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Friday, February 20, 2009

interviewer wants reference from current employer

A reader writes:

I am in the midst of applying for a new job. I have interviewed three times with a prospective employer and have been told that I am one of the final candidates for the position.

The HR rep contacted me and asked if they can contact my current manager/supervisor for a reference. I explained that I would prefer they not contact my manager, since it may jeopardize my standing with my current employer. They keep insisting that they speak with my current manager, but I am afraid that if they do, my current employer may let me go in layoffs or attempt to force me out of the job somehow (i.e., re-assign, transfer, etc).

Am I obligated to provide the reference to the prospective employer? I feel that their insistence is unprofessional and inappropriate. What if they contact my employer and end up not offering me the job? Or what if I don't accept the job offer? What is the best way to handle this without losing either job?

You certainly aren't obligated to provide your current employer as a reference. However, if the company you're interviewing with is insisting on it, be aware that refusing may take you out of consideration as a result.

However, this is pretty unusual. Most companies understand why candidates don't want their current employer contacted, and it's odd that this one is insisting. Usually, the current employer is either skipped or is contacted only after they've decided to make an offer -- which they make contingent on a good reference from your current employer.

In the rare instance where a company absolutely insists on contacting your current boss before making an offer, these are your options:

1. Take the risk and allow it. Warn your boss ahead of time. Some people in this situation tell their boss they're applying for a part-time or volunteer position, although I think that's risky.

2. If you've had a previous boss at your current job who has now moved on, ask the company if they'd contact her instead.

3. Hold firm with this company. Tell them you are not able to jeopardize your current employment without a firm offer in hand from them, but that you'd be happy to supply many other references and to allow them to contact your current company once you have an offer (which can be contingent on that reference check, assuming you know the reference will be fine). You might even throw in a mention that it's highly unusual for a company to insist on contacting a candidate's current employer at this stage; maybe you're dealing with someone clueless. You can also throw in, "In this economy, it's not a risk I can take." If they don't understand that, consider that a pretty substantial red flag about this new company.

Personally, I'd do #3. What do others think?


Charles said...

I agree - definitely Number 3.

Quite frankly, if this company doesn't understand this (or in the very least has hired someone in HR who doesn't understand) then they are not a company I would want to work for.

To insist on checking with your current employer raises a red flag. This is after you explained why you would prefer them not to do so? Just how badly do you want this job?

Afterall, if they cannot be trusted or be professional enough to help safeguard your current employment status how well will they treat you once you on onboard?

jaded hr rep said...

In 13 years in HR (and many of that as recruiter), I have never seen a company insist on talking to a current manager. Ridiculous! I agree this is a red flag for me as to what the culture and overall experience of the managers are like at this new company.

I'd stick to #3, and ask the recruiter what information is needed that a previous manager may not be able to offer (in a professional, calm way of course). If they think a candidate is that mercurial, is any positive reference going to help?

Just another HR lady... said...

For me, it would depend on the situation.

Say you had been with your current employer for 1 year, and the previous for 10 years, and always in a similar job. No, I wouldn't care about talking to your current employer.

However, if your current position is the only job you have had that's the most relevant to the job I'm recruiting for, yes, I will want to speak to your current employer. Often, people leave jobs for promotions, so for example if you were not a manager in previous jobs and I am hiring for a manager, I need to talk to someone who is aware of your capability as a manager.

If I hit one of these situations where my candidate is worried about me contacting their current employer (it's rare), I will make a job offer "contingent on receiving a reference from current employer". That way, my candidate has the job offer in hand, and it alleviates the worry about telling the current employer you are job hunting.

Sue said...

Absolutely Number 3. If fact, if I were personally in your situation, I would tell the perspective employer that I was no longer interested in their position. I would not want to work for a company that was so self-serving as to make me risk losing my current position so they could check a reference. That company is not worth working for.

Karl Wolfbrooks Ager said...

I like #3. That this interviewer may be "clueless" is a sad possibility. If you want to, tell them I'm your current boss and to call me!

Lynn said...

I would also go with #3. That said - I must admit to some puzzlement at all the secrecy that seems to surround changing jobs.

