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Home » Workplace Finance

Interviewer Asking for Reference to Current Supervisor?

Last updated by on 21 Comments

OK, this post is going to come across as part career advice, part opinion seeking, part storytelling, and part rant. Should be a fun one!

As many long-time readers will know, my wife made the career change to become a nurse and after some interview securing strategy, took her first job about 16 months ago. Her employer is about a 25-mile commute for her and there are multiple more desirable employers within a 2-mile bike ride (see what I did there?). But, when you have no experience, good jobs are hard to get, as she found out. Sometimes, the best practice is to take the best job you can get and start from there.

How has it gone thus far? She has gained valuable experience, but was thrown in to the fire with a hospital that has a 6-to-1 patient-to-nurse ratio. Also – she is working the dreaded 12-hour night shift. These two things make it an exhausting gig. So much so, that there has been 100% turnover on her unit, in just her short time there. She has stuck with it, however, and is now in a leadership role as a charge nurse as well as serving on an advisory committee, despite choosing part-time hours.

With that valuable experience in hand, we thought it might be time to test the waters with the closer and more desirable employers.

interviewer wants reference from current supervisorAfter submitting a very lengthy application process with one of the employers, she was invited in for an interview. Prior to the interview, the HR staff had asked her for a reference to her current supervisor. Hmm… odd. My initial thought was that this was just a typical greedy HR ask to gather as much information as any applicant was willing to give, but when push comes to shove, not a requirement.

Until it wasn’t. She went in for the interview, and the hiring manager asked for it again. HR did as well. This, despite her already submitting a reference to a current co-worker in a leadership position as well as previous direct supervisors. She reminded them of this, however, in a follow-up they stated “we cannot move forward in the hiring process without this information.”

What. The. Balls?

I have never heard of a prospective employer asking for current supervisor as a reference, let alone DEMANDING it. From what I understand (and confirmed with a colleague in recruiting at my very discerning employer) is that most employers will not even check references until a candidate is in the finalist stage. And demanding that a current supervisor be one of them? I had never heard of it.

There is quite an obvious risk in giving this information: if you do not get offered the role now you have to deal with the reality that your present employer knows you are not satisfied in your role. This could result in the very real consequence of being passed over for raises, promotions, more attractive job assignments, and being put first on the list in the event of layoffs. With at-will employment, it could even get you fired, if the employer is looking for a reason.

Don’t believe it? Check out this feedback from a friend, who I had shared this development with:

“I had that happen years ago when I was applying to the postal inspection service. And I shared the information. And they talked to my boss. And guess what? I didn’t get the job, and a few months later when they downsized our team, I found out I was being let go. I had just started that job 5 months earlier. I know it’s because they thought I was going to leave anyway.”

You have a few (mostly crappy) options on how to respond to an interviewing employer’s reference request to your current supervisor:

  1. Give them what they request.
  2. Provide alternative references.
  3. Tell them you will provide the reference after an offer for employment has been agreed to.
  4. Run away and don’t look back.

We decided the best approach would be a combination of #2-#4, in the form of the following email:

“I would really like to join your team, but not at risk of jeopardizing my current employment. I have provided authorization for a full background check, a reference to a colleague in a leadership position at my current employer, and references to previous direct supervisors. I would also be open to supplying this information if an offer has been made and agreed to. If there are no workarounds, I will sadly have to withdraw myself from consideration from the role.”

And she was withdrawn.

The sad part is that this is a place she was really interested in working at – short commute, better benefits, and a possible move to day shifts. And she was supremely qualified. She would be doing the same work, but with half the number of patients.

Rant time. Employer entitlement like this makes me enraged. For this to be a mandatory requirement to even warrant further consideration is a greedy, self-righteous, selfish example of it. I can only imagine that the employer sees this practice as a means to weed out unqualified applicants. Ironically, I see it doing just the opposite – weeding out the best candidates. What desirable employee would be willing to put their employment at risk for no certainties? The remaining applicant pool to choose from consists of: students with no experience, previously laid-off unemployed, and those who are about to quit/get fired. The only other exception I can think of is those who are following a significant other who has relocated for a job. Stupid! Extra stupid when the applicant has shared present and past references to mitigate the employer’s risk.

Does anyone else have any stories or hiring insights to share on this?

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I am G.E. Miller, & this is my story. My goal is financial independence ASAP. If you share that goal, join me & 7,500+ others by getting FREE email updates. You'll also find every post by category & every post in order.


21 Comments »
  • Mike says:

    Sadly, I had to do the same thing (that is, combine #s 2 & 4) during a recent job interview, and from my recent wide-spanning job search, it looks like it’s becoming much more prevalent.

    This time, in the online application, there was a place for me to put my current supervisor’s information and included the question, “Will you allow us to contact this supervisor?” The boxes I could check were “yes,” “no,” or, “please inform me first” (This was the only job I’ve applied to that’s given me this third option.) I checked the third box, and when I came in for an interview, they asked if they could contact my current supervisor. I said I’d be comfortable contacting him as a follow-up if they offered me the job first and if I accepted the offer. They responded by saying they could wait to see if I was one of the top three candidates, which didn’t make me feel much more comfortable. Eventually, my unease at letting my current boss know I was looking elsewhere weighed into withdrawing my application. So yeah, sucks.

