should I ask job interviewers to sign a confidentiality agreement?

A reader writes:

I recently received a job offer for a job I was qualified for based on experience, but underqualified for on paper – I was lacking a certification. The odds were stacked against me, but your site helped me to develop an excellent cover letter and fine tune my interview skills. I credit your site in helping me highlight my strengths and demonstrate that my experience was more valuable than the special certification I was lacking.

I accepted the offer, and though those that resign in my industry are often asked to leave immediately, my former employer has been very supportive of the move. I’m in my notice period right now. A couple of days ago, a senior colleague pulled me into her office to offer some advice to me for the future. She recommended asking my interviewers to sign a confidentiality agreement to prevent them from talking around town about my candidacy. Apparently, my bosses had found out that I was interviewing for another position before I was ready to give notice.

I went through a fairly lengthy interview process for the new position — two days of panel interviews and a couple informal meetings. It seems pretentious to me to present an agreement to every single interviewer, especially when I was the underdog to begin with.

I’m not planning on job hunting for a while, so I suppose it doesn’t matter. But I’m curious, is this a thing people do? What are your thoughts?

No.

Asking interviewers to sign a confidentiality agreement is going to come across as out of touch and over the top — to the point that it could give interviewers serious pause about your understanding of professional norms.

I’m not saying that’s reasonable — you can certainly make a case for doing it in some alternate reality where conventions are different. But in our world, with the conventions we have, it’s going to come across very strangely because it’s just not done. (For the sake of thoroughness, I should say here that I suppose there’s some industry I don’t know about with unusual norms where it is done. But it’s certainly not the norm.)

There are a bunch of ideas like this that could make perfect sense if we were constructing interviewing conventions from scratch, but we’re not. And you’ve got to work with the ones we have.

That said, in a small industry, you can absolutely say something like, “I want to mention that my job search is confidential right now and I’d appreciate you being discreet about our conversations.”

Even that will be a bit of overkill with good employers, because good employers are going to be discreet about your candidacy anyway and won’t need the reminder. It’s still fine to say it, though, and it may give you peace of mind. (And certainly not everyone falls under the “good employer” umbrella.)

{ 42 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. Cambridge Comma

    I wonder whether indiscreet interviewers would feel bound by such a contract anyway. Also, how would you enforce it?

    Reply
    1. Observer

      In theory, you could sue them. In practice? There is no way in the universe to enforce something like this. Which is another reason why this would look wildly out of touch.

      Reply
      1. Letter Writer

        I asked the same question and my colleague said, “well, you could sue them.” Never mind the fact that although several people at my current employer seemed to know, no one would tell me how they found out. So who would I even know to sue in the first place?

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        1. Quasi-Constitutional Lawyer

          Theoretically, you could sign the NDA with the organization that was interviewing you, and then sue that organization for breach. That said, NDAs are usually worth the paper they’re written on, because proving damages is difficult.

          Reply
  2. Junior Dev

    This is something I worry about as I start job searching. It’s such a messed up power dynamic– potential employers can destroy your current job without even really thinking about it. I think I’ll try the “asking them to keep it confidential” suggestion, good script.

    Reply
  3. CAA

    I think if you are able to find out from your colleague which interviewer was spreading your name around, then you can decide whether or not to bring it up after you start the new job. If it was a senior person who should know better, then I’d just tuck it away as good information to have about this person, and avoid using him/her as a confidante or mentor. If it was a more junior person who is not experienced at interviewing and hiring and maybe didn’t think through the consequences of talking to some friend who works with you, then I do think it’s worth mentioning as a friendly heads-up, because while it didn’t cause you any problems this time, it could be troublesome for others in the future and may make it more difficult for your new employer to attract and hire the best candidates.

    Reply
    1. AdAgencyChick

      This is great advice.

      OP, your instincts are right on, and it stinks that someone at your new employer decided to violate your confidentiality that way. I’ve been there, and I’m glad it ended well for you.

