when a job application asks if your current employer can be contacted

by Ask a Manager on June 26, 2012

A reader writes:

I just completed an application that asked twice if they may contact my present employer. I said “yes,” of course, because I know “no” would read poorly.

Now I’m in a position where I can only guess if they’ll call, and if they do, what I should say to my boss to alert her that, “hey, I applied for a different job and they might call”?

Is this a situation where I tell my boss, or do I just wait it out? I’ve read your post about informing a manager about an interview and handling those processes, but this seems between applying and interviewing, so I’m not sure what, if anything, should be said.

Agggghhhh!

No! Do not do this!

I’ve had a bunch of letters recently from people who have said something similar — “I figured it would look bad to say they can’t contact my current employer, so I said yes.”

It is very, very, very normal to ask that your current employer not be contacted about your job search. So normal. You will not look like you have something to hide by saying no — you will look like a normal person who doesn’t want to jeopardize your current employment.

Most companies understand that candidates don’t want their current employer tipped off to their job search. Usually, they’ll either skip your current employer or contact them only after they’ve decided to make an offer — and they should explicitly seek your permission to do it. And at that point, you should only allow it if they’ve told you that you’re their final candidate and they’ve agreed to offer you the job contingent on that reference.

There’s just too much at stake otherwise. Getting a reference call for a current employee is basically the same as you announcing at a staff meeting that you’re job hunting and planning to leave soon. Some employers are fine with that, but far, far more are not okay with it and may push you out earlier than you’d planned on. Or penalize you through smaller raises (they no longer have an incentive to try to retain you because they know you’re leaving) or less desirable projects (why give you the important work when you’re on your way out?).

As for what you can do now …The good news is that they’re very unlikely to contact any of your references before they’ve even interviewed you. So if you do progress to the interview stage, you can address it in person then and say that, despite what you wrote on the application, you’d prefer that your current employer not be alerted to your search until things reach the offer stage, at which point you’d like to alert them yourself.

And in the future, say “no” to that question without any hesitation.

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{ 72 comments… read them below or add one }

blu June 26, 2012 at 12:36 pm

Agreed. Answer that question honestly. We have had quite a few people who said yes and then got upset that their employer found out about their job search. You need to answer it honestly.

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Alex June 26, 2012 at 12:53 pm

I don’t understand why people think it looks bad to say “no” to this question. I have done that for every job I have applied for, even if my bosses knew I was looking for work, because I didn’t want them calling my company and getting someone random on the phone. It makes me wonder if this thought process falls under the “I can’t retain my privacy in any way with potential employers” belief.

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Mike C. June 26, 2012 at 12:56 pm

It’s because no one is born knowing every little detail about current job hunting conventions. Generally speaking, consider all the little facts the public at large would consider “common sense”. I’ll bet you 10 internet dollars that neither you nor I know every single one.

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Ask a Manager June 26, 2012 at 1:14 pm

I think it also reflects the fact that many job seekers feel that the process has a big power imbalance built in, and that they’re being screwed by the process in so many ways that it’s easy to assume that this must be yet another way in which they have to tolerate discomfort and risk.

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Kelly O June 26, 2012 at 3:35 pm

+1

It really does often feel like all the power is on the other side of the table when you’re applying for jobs and trying to get someone to even look at your application/resume. Answering “no” to anything other than the list of criminal offenses you might have committed makes a lot of people nervous.

Whether that’s a correct perception or not is really hard to argue; yes the job seeker has some control over the process, but honestly it is really hard to remember when you’ve been looking for months with nothing solid coming up.

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Vicki June 27, 2012 at 12:38 am

Oh, this. Definitely.
I feel this way whenever I’m in a one-on-one with my manager. Even the “good” managers, let alone the awful ones. I can’t disagree, I can’t push back, I can never say ‘no”. And then after the meeting I feel stupid, undermined and stressed.

Fighting a Power Imbalance is a constant uphill battle.

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Charles June 27, 2012 at 3:23 pm

” . . . job seekers feel that the process has a big power imbalance built in . . .”

YES! I recently “lost out” on two jobs because I didn’t feel like playing their game. In both cases, the person responded to my application with a request for the salary from my last three jobs – I wasn’t even asked to interview, just answer that question.

It took all my professionalism to not respond by asking for the salary of the last three people who were in that position! Instead, I responded by stating that I was open to the salary and would be willing to discuss it further after we interviewed and the details of the position were more known to me – of course, these means that I will never hear form either of those two places again.

