A reader writes:
I don’t understand job offers that are contingent on a positive reference from a current employer. Do you give notice to your current employer, thus throwing your current job into jeopardy and hoping you will be given a good reference, since otherwise you may be fired for looking elsewhere for employment? Or if you don’t get fired, it seems like everyone would be upset with you for contemplating leaving.
Or do you not give notice, continue working for your current company, and deal with the awkwardness of a prospective employer calling at random to talk to your boss? Does the prospective employer explain that you applied to work for them, which would also seem to jeopardize any stability at your current job? It just seems like unless you are 110% positive you will get a flawless and fabulous reference, you may lose two jobs — your current one and the prospective one. Can you shed some light on how this process works?
Yeah, they’re not a perfect system.
The idea is that you don’t give notice yet — because the offer still has a contingency attached to it — but rather give your boss a heads-up about the situation so that she’s not blindsided by the call. Once the reference-check has been finished and that contingency has been removed from the offer, then you’d go ahead and give notice. (Obviously you’d want to come to terms on salary and any other negotiation points before the reference-check, to ensure it’s an offer you want to accept.)
And you’re absolutely right to point out that there’s risk involved. If the employer for some reason doesn’t like what they hear, you could end up with no offer and with your security at your current job in jeopardy since they know you were about to leave.
That said, usually when someone wants to make you a job offer contingent upon a good reference from your current employer, that particular reference-checking process is going to be something of a rubber stamp. They’re looking for confirmation that you’re not terrible or about to be fired or just were fired for something. It’s a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, basically — not the sort of nuanced discussion of your strengths and weaknesses that a thorough reference-checker would normally do.
So the idea is that as long as you haven’t misrepresented things and as long as you’re reasonably competent, they’ll get what they’re looking for and the offer will be a go.
The wild card is if you have a manager who’s volatile, or angry about you leaving, or who irrationally dislikes you … and who might therefore misrepresent your work quality on the reference call, thus hurting or even ruining your chances with the new company. That’s pretty unusual, but it’s not impossible or unheard of.
If you’re in a situation where you expect your manager to torpedo your chances, the best option is often to refuse the contingency. Explain that you can’t allow your current manager to be contacted because it will jeopardize your current job, and offer up as many other references (ideally managers) as you can. This is harder if you haven’t had many previous jobs, but if you’re fairly experienced, it’s reasonable to say, essentially, “I have a 20-year track record of producing results, and I’d be glad to put you in touch with as many people as you’d like to attest to that, but I’m not in a position to alert my manager that I’m thinking of leaving until I have a absolutely firm offer.”
Reasonable people will understand and respect that.