the best for several examples. If I had worked as an EC-04 for example for one boss, got promoted to EC-05 with another, and was now competing for a -06 a few years later, which boss is likely to have the most relevant info about how I am currently performing? The second / current one. So you’re likely going to want to use them for your more senior examples. The previous one can speak to other issues.
      For your dilemma, you list who you have. Some people have had the same supervisor for 7 or 8 years. It makes VERY hard for them to list anyone else. Your problem is different — you can’t locate the others. In that case though, your solution narrows to “what do I have”? You list the people you CAN list, and give them a small explanation with your submission. Say, for example, that you have one current supervisor to submit plus one former coworker. Some people will add a “jump” reference if they can. So, for example, they’ll list their manager plus their director, noting that the Director may not have as detailed information.
      You list who you have. The good news is that you will NOT be the only person with a problem matching the typical submission. Everyone has SOME sort of problem usually. For myself, I worked for the same boss for a number of years, two levels above me with no intermediary, and when he retired, not long after, he changed his home contact information and I completely lost touch. No supervisor, no “jump” option. Others face the problem that their supervisor rotates so often, they might have to submit a phone book to list them. Or they’ve been on leave, the person’s moved on, the person isn’t the best at answreing referneces, or your “current” hates you.
      But worrying about it won’t help much. List the best you have, and if it isn’t what they want, they’ll come back and ask. If it doesn’t fit their criteria, there’s nothing you can do about it anyway. But often they adjust because others weren’t “normal” either.
      Kind of a rambling answer, hope it helps at least a bit.

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