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Ariancita June 26, 2012 at 1:28 pm

Some people do think that–especially those who haven’t been on the market in a long time and don’t understand current protocol. I once had a friend review my resume for a federal job. Federal job resume requirements are much different and ask you to include the name of your manager, contact info, and whether or not they can contact them. For my current manager, I put, “Do not contact. Please contact me first.” My friend, who was reviewing it, gave it a big red tracked strike-through with a comment that said: “This looks like you’re hiding something!!!! Put YES!!” I had to explain to him that no, in fact, he was wrong and that it was considered okay to say they could not contact my current manager. But his reaction, strong as it was, really highlighted for me how some people don’t get that.

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Anonymous June 27, 2012 at 5:14 pm

Unfortunately, “some people” that don’t get that are hiring managers :-(

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Max June 26, 2012 at 1:35 pm

People worry that saying “No” might be suspicious – they think it might make them look like they’re hiding something, such as poor performance at their current job or a falsified employment history. With plenty of newer job-seekers out there feeling a little desperate, too many people want to give the impression that they’re ready to bend over backwards for every single company they apply to.

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kbbaus June 26, 2012 at 1:15 pm

My question would be if nobody answers yes/should answer yes, why is the question even on all these applications? It’s almost a trap for job seekers who are too trusting, or worried about looking poorly. (And I fully expect you all to read ‘it’s a trap’ in Admiral Ackbar’s voice).

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Ask a Manager June 26, 2012 at 1:19 pm

It’s just the employer making things easy for themselves. If they ask now, they don’t need to go back and ask later. (Personally, I think applications in general are silly and have never used them; I ask for a cover letter and resume, and when I’m ready for references later in the process I ask for them then.)

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B June 26, 2012 at 4:49 pm

I love that you think applications are silly! They feel like such a waste of time. You basically have to copy and paste your resume into specific fields and remember a bunch of addresses, names, and phone numbers from years ago. One applicaiton even asked for my high school GPA and class rank. I had to call my mom to ask if she remembered it or had my transcript filed away somewhere. Definitely a pain!

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Emily June 26, 2012 at 1:37 pm

I read it in Sheldon Cooper’s voice impersonating Admiral Ackbar.

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V June 26, 2012 at 2:55 pm

ME TOO :)

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Scott Woode June 26, 2012 at 2:55 pm

+1

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Mishsmom June 27, 2012 at 1:49 am

Awesome

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AX June 26, 2012 at 1:19 pm

It breaks my heart that people think they can’t say no to that! Ugh, how frustrating that must feel.

I’d like to illustrate how NOT a big deal this is to potential employers: I recently interviewed with two managers at a place I want to work. As we were discussing my current position one of the managers asked me, “Do you know [SOANDSO]?” (one of the supervisors at my current job) I said yeah, I had worked with him on a project and he’s great. Turns out he and this manager had gone to college together. After talking about it for a minute I said something along the lines of “well, I’d tell him you say hello if he knew I was interviewing here. *laugh*” and the other manager in the interview laughed and kind of playfully nudged her coworker saying, “Yeah, don’t say anything to him! She still wants a job if this doesn’t work out!”

It was so far below being an issue. It was like commenting on the weather. Well OF COURSE you don’t want your current employer to know you’re looking for work.

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Sabrina June 26, 2012 at 1:25 pm

I think the only times you would say “yes” to this is if you’re going to be laid off and have an end date set up already and thus your employer expects you to be looking or if you’re going to be moving out of town for a spouses’ job or something similar and again, your employer knows about it and wouldn’t be surprised to hear you are looking.

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Sabrina June 26, 2012 at 1:27 pm

Please excuse my run-on sentence. :)

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KellyK June 26, 2012 at 1:45 pm

Yep. Or if you have a job that’s intentionally temporary, whether it’s actual temping, on-campus work as a college student, or something else with a fixed end date. Or something else that’s part-time by design, where it’s expected that you’re looking for full-time work.

For example, during my last semester of college through the summer, I did part-time tutoring at Sylvan Learning Center. They were aware when I started that whether I continued working for them would depend on where I got a full-time teaching job, and it was pretty well expected that not all of the students they hired would stay past the summer. Because it was a part time job that only hired teachers, it was also expected that you would have, or be looking for, a full-time teaching gig.

So that’s one where I checked “yes” to “Can we contact your current employer?” but it’s a fairly unusual situation.

