Your Mother Is Not Your Best Job Reference

My 11-year-old came home the other day clutching a job application in his hand. He told me that he had to fill it out because he was applying for the job of computer technician for his 5th grade class. We reviewed the application together. It was pretty standard job application fare: name, contact information, skills/qualifications and of course references.

He needed 2 references. We couldn’t reach his baseball coach, but after a quick phone call across the state to Grandpa, he had 1 reference. The application was due the next day, so I reluctantly agreed to be a reference for him. I mean, I’m his mother. Of course I think he’s wonderful.  So how valuable would that reference be?

But then again, I also know way too much about him. Bless my naive son—he had absolutely no idea the damage I could have done, if he were an actual job applicant in the real world.

I think it’s a point that many real-life job applicants fail to understand as well, especially those new to the job market that may not have a whole lot of options for their reference list. They think that asking a long-time friend or relative might be a good move—“Hey, they’ve known me a long time, they can vouch for me”. Sure, but they also know all of your dirty little secrets. Maybe they’ll be discreet enough to avoid mentioning anything bad.  But then again, maybe they won’t.

When I mentor young people seeking their first professional job, I always counsel them to consider:

Who in your world will paint you in the best possible light with the most specific examples?

People tend to look for references that will do the “positive painting” but overlook the specificity part. If the reference can only give a general, glowing report, it won’t be of much use to the job applicant. So, I try to help job applicants think through their list of contacts with an eye towards concrete accomplishments.

Back to my kid: a few days after he turned in his job application, he interviewed for the job. He must have done well because he got the job. His teacher never called me for that reference. But it would have been OK. I used to work in HR. I know how to give specific, concrete examples of an applicant’s qualifications. Even if he is my son.

Photo credit: iStockphoto

About the Author

Jennifer Miller

For 20+ years, Jennifer V. Miller has been helping professionals “master the people equation” to maximize their personal influence. A former HR generalist and training manager, she now advises executives on how to create positive, productive workplace environments. She is the founder and Managing Partner of SkillSource and blogs at The People Equation. You can connect with Jennifer on Twitter @JenniferVMiller.


Andrea Ballard

Tamkara, I did hesitate for a minute…wondering if he should have been more forthcoming about his reference being his mom. But, he was a college student, she was his primary employer, and when I checked my application it just said “List three references who are familiar with your work.”

He actually had some decent work experience for a college student, and my thought was that the moms I know who own a business are tougher on their kids than they are on their other employees. So I saw it as a positive and a sign of maturity that he had survived a couple of years working with her.

Jennifer V. Miller


I’m so glad that your “mom as job reference” story has a happy ending. These days the media outlets are filled with stories of “helicopter” parents trying to influence their kids’ lives, even on into the workplace. It’s nice to hear a counterpoint to that narrative.

@Tamkara– thanks for the feedback. My son is enjoying his new role as classroom computer technician. There’s no pay of course, but he doesn’t mind. How soon that will change!


Hello Jennifer, Great post! I hope your son got the job.
@ Andrea, Can’t help wondering. Did the confession from the candidates mother affect your hiring decision?
If yes, How so?
Have a great mid week!

Andrea Ballard

Jennifer, I once had a candidate list his mother as a professional reference! He did work for her, and they had different last names, so I wouldn’t have even known, until she confessed at the end of our call. She did give me some insightful information about her son and what we could do to keep him challenged. Maybe we should start asking for more moms to weigh in!


A very entertaining and informative article with some great tips on choosing your references. Since the majority of people tend to give the “the general, glowing report”, it can be helpful if you “coach” your references by telling them more details about the position you are seeking and how your background is a good fit. Most people will appreciate the heads-up and help.


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