  • Brian says:

    I’ve done some work in management and looked over plenty of references. Generally you’re looking for anything that isn’t positive, because everyone’s self-chosen references should be positive. I’m thinking, by specifying a single exact person, the prospective company was trying to ensure that your wife couldn’t just choose someone random with a favorable opinion of her.

    That said, I’ve never even seen a specific reference from a current supervisor requested, let alone required. You are completely correct that most people would be very foolish to provide this. This seems like a very misinformed policy by their HR department (if it was just the hiring manager asking, it could be just a single manager that doesn’t know what he’s doing but the fact that HR was in on it is crazy).

    I think you guys handled it in the best way possible and there wasn’t much else that could be done.

  • Nicole says:

    I’ve never seen this before, but would offer a different perspective: Your wife likely dodged a bullet in avoiding this employer. I’ve found that places with one bad HR policy, often have several bad policies that impact several areas. If a company is being like that during the hiring process, I can’t even imagine what working for them would be like. No thanks!

    • LazaroMarino says:

      So right@nicolle, if HR actually encourages this line of
      Questioning, it shows a bad internal process, more than
      likely they also have other random bad policies,
      you would find yourself in such a dilemma leaving a
      secure job for one you hate even if closer to home.

  • Matt says:

    That kind of thing is super-common in education, but I had never heard of it outside of that industry. I work in an elementary school (in IT, not as a teacher) and have been on several interviews with other school districts. They always expect to be able to contact your current supervisor. Even though I should be used to it at this point, it still seems like a goofy policy. Fortunately, my bosses at this job have been nothing short of awesome with regard to it, but it still doesn’t seem like a great idea from any perspective – applicant, interviewer, or current employer!

    • G.E. Miller says:

      There are two big differences in education:
      1. Unionized jobs where it is really difficult to get fired and could take a long time once an issue is detected.
      2. Most people who switch education jobs, it is because they are moving to a different geography altogether. And that is completely different than looking for a different employer within the same geographic area. Employers are much more understanding/forgiving of these circumstances.

  • Ryan Wilder says:

    To highlight what Nicole said:

    “Your wife likely dodged a bullet in avoiding this employer. I’ve found that places with one bad HR policy, often have several bad policies that impact several areas.”

    This subject is still a sore spot for me. Not from job to job but from job to school. I had a good position after graduating college; designing underground irrigation systems in western Kansas. My employer found out that I wanted to continue my education and I basically lost my job. Same pay, but instead of designing I was directly installing and lost all say in any direction. (We had to install sometimes, but it went from 20% of the time to 100%). This made me leave my job two years before even starting school, and the employer didn’t want to listen to what I had to offer while I was in school.

    This was not the only bad policy they had. So to quote Nicole again, I warned the guy his business needed a shift. It’s interesting to see where they’re at three years later.

  • Nick says:

    I have slightly mixed feelings about this. As a supervisor, I’d much rather my employees tell me when they’re unhappy, or even that they’re happy but just looking to move on. That way, if it’s in my power, I can do something to increase their happiness, or at the very least have some extra time to plan for their departure. Then from my past experiences, I’ve always let my supervisors know when I’m unhappy, getting unhappy, or just looking to move up/on. I think it’s just professional courtesy to not blindside them with 2 weeks notice.

    Maybe I’m naive, or maybe I’m just lucky that I’ve had awesome places of employment with awesome supervisors who I always knew I could straight talk with, and skip over all the games.

    I do think all of this would only apply to professional positions in professional environments though. There’s no reason to tell your shift supervisor that you’re looking for jobs when you’re working at min. wage and are easy to replace. There are also plenty of situations where the supervisor employee relationship is less than ideal and just hinting that you are looking to move on could maybe get you canned or treated poorly.

    However, when it comes to professional staff, it definitely does look bad to a potential employer if you aren’t willing to use your current supervisor as a reference. It’s not the end all be all of the decision making process (at least not for me) but you’ll need some serious qualifications and you’ll need to be able to prove your current work ethic beyond a doubt through other means as well.

    • G.E. Miller says:

      I think this is a bit too idealistic. Of course, you would like your employees to give you a heads up and perhaps you are one that would not retaliate, to which I give you props. But most supervisors have their own interests ahead of their employees and would hold this against them.

      It should not be forced, as this employer has done. You know what it says to me? “We do not really trust you or your record and will put more trust in a person who has a clear conflict of interest in the feedback they provide. And we are willing to jeopardize your job, in order to get that conflicted feedback. Don’t like it? Get used to it, or look elsewhere.”

      • Nick says:

        Ya, and I get that, which is why I find myself torn. It’s very possible I’ve had a unique set of experiences so far and that’s why it’s probably idealistic. I try to carry all of that through to my employees now, and so far it seems to pay off. I work in a pretty unique place where the management style is more flat than typical though too, so here it just feels normal.

