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Although I can remember the contact information of my ex-bosses, ...

  1. I wasn't ever allowed to give them to any third parties,
  2. They probably never wanted to be my free, lifelong career helpers.
  3. I can't guarantee they can be even contacted on these addresses.

But if I don't give it out, they will think I have something to hide.

From some of them I could collect a list of different reference papers - but, of course, these were the bosses, which were satisfied with my work.

How can I go about obtaining references when contacts may be unavailable / unwilling?

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Employers will actually ask for references all the time from your old employers, as it's generally the best way to know if an employee maintained a good reputation or not at his/her previous jobs. As a result, bosses generally expect to be used as references from their former employees. You shouldn't feel like they're your "lifelong carrier helpers" by asking for a reference.

Piggybacking off of that, proper etiquette does say that you need to ask your old bosses if you can use them as a reference before you write them in as a reference on an application. Generally, if you did a satisfactory job, they shouldn't have any reason to say no. If you didn't do a satisfactory job, then you should probably be questioning your decision to use them as a reference.

However, it seems from the context of your question that you haven't kept in contact with many of your old bosses. In this case, I would give the last contact information that you have, and if possible and in addition, the company's general office number in case the personal number can no longer be reached. At the very least, it will allow your potential employer to contact someone at your old office who might be able to vouch for you.

Lastly, if you do have any recommendation letters from your old bosses, then I would definitely give those as part of your job application. Even if they aren't able to contact your old bosses, the recommendation letters will help.

  • In many cases I have only a linkedin profile or an email address of the boss at another company... I have a list of reference papers, why it isn't enough? – Gray Sheep Feb 12 '15 at 17:32
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    It always helps to personally hear from someone else concerning a reference. You can ask questions to that person and gauge not just the answer, but the reaction as well. It's like why you would call someone or meet them in person over simply texting or emailing them. – panoptical Feb 12 '15 at 18:36
  • @user8558 email isn't a huge problem these days, but linkedin isn't going to cut it for most. Assuming you left on good terms typically I'd expect you to at least have a phone number (office or personal) or be able to get one. If you can't get one it's usually an indicator things didn't end on good terms and that your boss wants nothing to do with you. Obviously there are MANY exceptions to that, but usually you can just say "I would but" and if it's a good enough reason it'll pass. (my boss died, my boss is terminally ill, etc.) I'd try to fact check it, but that's all. – RualStorge Feb 12 '15 at 19:03
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    @user8558 if you are connected on LinkedIn, message them there asking (a) whether you can put them down as a reference, and (b) if so, what contact email address and/or phone number you should put. – Carson63000 Feb 13 '15 at 0:56
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There are different kinds of refernces. First is the contact information for the places you worked. It no longer matters if your immediate boss is still there, becasue likely HR will field this call and just look up if you were emplyed on the dates you claimed to be emplyed. It is critical to get the dates so they match what HR says or you will be eliminated from consideration for being a liar. If you didn't keep those dates, call that company's HR yourself and ask.

Put your bosses name in the supervisor block on the form and HRs phone number if the boss has moved on or his direct line if he has not. If you weren't supposed to give out his direct line, the company should have some main office line, put that in instead. Yes it is up to you to make sure these numbers are as current as they can be. Sometimes, the company has gone out of bnusiness and then just explain that there is no longer anyone to contact there.

Professional references can talk to how well you work. These are often not you previous boss. Many places require it to not be your boss as they are checking through the company anyway. These are people who can speak to your technical skills and work ethic. They can be co-worker peers, former clients (espcially if you have freelanced or worked directly with people outside your company), senior people who were not your boss that you dealt with frequently, etc. You need to ask each of these people if they would be willing to be a reference.

You should keep a list of these people and keep in contact with them if you are planning to use them as references. My current references for instance would be a Project Manager I worked with on some major projects, a former co-worker who I worked with for several years and the VP of a company that was our client. What you want is to pick the three or 4 people who will talk about you most positively. Most of the time, you should stick to people you have worked with recently although going back 1-2 jobs is good too. Having a reference from 20 years ago and no one newer is a bad sign.

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First - realize that you are not a pariah here - everyone has this problem. You are not a horrible drain on society for occasionally asking for a favor, and there's a certain balance of "pay it forward" here where people who have had good working relationships help each other out.

Some pointers...

