Further Questions: Should a Candidate List a Previous Subordinate as a Reference?

Here’s a question from a reader. This week I asked people who hire librarians:

How would you feel about a candidate that lists his or her previous subordinate as a reference? Would it make a difference if the candidate was apply for a position that had an equivalent or more amount of staff oversight, or for a job that had less or no staff oversight?

Cathi Alloway

As long as there are other references from superiors, it would be great to see references from subordinates, especially if they cite specific achievement, i.e. “supported me in a major project”….”clearly communicated expectations and helped me advance my career”….etc etc etc.

– Catherine Alloway, Director, Schlow Centre Region Library

For full disclosure, I have asked a previous subordinate for a reference when applying for a supervisory position thinking that it would be good to have a staff member talk about what an amazing manager I am! You can feel free to laugh at that because I did not get the position I applied for but I know it is not because I used her as a reference, the other candidate who now has the position had many more years of supervisory experience than I did and she was a better fit for the job. In any case, looking back, I wish I did not ask her for a reference because it may have put her in a very uncomfortable position given I was her supervisor before and she would certainly need me to provide positive references for her in the future so she may have felt obligated to say yes, and to give me a glowing reference.

When applying for positions you need to select your references carefully. Now that I have more hiring experience, if a candidate listed a previous subordinate as a reference it might raise a red flag for me since I would wonder if the search committee could get an honest reference from the person given that they will expect to receive a positive reference from the job candidate at some point in the future. I know it is not always possible to get your immediate supervisor to provide a reference but others in the library that are in supervisory roles or peers with more years of experience than you would be able to talk about your work as a supervisor.

– Julie Leuzinger, Department Head, Eagle Commons Library, University of North Texas Libraries

angelynn king

I think it would be great to have “360-degree” references from supervisors, coworkers, and employees, as well as colleagues from outside the library/department with whom the candidate had collaborated.

-Angelynn King, Head Librarian, Delaware Technical Community College, Owens Campus

Marleah AugustineThere are several pros and cons for subordinates as references. There can be undue pressure to give a good reference, or the person may feel reluctant to give an honest appraisal. I do think subordinates can give a unique perspective of the applicant, and that perspective can be helpful to those doing the hiring. Those who call references would need to ask the right questions in order to get the most valuable information and reassure the reference that they are looking for an honest assessment of the candidate.

– Marleah Augustine, Adult Department Librarian at Hays Public Library

Petra Mauerhoff, CEO, Shortgrass Library SystemTo be honest, I would not be impressed if a candidate listed a subordinate as a main reference, instead of a supervisor.
While I can understand that some boards hiring a Chief Librarian may be interested in feedback from former subordinates, to gauge how the candidate related to the staff in his/her former position, I would be primarily interested in hearing from someone who was involved in evaluating the candidate’s performance. A reference with a higher level view of the candidate’s performance will most likely still be biased in favour of the candidate (otherwise I am assuming they would not have been chosen as a reference), but with a subordinate giving a reference, I would expect a greater bias.
I might consider a reference from a former subordinate in addition to the supervisory reference, but not on its own.
– Petra Mauerhoff, CEO, Shortgrass Library System

Randall SchroederListing subordinates as references would not pose a problem for me unless direct reports were all that were listed. One job I applied for, quite some time ago, asked for contacts from somebody who worked above me, someone who worked with me as a colleague and somebody who worked under me as a subordinate. I have always been intrigued with that idea about getting multiple perspectives.

It can be instructive to talked to someone who has been managed by someone who wishes to move up the management ladder. My only caveat is that if the reference list is nothing but subordinates, I would want to talk to somebody who was either a colleague or superior to get another perspective if the candidate is a person of interest.

– Randall Schroeder, Director of Libraries, Archives and Media at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota

Marge Loch WoutersI don’t consider a reference from a subordinate to be a strong reference, especially if a reference from a management level staffer in that library isn’t included in the mix. That sends up some red flags for me. While I can understand wanting to use a subordinate’s reference as proof of successful management style, the power inequities inherent in many of these relationships  rings a warning bell in the back of my mind. A reference from a supervisor/manager of the applicant who has had staff oversight usually covers the strength of that applicant as a manager of staff. I might also suggest a better strategy might be to enlist as reference a peer or colleague in the same system or library who is familiar with the applicant’s successful management style and can speak specifically to the applicant’s strength as a supervisor.

– Marge Loch-Wouters, Youth Services Coordinator, La Crosse (WI) Public Library

Jacob Berg


Please do not list a previous subordinate as a reference.



-Jacob Berg, Director of Library Services,  Trinity Washington University

Terry Ann Lawler

Our organization requires that applicants submit 3 supervisors as references. However, I do see merit in listing a subordinate. So, for us, if you are required to submit 3 references, you could submit 3 prior supervisors and add a 4th reference using a direct report. I think having that reference provides valuable information about how you communicate information and encourage growth in your employees. This is good information to have regardless of whether or not you would be supervising in the new position.

– Terry Lawler, Assistant Manager and Children’s Librarian, Palo Verde Branch, Phoenix Public Library

Sherle Abramson-BluhmI would consider a reference from a subordinate as an extra piece of information If the posting requires three – I would expect 3 that are supervisors or peers, but would be interested to hear from a subordinate It would have less bearing if the position applied for does not supervise, but I think things could be learned such as communication, management style and staff engagement. I would always keep in mind that the reference may have a vested interest.

– Sherle Abramson-Bluhm, Head, Print Acquisitions, University of Michigan

I’ve always wished we could come up with a good way to get fair, accurate, and reliable information about a candidate from those she has supervised, but the perils always seem to far outweigh the potential benefits.  So in general I would view a reference from a former subordinate with a good bit of skepticism unless there were mitigating circumstances that were clearly explained.

For example a mature candidate who was a career-switcher or had been out of the workforce for a while could take an entry or re-entry position reporting to a younger and/or overall more inexperienced supervisor.  Once such a candidate moved on, and quite possibly accelerated through her career path, she could “get ahead” of, or at least level with her former boss and be in a very good position to comment on her former supervisor’s performance and qualities.  And I imagine there might be other settings, circumstances, or positions involved that would also make such a reference legitimate, but these would be exceptional situations that would need to be articulated.  In addition to a clear explanation of the distinctive circumstances, I would suggest the candidate also include an additional, typical reference that could be checked in case the employer is not permitted by their organization to consider references from former subordinates.

– Ann Glannon, Associate Director, Wheelock College Library, Boston, MA

This week’s question was quite intriguing. I personally think a subordinate could have valuable information that would differ from what a supervisor or higher level colleague could provide. However, I know that some people would be put off by having a subordinate on a list of references. I don’t think supervisory responsibility would impact the opinion of that type of interviewer. The candidate should be prepared to explain this choice at the interview.

– Penny Lochner, Head of Collection Resource Management, Trexler Library, Muhlenberg College

Thank you as always to our contributors for their time and insight.  If you’re someone who hires librarians and are interested in participating in this feature, please email me at hiringlibrariansATgmail.com.

Thank YOU for reading!  These arms of mine, they are longing, longing to comment.


Filed under Academic, Further Questions, Public

2 responses to “Further Questions: Should a Candidate List a Previous Subordinate as a Reference?

  1. Pingback: Further Questions Questions | Hiring Librarians

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