      Reply
    2. MK

      Who says it’s an interviewer spreading the OP’s name around? It might be the receptionist telling her best friend who mentioned it to her hairdresser in front of another client whi happened to be the old boss’ cousin. Or someone might have seen the OP entering the new employer’s office. Or an interviewer might have mentioned the interview while on the phone and the person sitting next to them in the bus was the OP’s coworker’s college friend. Ir anything really.

      Reply
      1. CAA

        The odds are pretty darn high that it’s someone she interviewed with because other people don’t usually talk about random candidates they don’t know; but even if it turns out to be the receptionist or someone who just happened to notice her resume on an interviewer’s desk, I’d still give the same advice. If the person who talked can be easily identified, and if the OP is in a position to do so, help them to understand that they should keep other people’s job searches confidential. I’m not suggesting an all out witch hunt to find the leaker here.

        Reply
        1. Letter Writer

          I interviewed with large clients of the company, members of the board, future peers, as well as superiors. It really could be a number of people that spilled the beans. In addition, I did know the receptionist on a personal level. So, it’s even possible she said something, although I really doubt this.

          From my understanding, it seemed that my former employer not only found out I was interviewing, but also that I would be offered a lot more money, and that the lack of certification would be a problem. This narrows it down, but it really could be a number of people.

          I may casually mention that my former employer found out when I start in the new position. I’m not sure it would do much, but maybe someone may think twice if twice they are ever in a situation like thay again.

          Reply
          1. CAA

            Yeah, I think all you can do is make people aware of what happened without making too big a deal of it and hope they recognize themselves and don’t do it again. It’s complicated because it could have been the clients or board members and you can’t really have the same expectations of them as you would of your future superiors.

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      1. Specialk9

        I’m just imagining the snort of surprised laughter I’d give if I was interviewing someone and they had the chutzpah to try to get me to sign a confidentiality agreement. Then I’d get annoyed, and then I’d bin that applicant’s resume. I’d take it as advance notice that this person goes to the nuclear legal option incredibly inappropriately, and would likely be a hugely problematic employee, and problematic well after.

        Reply
  4. This Daydreamer

    Actually, your colleague has a good point. Her bosses haven’t heard a thing about the twenty three interviews she’s had this year.

    Reply
    1. Willis

      Exactly. I would’ve liked to know if senior colleague ever actually had an interviewer/prospective employer sign an NDA, cause it sounds like the type of advice people give without really thinking through. (Although it does seem like she was well-intentioned and trying to be helpful in letting OP know her current employer somehow knew about the interviews.)

      Reply
      1. Letter Writer

        The senior colleague in question has been employed at the same place for almost 20 years. So I’m guessing no, she’s never had anyone sign an agreement.

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        1. serenity

          I think that right there should tell you all you need to know about the value of your co-worker’s out-of-touch advice. It’s frankly absurd.

          Reply
  5. VX34

    The idea of an agreement of such presented to an interview panel does sound a bit out in left field. Probably wouldn’t play very well at all.

    But to bring up that your search should be kept confidential? Sure. Seems like a reasonable thing to mention.

    Should it have to be mentioned? No, but that’s a separate conversation IMO.

    Reply
  6. AnotherAlison

    When I think of all the red tape I have to go through to get a client NDA agreed to by our legal team and the client’s legal team, I think it’s fairly unlikely that a job candidate would provide a confidentiality agreement that a company would actually sign to begin with. Our NDAs specify that only certain levels of employees are bound by the NDA, and the NDA is tied to damage amounts not to exceed certain contractual based dollar amounts (like we have a $200,000 contract and we spill the beans about a $2 billion project, we’re not paying damages more than $200,000). I don’t know how that would translate to disclosing a candidate’s job search, but I think that the old phrase “those things never stand up in court” would apply if you tried to sue anyway.

    Reply
    1. Observer

      Good point. I could just see an employer being presented with the agreement saying “We’ll get back to you on that” and that would be the end of it. Because why go through with that level of trouble for a candidate you are not even sure of, when you can hire someone who won’t add extra layers of trouble.