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Banana January 23, 2014 at 7:29 pm

This is my current situation, and a recent interviewer seemed a little surprised that I answered yes. I, and everyone at my job, are looking for work due to a downturn in future contracts. I have an end date, so it would be strange for me *not* to be looking for work, and my manager said she’d be happy to be a reference. But this isn’t normal, and “yes” doesn’t seem like it would be the right answer most of the time.

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AK June 26, 2012 at 1:34 pm

You should accept, though, that even if you say “no, don’t contact my manager” the company may still contact your current manager. Particularly if the job you are applying for is in the same field and the hiring manager knows your current manager.

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Anonymous June 26, 2012 at 2:54 pm

And then know that that place is somewhere you don’t want to work, since they cannot be trusted.

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Mike C. June 26, 2012 at 3:30 pm

Which at this point is a really silly thing to worry about, because you are going to be more pressed to figure out how to pay this month’s rent.

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Katie L June 26, 2012 at 3:54 pm

So here’s a confusing situation for me. Often hiring managers will contact the “extra” people that you didn’t list on an application. For instance, you didn’t put your manager down and instead put a co-worker because your manager didn’t like you (not a good idea!). They might contact that manager anyway.

My question is this: If there is a manager (current or otherwise) that you don’t want them to contact, can the legally contact them anyway, like AK suggests? Why are they required to ask if they can go against your wishes?

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Ask a Manager June 26, 2012 at 4:01 pm

They aren’t actually legally required to ask; they can legally contact anyone they choose.

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fposte June 26, 2012 at 4:32 pm

And I think that’s the advantage of a “no” as well–a company that may be checking beyond provided references might be willing to skip the current supervisor if they’re informed that it could be an issue.

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Dorothy June 27, 2012 at 9:14 am

I’m 90% sure this happened to me and I was let go exactly 1 week after an interview with one of my firm’s direct competitors (and they refused to tell me why I was being let go) — and I didn’t get the job I interviewed for. Looking back, I probably should have mentioned in the interview that my current firm didn’t know I was looking and please keep my application in confidence… but I’m not sure that would have done any good, either. Crummy situation.

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Georgia June 26, 2012 at 2:03 pm

I started my job fresh out of college about a year ago. I still enjoy the company, but for future reference, if a prospective employer is told ‘no’ would that remove me as a candidate since I have no other employers they could contact?

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Emily June 26, 2012 at 2:38 pm

At this point, you should make sure you’re still staying in touch with any professors who worked closely with you in school, or supervisors from any part-time work you did as a student. When I was applying for my second job out of school and couldn’t offer my current supervisor as a reference, I offered 1) the professor who had supervised my research assistantship in grad school, 2) a supervisor from the part-time job I worked throughout undergrad, and 3) a trusted coworker (peer level) at my current job who I knew wouldn’t out me to our manager.

Another option is to get involved in volunteer work and make a point to really shine, so that you can offer your volunteer supervisor as a professional reference.

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Ask a Manager June 26, 2012 at 3:14 pm

I agree with Emily. Plus, it’s unlikely they’d just reject you over that; it’s more likely that if they wanted to move you forward in the process, they’d ask what was up with the references and if you could provide others.

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Georgia June 26, 2012 at 4:59 pm

Easy enough :). I didn’t even think about using professional references from volunteer work. Thanks for the great advice!

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Joe June 26, 2012 at 4:33 pm

Employers could eliminate this problem entirely if they had their application systems set up with the option “If no, may we contact employer after making offer?”, like the few smart employers do.

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I asked this question! June 26, 2012 at 4:40 pm

Big ups for answering the question here and totally stressing me out in return!

Seriously, thanks for the honest reply, and as the comments discussed, yeah, I absolultely feel like the question isn’t less than a test. I went home at lunch and amended the application questionnaire form since the application period hasn’t closed yet and I am allowed to. I also agree with the comments on how cumbersome applications are when I also need to provide my resume/cover letter.

For clarity, the application asked for work history and included “may we contact this employer?” Pretty standard. THEN, in the questionnaire portion, it asked, “May we contact your present employer NOW?” (caps theirs)

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Jamie June 26, 2012 at 4:44 pm

That’s great that you were able to amend that.

Maybe I’m naive, but I don’t care what boxes were checked I’d never call a current employer unless we were ready to pull the trigger on an offer – and had previously notified the applicant.

To easy to inadvertently create landmines for people.