At every job I've left, my boss (and my staff - when I had staff) knew when I started looking for other work. Often my current supervisor was a reference. I've even done phone interviews at work with my supervisor's permission.

This ensured that everyone had lots of notice and I had time to train replacements. I must be lucky to have never had insane bosses...

Anonymous said...

I agree with number 3, we have recently had an issue where if we had called the current employer we would have found information that would have changed our hiring decision.

However, we only request the current employer's reference after an offer has been extended.

For audit reasons we now have to do this to be covered.

Anonymous said...

If a prospective employer was that insistent on contacting my current manager before thay made an offer, it would raise concerns about whether that company would be a good fit for me. I would offer #3 and if that is not good enough, walk away and count yourself lucky.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the third option. I have seen this situation come up before- but as a courtesy not a reference. The company may have an obligation to speak to someone at the interviewing company. For example, a member of the interviewing company's BOD is an exec at the current company. In this scenerio, a courtesy conversation is often expected at a higher level so they won't appear as though they are poaching from the BOD member's company. The only other example I could think of is if the candidate has only worked for one company, or has been with the same company for a long period of time.

Lewis, AKA said...

I'd definitely stick to #3. Sure, you're looking for a job, but why jeopardize your relationship with your current employer?

Anonymous said...

Wow- Thanks everyone for your comments!! Looks like a resounding #3, which I conveyed to the HR mgr. They said they would get back to me. Karl, I may need your # soon... ;) I'm definitely having some second thoughts about this employer. Thanks again, Everyone! I'll keep you posted on how this turns out.

Anonymous said...

Err on the side of #3.

If the prospective employer continues to insist on contacting your current employer, then that prospective employer is not for you. Anyone who doesn't show respect for such confidentiality isn't worth working for.

In most cases, it's unwise to let your current employer know that you are job-hunting. Even if you relate well with your current boss, there's no guarantee that he or she would be a positive reference; you never know what he or she might say about you behind your back.

In the occasions where I was job-hunting while still employed, the only time I had a current employer know about it was when the company I was working for at the time was in the middle of a transition. The staff (including myself) was two months away from leaving the company because the company was relocating to another town. A decision was made to let the whole staff go and reopen the company with a new staff. With two months left at the company, this gave me time to get another job lined up. (And I succeeded in securing another job before the two-month period was up.)

Since my boss was among those being let go, she gladly gave me permission to use her as a reference. I don't know if any of my prospective employers ever contacted her for a reference, but if any of them did, I would hope that she gave a positive reference. :)

What I went through is an example of one of the few situations in which it would be okay to let a current employer to know that you are seeking another job. But again, in most cases, it is wise to keep it confidential.

Eric Sohn said...

Of the choices listed, #3 is the best. However, you left out an important option: just walking away. A firm that would require a current employer reference is...well, fishy. Unless it's your absolute dream job, an option on the table has to be "Thanks, but no thanks"

Sadistic Manager said...

Eric beat me to it. It would have to be a really great opportunity to keep me interested after they started insisting.

If they're nagging for a current-employer reference this much, they must be interested. Would be telling to see what they had to say if you said "I'm sorry, but please don't consider me a candidate anymore. I'm not sure I can work for a company that wants me to put myself in jeopardy for a chance to come on board."

Unless the whole thing is an elaborate test to see what kind of risks you'll take. Even then, it's still a bad idea.

Rick Saia said...

Well, definitely NOT #1, that's for sure. Option #3 is the best but, echoing the comments of others, if the company insists on talking with a current manager, it's time to walk away and pursue the next opportunity.

On #2: If it's someone you can trust to keep your search confidential, that can work. It worked for me on one or two occasions.

Andy Lester said...

Any company that doesn't go along with #3 is a company that says "It's all about us. Screw you, pal."

Gemma said...

Whilst I agree with other's comments, from the new company's point of you, they may be using the references to weigh up a difficult decision between two excellent candidates. Not saying I agree with it or recommend it, but this happened to me in one of my applications to be a HR Manager...

Anonymous said...

It has been my experience, especially working for the government, that there are very bad, controlling managers out there and they will lie to other managers about performances of employees because they personally don't like the employee trying to get out of their present job. Just because they have the title of "manager" doesn't make them ethical, trustworthy or honest.