How can you tell if your former boss will give you a good reference?

Will your references speak well of you?
Will your references speak well of you?
Image: AP Photo/Matt Rourke
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Q: How can you tell if your former boss will give you a good reference?

Dear Wishful Thinking,

The first and most obvious way to know if you can count on a former employer to give you a thumbs-up would be to ask yourself: Just how good a job did I do for her?

Did you routinely show up to work and meet deadlines? Were you courteous, respectful, and willing to go the extra mile? A trusted teammate, colleague, and employee? If so, it’s safe to expect a reciprocal nod in return. If not, it’s best to temper your expectations.

You might also consider the strength of your working relationship and the manner in which you departed. Some good questions to ask yourself:

  • Did I give adequate notice and reason for leaving?
  • How polite, respectful, and helpful was I throughout the transition?
  • To what degree were lines of communication kept open before, during, and after the process?
  • Was I responsive and courteous when my boss had questions?

Things change, people change, and new opportunities arise. A good boss understands this and, in fact, often gives talented individuals room to grow and move on, noting that parting on good terms can create opportunities for these same individuals to return wiser and more experienced at a later date. Many former bosses are, in other words, perfectly willing to provide a positive reference .

However, a boss left feeling shortchanged, or left holding the proverbial bag, is unlikely to prove a cheerleader. And you’d be well-advised to find alternate references if you’re uncertain as to where the chips would fall. Maybe the most important lesson to keep in mind here is simply to always do unto others as you’d ask they do unto yourself. Remember: Hell hath no fury like a former employer that’s been scorned.

Scott Steinberg is the author of The Business Etiquette Bible.

Do you have a workplace etiquette question? Submit to Scott by emailing