Interviewer Asking for Reference to Current Employer’s Supervisor?

OK, this post is going to come across as part career advice, part opinion seeking, part storytelling, and part rant on the ethics of hiring employers asking for references from the current employers of job interviewees. 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 employer

After 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 employer’s 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. Hell?

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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