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‘Help, My Interviewer Wants a Reference From My Current Boss!’

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

Dear Boss,

I have been at my current job for about six years and have a good relationship with my manager. But for various reasons, I have decided that it’s time to move on and have been looking for something new. My manager doesn’t know about my search. 
Recently, the recruiter for a job I was interviewing for let me know that I was the final candidate and asked me for two references as the last stage: my current manager and a former manager. Since I didn’t want to alert my boss that I’m looking, I asked if I could give two former managers as references instead. The recruiter okayed it and the reference checks went well. 
The day after the last reference check, the recruiter emailed me with the hiring manager cc’d, letting me know that the final step was a reference check with my current manager. I again explained my situation — my current manager does not know I am job-searching, and to alert her at this stage before a final offer was received could jeopardize my current job (or at the very least, make things awkward if the new job fell through). I offered alternatives: documents as proof of employment, a copy of my last performance review, or speaking with another former manager who still works with me at my current job. The hiring manager then called me to let me know that the only way to move forward with even a provisional offer would be to speak with my current manager — that is their policy. Once that and a standard background check were complete, I would get a verbal offer. In addition, they gave me a deadline of less than 24 hours to move forward or the offer would be withdrawn. This wasn’t enough time for me and I didn’t feel comfortable with the process, so I had to withdraw. 
This is … not normal, right? It seems like this policy is designed to put a ton of pressure on the applicant and leaves them at a huge disadvantage. I don’t have anything to hide and I have a good relationship with my manager, but it still felt risky. This was at a large, prestigious, well-regarded company, so I was really surprised they would have this policy. Do I need to adjust my expectations and process going forward, or is there any way I could have navigated this situation differently to help me stay in the running?

No, that employer was in the wrong. Really in the wrong.

Most employers do not insist on references from a candidate’s current manager for exactly the reasons you cited: Most people don’t want to tip off their boss that they’re job-searching until they’re ready to leave.

That’s not an overabundance of caution, either; sometimes when a manager learns someone is looking to leave, they will push them out earlier than the person wanted to go. Sometimes that’s punitive — a “if you don’t want to be here, then go” kind of response (which is ridiculous; employees moving on is a normal part of doing business). But other times it’s more subtle — like an employer that needs to make staff cuts for financial reasons and figures, “Well, Jane’s on her way out anyway, so we can cut her position.” And other times, you’re not pushed out but it affects your job in other ways; maybe your manager stops giving you interesting long-term assignments because she thinks you’re leaving soon or doesn’t consider you for promotion or other opportunities you might want. Or it can simply cause tension with your boss, depending on what the relationship is like. So there are lots of good reasons to want to keep your job search discreet.

And reasonable interviewers understand that. It’s very, very normal for job candidates to decline to offer their current manager as a reference, and it’s very, very normal for employers to be okay with that. Even if an interviewer does ask to talk to your current manager, most will understand if you explain why that’s not possible.

Sometimes an employer will propose getting around this by making you an offer that’s contingent on a good reference from your current employer. This is a better solution, but not an ideal one. If for some reason the employer doesn’t like what they hear from your current boss, you could end up with no job offer and with your current job in a less secure place. That said, usually when you allow this, the reference check is likely to be fairly perfunctory; an employer who makes an offer contingent on a good reference from your current boss is usually looking for a basic confirmation that you’re a reliable person who’s done the work you said you’ve done, not a nuanced discussion of your strengths and weaknesses. The idea is generally that as long as you haven’t misrepresented things and they don’t hear that you’re wildly incompetent, they’ll move forward. (Of course, if your manager is volatile or angry that you’re leaving and is willing to torpedo your reference over it, this is riskier.)

If you do agree to this kind of contingent-offer setup, make sure that you receive the offer and negotiate it before the reference call happens. Otherwise, there’s a risk that your boss gets the reference call and then you can’t agree on the terms of the offer. If you end up walking away because the salary is too low, for example, then there was no point in letting your boss get that call. It can make you feel more pressure to accept an undesirable offer, if you’ve already semi-committed to leaving by allowing that call to be made.

Of course, everything above applies to situations where you don’t want to tip off your boss that you’re job-searching. That might not be the case every time. Some managers create environments where it’s safe to tell them when you’re starting to think about moving on and have a track record of supporting people who do that and ensuring they’re never pushed out early.

But if you don’t want your manager to know you’re interviewing and an employer is pushing for a reference from her, what can you do? First, clearly explain why that’s not possible — “My boss doesn’t know I’m looking and sharing that right now could jeopardize my job.” Then, offer alternatives. For example: “I have a decade of experience doing this work and I’d be happy to put you in touch with anyone you’d like to speak with from my previous jobs — managers, colleagues, or even clients — but I’m not in a position to alert my current employer that I’m thinking of leaving until I’m ready to give notice.” You can also do exactly what you did: Offer to put them in touch with someone else at your current job whom you trust to be discreet.

If they won’t budge after that, at that point you’d need to decide if you want the job enough to agree to their request. But I’d be very wary of moving forward with a company that disregards professional norms and shows this kind of lack of concern for your job security. It’s not a great sign about them as an employer.

Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.

‘My Interviewer Wants a Reference From My Current Boss!’