  • Jay says:

    It sounds to me like someone in the HR department just finished getting their MBA. How is it difficult for people in the same industry to pick up the phone and call their friend at your wife’s current place of employment to verify she is legit? The interviewer could turn to LinkedIn. It isn’t hard to find someone you know or a second connection knows that would work there. This eliminates the need for them to also interview your boss about you. LinkedIn essentially allows public vetting of your resume.

    Maybe your wife could use LinkedIn with the crew of nurses that walked out the door. 100% turn over likely places one of them at the hospital she wants to go to. If a current employee’s opinion isn’t trusted about a potential candidate by HR, it is amazing they are trusted to take care of patients with life or death concerns. At will employment also means they could just fire your wife if she didn’t live up to the expectations she set at the interview so what is the new hospital really worried about?

    If someone asked me that question, I would answer with option 2 and move right on to option 4 if they pressed. Too much to lose. Even an offer in hand would likely be written to include a clause pending discussion with your boss so you have little more with the offer.

  • Tim Verry says:

    How is this legal at all, people should not be in fear of jeopardizing their current job by looking for other opportunities. :(

  • Kirsten says:

    I’m usually up front with my employer when I start a job search, so this has never been an issue for me. My current (at the time) supervisor usually expresses sadness but offers to be a reference! Given the high turnover rate, sounds like your wife’s employer would do the same. She can tell them she is checking out a few opportunities, but isn’t looking to “run away” from her current job. Give understandable reasons like commute time that don’t trash the current job and many employers will be empathetic.

  • Andrea says:

    That is extremely unreasonable. If that is the way the organization functions and is managed, then it’s probably a blessing-in-disguise for your wife to withdraw her application instead of succumbing to their selfish requests!

    • Andrea says:

      Forgot to mention that I did, once, agree to have a potential employer call my current employer after an offer was made and agreed upon. At the time, my present employer got the inkling that I was looking to move on beyond what she could offer me, so there was definitely a mutual understanding and full support/camaraderie. I was also lucky enough that she was a very reliable boss and I trusted her completely to provide a positive reference. I wouldn’t suggest everyone to follow suit with the request, but if you are looking to test the waters at the new company, then, sure.

  • Amanda M. says:

    This is more for the current job than the ridiculous requirement for the current supervisor’s information: If your wife is one of the most senior people at the hospital, why is she still on night shifts? It is my understanding that the more seniority you have, the better the fringe benefits: first option for on call during holidays, first priority for vacation planning, and first choice of shifts to work (whether your personal choice is straight days, straight night, or swing). It seems weird that there’s been 100% turnover and she’s still stuck with nights.

    Maybe their seniority rules are different there than in ND.

  • Ben says:

    I could understand asking for the information but being able to direct them to not contact the references until the offer of full time work was presented. It is probably the employers desire to check references including the most recent direct supervisor; however, I have never seen where they absolutely need the information unless they are about to extend a full time offer.

    In either case, there will be plenty of more opportunities for your wife and hopefully she’ll land something even better than this opportunity.

  • Warren says:

    While I was working at one job, I filled out a rental application so that I could move closer to work. Not long after I was let go as the project ended while others were kept for a new project. I found out that they considered any inquiry as a sign that the employee was looking to move on, regardless of that was said on the phone.

  • R W says:

    I work in Accounting and HR, I also teach at night as a second job. I’ve worked at many jobs screening candidates for positions and never require to speak with the current employer, but will ask if it is possible to speak with the current employer (this is only at the stage when we’re preparing to make an offer). However, when I started my second job teaching they required that I give every supervisor’s contact information for the last 10 years of work history and they called every supervisor to have a conversation about me prior to offering me the job, including my current supervisor. I thought this process was extreme overkill and I was thankful that I had already given my current employer the heads up about the second job otherwise that would have made for a very uncomfortable situation.

    In your wife’s instance I’m not sure I would have worded the e-mail with the comment that you would need to withdraw. Puts doubts in the employers mind, but you would know the specifics about the situation better. Perhaps a letter from HR confirming her employment with the current employer would suffice? Often jobs don’t allow references anyways so a specific request to speak with a supervisor may be dodged even if the supervisor was already knowledgeable about your wife wanting to accept a position closer to home. Sorry to hear she was put in the situation in any event. Best of luck on the future job search!

  • Matt says:

    I have seen variations of this requirement in many federal job postings for professional positions. They will often require current supervisor information to be provided, either in the resume itself or as part of the application. Occasionally they will allow the “Contact me first” option before contacting the current supervisor, but not always.

    I never agree to provide my current supervisor’s information to a prospective employer without the qualification of an offer or a latter stage of the interview process. It seems unreasonable and completely inappropriate.

    This also seems like it would create perverse incentives for the current supervisor. If you are a great employee who they don’t want to leave the organization, the supervisor can give a terrible review. Or the reverse, for terrible employees. Further, a great employee may be the one most aware of the damage that requesting a supervisor reference would wreak on their current job. Prospective employers may actually be attracting poor candidates by this current supervisor requirement.

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