      Reply
    2. Recruit-o-rama

      Exactly, if presented with such a document, I would just decline to sign and tell them it’s not our company practice to call current employers so the document is not necessary. Further, I can’t sign anything that doesn’t go through legal, which can take a lot of time.

      On the other hand, a curse on people who do this to candidates. This is firmly against my personal and professional code of ethics.

      Reply
    3. nnn

      This is a good point. In my organization, I don’t know if anyone conducting interviews is authorized to sign a legal document in this context. And I certainly wouldn’t put my own job at risk for something like this, or bother my hierarchy trying to figure out what to do about it when there are other perfectly good candidates who aren’t bringing this complication.

      Reply
  7. Susan

    I think you could maybe get away with this if you were interviewing for some executive position. I also think that if I was asked, as an interviewer, to sign a legal document by the interviewee, I would stop the process and contact my legal department and HR. After all, I’ve got no business signing a legal document as a representative of my employer – which is what you would be asking – without that kind of review. So in my opinion, it would bring your interview/hiring process to at least a temporary halt.

    I honestly don’t think I’ve ever been involved in an interview or hiring process where the actual interviewers were guilty of releasing information about the applicants. I have worked with a lot of applicants who were really sloppy about operational security. I’ve purposely scheduled interviews in a separate building just for confidentiality, and had applicants ask if the can see the actual workspace. When I let them know that may result in them seeing people they know, that seems to confuse them. But you know, those people are totally going to get on the phone later that week to relay who they saw walking around with a hiring manager. I’ve had applicants for a job call me to ask about other applicants – because they had been talking to each other. It’s not necessarily a bad idea to compare notes with a friend who also applied – but if they will pick up the phone and call me, who else did they call? Last year, I was really sure a coworker was interviewing – mostly because when she’s out of office for anything else (kids, medical) I get all the details – and suddenly, she’s coming in wearing a suit (not normal), disappearing in the middle of the day, and zero explanation. If you really don’t want it to get out that you’re interviewing, I think for most people you need to look really hard at how well you’re protecting that information yourself.

    Reply
  8. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain

    Year’s ago I was interviewing to leave a toxic job. I didn’t want the owner (small business) to know, so I submitted the name of my direct supervisor, who knew I was looking and was supportive, as the person to contact for reference. The place I interviewed with apparently had an another applicant that had worked at this place previously, so when HR called to verify her employment, since they had someone on the phone, they just decided to verify mine too…with the business owners wife who was acting as “HR”. Luckily I got the job, but that was a terrible surprise meeting with the owner. New job never even called who I put down as a reference.

    Asking my interviewer, who was the hiring manager, to be discrete wouldn’t have helped. The reference checker was someone I never met.

    Reply
  9. DMR

    As a small business lender, I have been advised not to sign these agreements when clients bring them in because it opens up liability issues that otherwise wouldn’t have been a problem.

    I don’t know what indstry the OP is in, but there could be other ways the news got out. I believe a grant application went out to a mutual funder stating that I was the leading candidate for my current position while my previous employer listed me as a key staff member.

    Reply
  10. NoMoreFirstTimeCommenter

    Sorry to be slightly off topic, but what about when the job seeker has to sign a confidentiality agreement at the interview? I’ve come across this once and it was an American company so I wonder if this is normal in the US? To me it seems extremely unusual.

    Reply
    1. Essie

      It can be normal in certain fields that involve intellectual property, like engineering, medical research, or software development. In my experience, the interview usually just skirts around the specifics of what the company is currently working on, but if the position is incredibly specific, it might be important to get the applicant’s impression of the project to check for good fit.