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Jamie June 26, 2012 at 4:44 pm

Or too easy…I do know the difference even if my typing fingers don’t.

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Dan Ruiz June 27, 2012 at 5:27 pm

That’s not naive, that’s being considerate of other people. As you said, “landmines”. Why would you go out of your way to put someone’s livelihood in jeopardy if you didn’t have an offer for them? SMH

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fposte June 26, 2012 at 10:27 pm

Caps theirs? Who are they, Verizon (“Can they hear us NOW?”)?

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V June 27, 2012 at 8:06 am

I think that was Cingular. ;-)

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V June 27, 2012 at 8:07 am

… nevermind. :)

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kevin June 26, 2012 at 7:12 pm

If I were the applicant ,I will not tell the HR my boss’s telephone number unless they tell me I’ll get the offer.

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Nameless June 26, 2012 at 10:49 pm

Please never answer yes to that question or put mgr’s name and number, even if you say “DON’T CONTACT.” My friend applied for a position at SC department of revenue and they asked for current mgr & number and insisted they will not contact but the prospective employer disregarded that note and called anyway. He didn’t get the job and left to find something else

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Katie June 27, 2012 at 5:40 am

Our small town Uni (my employer) has arrogantly decided that they refuse to interview anyone without contacting their current employer for a reference because if the candidate doesn’t allow it, it means they have something to hide.
It blew up spectacularly though when they recently interviewed for a new director for our unit. When they called his previous boss for a reference he told the recruiter that he was so unwilling to lose his employee that he is putting in a super high counter offer. The Uni then had to cough up tenfold to put in an even higher offer.

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Katie June 27, 2012 at 5:41 am

Clarify previous statement, read employ not interview, apologies

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Cassie June 28, 2012 at 12:49 am

The one time I applied for a job within my department, I put “do not contact current employer”. The position was a promotion but I did not want my boss to know I was considering to leave. I interviewed for the position, and before they offered me the position, HR asked if they could talk to my current supervisor. It was at that point that I told my boss about my applying and the forthcoming offer, and then HR contacted him.

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Anonomous July 17, 2012 at 7:00 pm

I was recently laid off from a job I held for many years because a manager brought in by new management did not like me. I know this because several trusted co-workers told me after she came on board, along with shortly before I was laid off. What didn’t she like about me? Having been there as long as I’d been there was a lot I knew that she did not thus not giving her control over the department that she was looking for. Also, due to the years I had been there, my salary was close to her own. How do I handle the question of contacting a previous boss under those circumstances?

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Ask a Manager July 17, 2012 at 7:05 pm

Use the person who was your manager before the new one started.

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Anonymous July 26, 2012 at 3:55 pm

I applied for and interviewed for a position last year. I specifically requested that they NOT contact my current employer. Well, they did anyway. I came in to work the next day, and my supervisor was incredibly mad at me. He didn’t like being put on the spot by the interviewer and did not like the choice of jobs I was picking! Well, I didn’t get the job, and my life at the office was incredibly tense after that.

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Jen July 28, 2012 at 9:35 am

I had to state “Do not contact my current employer”…there was no box to check. Does this mean they will contact my current employer at any time during the interview process, or after I am hired?

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Ask a Manager July 28, 2012 at 2:57 pm

They shouldn’t, but very rarely an employer will ignore this direction.

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Steven January 3, 2013 at 4:19 pm

Let’s say I check NO. Will they still call for verification of employment dates or will they honor the box that they put on the application and not contact period? This is a local government job…

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Ask a Manager January 3, 2013 at 4:55 pm

No means no contact at all.

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blue August 13, 2012 at 11:36 pm

I’m stunned to see so many stories of companies contacting present employers even when explicitly asked not to. What kind of person would think it appropriate to put someone else’s livelihood in jeopardy like that?

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Carolyn December 8, 2012 at 10:59 am

I recently applied for a position before the deadline date about a month ago. I noticed now that the same position has been amended for a later closing date, I was informed this when I telephoned the employer and checked the position online. Is this good or bad news for me? Should I re-apply, should I update my application.

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Ask a Manager December 8, 2012 at 5:15 pm

Doesn’t mean anything either way, no need to resubmit your application.

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Mudgal December 13, 2012 at 4:58 pm

Agreed! Never, just never say yes to contact current employer if s/he is a jerk. I have one idiot that I work for and there’s so much cronyism that I’m fed up. So, I actually wrote in cover letter to consider my application in confidence from my current employer. I had my interview and secured a fantastic over. Just waiting to tell my current employer that I’m done in about 2 months! Super happy. You have to be intelligent and professional, but naive about these things.

