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When applying for jobs that ask for references, who is appropriate to use for a reference? I know that common practice is to use people you have worked with, but are non-work references acceptable as well?

For instance, suppose you frequently email a person about their work and ask them questions. Can you use them as a work reference even if you do not professionally work with them?

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Suppose you frequently email a person about their work and ask them questions. Can you use him as a work reference even if you do not professionally work with him?

You can use anyone you choose as a reference. But the real question is - would this be a wise choice?

You could use the President of the United States as a reference, but unless you actually worked with her/him, it would be foolish to do so.

Similarly, you could use your internet buddy, whom you have never really met and have never really work with, but it might not make sense to do so. If a hiring manager called this person and asked about you, what insight could this person provide? If your internet buddy said "I've never met him." would that help or hurt your job candidacy?

In general, you want references who know you well enough, and have direct evidence of your work, and who will say really good things about your work ability when asked. Using anyone else is a risk.

At best, your email friend might be able to say "He sends a lot of emails, and asks good questions." But it's unlikely he has any direct evidence of your work ability. Is that the best you can do for a reference?

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  • The reference could say that I ask interesting insightful questions. – thomwguy Mar 6 '14 at 16:58
  • @thomwguy, asking interesting insightful questions does not equate to an ability to solve problems and get things done. I hire people for the latter, not the former. – cdkMoose Mar 6 '14 at 17:36
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If I was to use a person I didn't work with directly as a reference, the person and my relationship to the person would have to meet certain criteria:

  • The person would need to be fairly well-known in my industry (for instance I have some people I have worked with online who are SQL Server MVPs)
  • I would have to be the one providing information or help to that person not getting information from him. This might have been in the form of helping him out on some technicial issues or writing blog posts for him when he was unable to do so for some reason, contributing to a book that he edited or providing training at an event like SQL Saturdays or working with him on conferences. It isn't a reference unless he, in some way, knows and respects your work.
  • I would have to have the requisite 3 references from my work experience before adding this one. This type of reference is in addition to never instead of.
  • The person has agreed to provide the reference and didn't go, "Who are you again?" In other words, the person remembers you.

This type of reference is useful if it would impress the hiring officials that you have influential contacts outside your own office who think highly of you. It would not impress them if you have no co-workers who also think highly of you.

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My experience has been that by the time a company decides to check your references, they've already made the decision to hire you & are just covering their bases.

The exception is recruiting or contracting firms, who will vet candidates before they represent them.

My dad actually had an experience where a recruiter called him back and said, can you get another reference, because one of your references panned you. ;)

Really, if this person you interact with is willing, and that relationship is OK with the company doing the check, then sure. But what I usually do is have a list of references, and if the company complains they want more managers, or more coworkers, or whatever, then I have those contacts on hand.

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  • "that relationship is OK with the company doing the check" -- since it is likely that the company doesn't specify, would you recommend asking if the relationship is okay, or otherwise how to broach the subject with the potential employer? Thanks in advance. – jmac Mar 13 '14 at 7:10
  • Sometimes the application specifies what the references need to be (recently I had one that specified "at least two managers"). If it specifies, then I would probably ask. But if it's just open-ended references, I might be bold and just list him. The company can always call and ask for a different reference. (Make really sure your friend knows what's coming though, and that they're OK with saying good things about you.) – sea-rob Mar 13 '14 at 7:15
  • Odds are, as one of the other answers specified, the hiring company will want a more direct work relationship. However, if they really want to hire you and the reference check is a formality, then it's less important. I've had lots of positions where they didn't check references at all. It's very situational. One time I even asked a customer to write me a letter of recommendation, and I still got by OK. – sea-rob Mar 13 '14 at 7:37
  • Reference checks are not just a formality. While they won't generally get you the job As they are not checked until late in the process, they most certainly can prevent you from getting the job. – HLGEM Mar 13 '14 at 13:57
  • Well, I think the formal answer here is, "No", but I've been in lots of situations that were less than formal. :) – sea-rob Mar 13 '14 at 16:43

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