      Reply
      1. NoMoreFirstTimeCommenter

        I don’t think that particular interview revealed any confidential details about what they’re working on. I’m talking about a situation where they hired for a teapot handle project, and I’m pretty good at handles but know nothing about teapots. Teapots weren’t directly mentioned in the interview and with my limited knowledge I couldn’t figure it out from the interview questions. Only on my first workday they told that this is a project for Teapots Inc and I thought, “oh, I didn’t even know that there are handles in teapots too, but this does explain the seemingly random tea question in the interview”! (The teapot analogy doesn’t work too well for this one…) But, if this kind of thing is normal in some industries, then maybe the interview NDA is their routine system for all interviews, not only the ones that go into details.

        (I’ve also once applied to a job where the job ad only said they need people with education or experience in a certain broad field. I emailed them and asked for more specifics, exactly what kind of experience they were looking for. They said it’s confidential! So I sent an extremely generic application (I was unemployed at that time so I couldn’t afford to be picky) and unsurprisingly never heard back. It’s hard to apply when you don’t know what job you’re applying for, and it must also make it really hard to recruit!)

        Reply
        1. SusanIvanova

          I’ve interviewed for several positions at one notoriously secretive company – some of them had NDAs, some didn’t. One of them couldn’t even say which team it was – a few weeks later they announced a major new feature and I’m pretty sure that’s the team I interviewed for, based on which skills they’d focused on in the interview. To teapot it: did I know anything about one specific painting technique? Alas, no.

          Reply
    2. CC

      depends on the industry, I think, but not too unusual. I’ve had to sign one over 50% of the time while interviewing for tech industry jobs. especially common at larger companies or those with valuable IP. that said, I had never encountered it previously (used to work in education).

      Reply
    3. HR Expat

      I work for a large American tech company, and we never ask this of candidates. Even if we’re interviewing someone from a competitor. If they ask questions about something that could be IP, we won’t give specifics and mention that it’s proprietary information and we can’t share during the interview process.

      Reply
  11. Zip Zap

    I don’t think it would be weird if you were very high profile in your field or a public figure. I’m thinking of situations where your candidacy could be leaked to the media and become a news story somewhere. Situations where, once you’re hired, news outlets will cover it, whether they’re field-specific or for a broader audience. The reasons would be many, not just regarding media coverage, but being high profile would give you an excuse to do that sort of thing.

    Reply
  12. HR Expat

    It would be really weird to me if someone brought in an NDA as a candidate, even if they were my top choice for the role. I agree with the poster above who said that we’d have to get legal approval before signing anything, and that likely wouldn’t happen.

    OASN I’ve had an employee notice that a top candidate was brought in to interview, and they knew the candidate from a previous role where the candidate was fired for something really awful (think potential federal charges). We wouldn’t have found out this information through our normal checks, so it was good for us that our employee knew this person. I know this isn’t the case with you, LW, but it definitely changed our minds on this candidate. Although we still didn’t contact their employer.

    Reply
  13. Cromely

    The other issue in asking the interviewer to sign an NDA is that the interviewer or one of them might just say “No.” what do you do then? Go forward without it? Walk out?

    Reply
  14. Vince

    Our local school superintendent interviewed for the same job at another district in the state. The school he was interviewing at released a statement to the paper saying they had 3 finalists. This was probably a shock to some in our small communit . But he did conduct a town hall type forum as part of his interview, which I would imagine is Public.

    Reply
  15. chocoholic

    Early on in his career, my husband was working for a small company and decided to answer an ad that he saw. He was invited for an interview. The company he was interviewing at was a client of his employer, and someone saw him there and shared with his boss. He then was called into talk to his boss about why was he interviewing elsewhere. I told him he should share this with the interviewing company because it could have had serious repercussions for him. He was afraid to look for another job for a long time after that because of that experience and when he did, it was out of state (we were looking to move). It is a sucky move for a company to do something that could jeopardize someone’s employment like that. MYOB, seriously.

    Reply
  16. Selena Academia

    I was recently on a search committee for a high-level admin position at a university. One of our candidates asked us to be especially discreet — even more than the normal level of confidentiality — because she is in local politics and didn’t want people to know she was thinking of pulling out of her campaign for this job. But that’s the only time in 20+ years that I’ve ever seen someone come close to wanting this sort of agreement.

    Reply

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