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Mudgal December 13, 2012 at 4:59 pm

oops typos
*’offer’ not ‘over’
*’not naive’ not ‘but naive’

…was to happy to give my two cents :P

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Julius December 23, 2012 at 3:23 pm

Question..I had an interview on Tuesday on Friday i
received a call from hr which I missed..They left me a
message at 8:30 am when I called back around 9:00am
I left them a message they have not return my ph
call or email..it this a good sign that I got the job??

Please help this is driving me nuts..

Thank you ,Julius

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olmar January 3, 2013 at 8:46 pm

I AM IN GUATEMALA I AM IN THE CALL CENTER I JUST GOT FIRED AND HAVE AN INTERVIEW TOMMOROW. I WILL NOT BE MENTIONING THIS ON RESUME OR MY INTERVIEW. DO THEY HAVE A WAY OF KNOWING I’M LYING?

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Ask a Manager January 3, 2013 at 9:41 pm

I can only speak to the U.S., but it would normally be very difficult for them to find out about a job that you don’t mention.

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Anonymous January 5, 2013 at 4:32 pm

that’s what I figured Thank yo for your quick response .

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Ell January 21, 2013 at 10:59 am

I always answer yes to those questions even though I was wrongfully terminated from one job. I’ll be praying for everyone. The job market is tight and they’re being overly picky and a lot of hard working people are losing out as a result. I get nothing but sales offers although I’ve never been able to hold down a sales job, hate sales and know it’s not my calling. But God is good and I’m going back to school for computers! Jesus loves you all! Keep your heads up!! :)

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Lexus January 27, 2013 at 7:01 pm

I asked a former coworker to be a reference and they stated my old boss -the old companies owner- made a policy that only he could be a reference for a past employee. Is that allowed? Your relationship with a coworker is different than that with your boss. I understand if only he can be used to verify employment but can they tell their employees not to be used as a reference

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Ask a Manager January 28, 2013 at 11:07 am

Yes, as long as those people remain employed there.

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Yvonne January 29, 2013 at 1:20 pm

This just happened to me. I applied for a job and they had an online application. On one section it alloed me to check that I did not want them to contact my current employer. On the reference section I had to put my supervisor’s email and phone. That same day they sent out an automated email asking my references to submit a reference. They hadn’t even called me for an interview yet. Now my boss knows that I was looking. This makes me want to say no even if they call for an interview now. I think it is bad practice on their part. I don’t even know if I would want the job yet they tipped off my boss.

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ciera July 12, 2013 at 11:51 am

your boss can not fire you for looking for another job if that’s what your worried about in no state at all can they fire you for it or give you trouble at work about it hope this helps

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Jamie July 12, 2013 at 11:57 am

This is incorrect. Most states are at will employment so you can be fired for any reason which is not a legally protected category (race, gender, religion, etc.)

It’s not advisable to fire people for looking for other work, but it’s absolutely legal.

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Ask a Manager July 12, 2013 at 12:18 pm

What Jamie said. Your boss can absolutely legally fire you for looking for another job.

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ciera July 12, 2013 at 11:48 am

Ok Ive got a question it may be stupid but here it is ok I got an application from a factory on this application it says What type of work are you looking for ? ok I know im interested in factory work of course that is what the application is about so whats this meaning can you help me please ?

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Jamie July 12, 2013 at 11:54 am

There are a lot of different positions in a factory. Just in my area of manufacturing you could be looking for work as an entry level machine operator, assembler, maintenance, line captain, receiving clerk, material handler, painter…and those were just off the top of my head – there are more.

If you have a specific area you should list it so the application will be routed to the correct hiring manager or HR can match it up with any openings. If you don’t have a specific area then just list general factory work and they will know you’re entry level and flexible.

There are also a lot of positions in factories like IT, HR, accounting, purchasing, engineering, etc…but those are generally applied to via resume and the application is something filled out as a formality once hired.

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Kirstie March 6, 2014 at 11:16 am

So I ran into a dilemma, where I will say “No” to contacting a previous employer, its worked great so far, however the company I have interviewed with is now asking why I have said no. I left my last job on not-so-great terms though, so whats an appropriate answer? I don’t want to talk about negative things right before the possibility of being hired.

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