Realize the difference in types of references:

Employment verification - is simply that you have worked where you claimed, under the circumstances you claimed (job title, length of time, office location, major division). Often companies provide a phone service for this, so that managers won't have to be the contact point every time a verification is needed.

Professional reference (phone) - is a more targeted personal expenditure of time on behalf of someone who was a good colleague/employee. For the referrer, this means committing one's phone number being shared, and to be ready to make time for a call and to say some meaningful, true, nice things about the person asking for a reference. Usually the commitment is a 1/2 hour to coordinate the call and a 1/2 hour to provide the verbal reference.

Written reference - is a written form of the professional reference. It's even easier, because you can write it once, and expect that the person requesting it will keep it on file so you don't have to re-write it every time.

Many jobs will want ~3 references, of your choice, at least one from a former manager. They may want an employment verification from every job listed on your resume. So... if you've had 20 jobs, you still really only need 3-5 people who are willing to be your reference... you need 20 employment referral contact points.

Have a Reference Pool

  1. Make note of people (bosses and colleagues) who you liked and would work with again.
  2. Tell them so, especially when you leave a job. "Hey, it's really been a pleasure working with you... may I get your information and keep in touch?". Exiting a company is a great time to ask others if they are willing to be a reference in the future. If you've just taken a new job, you don't need a reference right away, but you can always ask "in the future, would you mind me asking you for a reference?".
  3. Actually keep in touch with former coworkers. 1-2 times a year is fine. Grab lunch, write a "hello" email. Ask how they are.
  4. With steps 1-3 in place, it's much less awkward to ask "hey, how's it going? I have XYZ job opportunity, could I ask you to be a reference?" - now you aren't calling out of the blue, this is a relationship.
  5. When asking, make the process as easy for the person helping you as possible. I recommend that when you ask for a reference you give as much detail as possible. For example:

    • Nature of your job search - "My current company is doing poorly, I hope to find something in the next few months". or... "I'm doing fine, I'm just looking for something better." - that tells the reviewer how urgent your search is.
    • Nature of the job you are looking for - "I'm trying to go for a sales position, as you know, I've got engineering skills, but I need to convince these folks I'm also a good communicator"
    • Details of the specific reference they are giving - the job description, the name of the company, the timeline - asking early for an open ended reference is fine, but when you're actually giving out the person's name, tell them where and for what.
    • Your details - send them a resume so they know how you've sold yourself. Don't ever ask a reference to be untruthful - if they point out inaccuracies in your resume, be willing to consider an update.
    • Any connection info you can give - the name of the recruiter, the way they will contact your reference (they asked me for an email... so I assume they'll write you at this account)

That way the person helping you is prepared to be the best reference they can be.

  1. Keep your pool fresh. Some relationships will last a career and both people will feel they've benefited. Others go stale and are replaced with new relationships. Every year, review your pool and figure out whether other people in your life today would be a better fit than the folks who have agreed in the past to help you.

Helping is helpful.

As a manager I can tell you that being part of reference pools in my professional network is never a bad thing. I get a few major benefits out of it:

  • I keep in touch with people I liked working with... I change companies and grow in my profession. Having former employees of mine reach out on occasion can lead to me recruiting them to come work for me again. Having a formerly good employee come to work for me again is WAY less risky than hiring someone who I just met.

  • I use the kindness of referrers myself when making hiring decisions - if other managers weren't willing to give genuine references, then I would be stuck when trying to figure out my own hiring decisions. I'm not just doing good for my own network when I give a reference, I'm paying my dues to stressed out managers everywhere, who help me out when I need to check references.

  • Everyone asks someone else for references. It's like a potluck - everyone brings something, everyone partakes. You are only selfish if you don't help others in return. Your manager will ask their manager for a reference, and so the cycle continues.

When to be concerned about asking for a reference:

Primarily, when you don't have a good relationship with the person you are asking. If you're leaving because you've gotten horrible feedback or because you really hate your boss... this is not a good reference for you.

The other case would be if you must ask for reference giving that is over and above the call of duty. My experience has been that when I agree to give a reference for a job hunt, I may actually be used as a reference 3-5 times per person per hunt. Of those 3-5 times, I may get an actual call once. References are not checked all that often. In my industry, most folks don't hunt for a job every year - it's usually around 3 years before a person will ask again for a reference from me.

If you are going to be hunting in a way that makes the frequency of reference giving far higher than the norm in your industry - let the referrer know and be very thankful. Be aware that you may have to build a bigger pool so you aren't asking the same people too often.

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