Sunday, February 11, 2024

Ask the Expert: Should I Allow a Prospective Employer to Contact My Current One?

by Christopher D. Lee, Ph.D., SPHR

Close-up of employers checking references and making phone call

"Ask the Expert" is your chance to get advice and insight from experts on specific questions you have about searching for a job, interviewing, dealing with problems in the workplace, and advancing your career. Featured experts range from HR professionals who specialize in conflict management and bullying to job search experts who can share insight on how to secure interviews and impress search committees.

Question: When applications ask if they can contact your current employer, I never know how to answer that. I worry that it will make me look bad if I say no, but if I say yes, will I tip off my current employer I'm job searching? What is the best option for candidates?

Answer from Christopher D. Lee, Ph.D., SPHR: The age-old conundrum of how to get a job without experience and experience without a job seems to apply to references as well. How do you get an endorsement for a new job without using your current employer? There are several dimensions at play. In an ideal world, you would have a supportive supervisor who is a sponsor and endorses your pursuit of positions of greater responsibility, income, or lifestyle. Barring this relatively infrequent reality, one should have three sets of references.

The best response to a request for references is to offer a limited slate in the beginning of a selection process and express willingness to provide a deeper, more voluminous slate should your candidacy advance to later stages. Certain references, like those who work at your current employer, are appropriate at later stages. Indeed, allowing a future employer to speak with one's current supervisor is often withheld until after a written offer is received and all other references have been checked satisfactorily.

Former supervisors are a treasured group of professionals, and one should endeavor to maintain a positive relationship with them throughout one's career. Individually and collectively, they are the best substitute for one's current supervisor. It would be neglectful for an employer not to check multiple references, and at least one supervisor is a must. It is sometimes the case that the current supervisor is not aware that one is interested in leaving a position, is not supportive of someone leaving, or may be the very reason one desires to leave. Multiple former supervisors can be the best substitute for a current one.

References can be grouped into three categories. Former supervisors are one set. Current and former colleagues and peers who can speak qualitatively and quantitatively about one's work is another. Next, current and former associates who served as customers of your work or who you worked closely with on major projects is another. The editor of the journal where you were on the editorial board, a vendor with whom you worked on a major project, former students who are now well placed in positions of responsibility, or executives who observed your work in their capacity as institutional leaders are examples of the extended network of references.

These groups can be used for different positions at different stages, depending upon the need. A generic grouping can attest to your character, work ethic, and professionalism and can be offered if requested at the time of application. A different, deeper, and more recent list can be offered at the time of an invitation to an on-campus interview. Still, the list that proves your effectiveness for a specific position when an offer of employment hinges upon the outcome should be different. The singular current supervisor can be held in reserve until after an offer has been extended.

Senior and sensitive positions (e.g., access to key facilities, computing, or public safety) often require a larger number of references and more due diligence at successive stages of review. References are sometimes used as a screening process versus a selection process -- that is, to parse the interview group and select which semi-finalists become finalists, versus validating a decision already made. Therefore, a singular list is not wise. Active interviewing risks reference fatigue and embarrassment if your limited list of references is called upon too many times in short order. Thus, maintaining a robust list of references is in one's best interest. The number and types of references to offer depend on the stage they are requested in the process.


This article is republished from HigherEdJobs® under a Creative Commons license.