job application asked what other jobs I’ve applied to recently

A reader writes:

I submitted my resume and cover letter for a position yesterday and got an email this morning asking for more information– to fill out their “candidate profile” (name, contact info, salary desired, position desired, references). They asked for previous salary but I slipped out of that one by saying I’m a consultant (true).

What tripped me up, though, was “Please list any positions at any company that you have recently applied to.” That is really none of their business! I wound up listing a couple of titles of positions I have applied for recently (very similar to this position) but not the companies. Was that the right thing to do? Is this a huge red flag of weirdness? Am I just sheltered and this is normal?

Wow. I’ve heard of people being asked this in interviews before, but not on applications — but given the trend toward more and more violations of privacy on job applications, I’m not surprised.

Frankly, I’d probably just skip the question. It’s none of their business, it’s not relevant to your candidacy, and it’s feasible that you haven’t recently applied to any other positions (unless you’re currently unemployed, in which case it probably stretches believability, but too bad).

Employers, cut this crap out. You are overstepping.

{ 56 comments… read them below }

  1. Sarah*

    Thanks for answering my question!

    My roommate and I could only come up with one “justification” for this: making sure unemployed or very active job seekers are looking for positions in a certain field and not just whatever’s available on CareerBuilder/Monster. Even so, not really any of their beeswax.

    That combined with the “previous salary” request on the application have raised red flags for me about this company… but we’ll see what happens!

    1. Nyxalinth*

      the other reason my paranoid mind came up with was so they could call the other companies and say “So why didn’t you hire John Doe?” but I doubt it. I think your idea is more spot-on.

      1. jmkenrick*

        Yeah. That seems like a lot of work. But I get why you thought of it. The only reasonable explination still seems pretty weak. I mean, they can’t figure that out by looking at the application?

  2. Amanda*

    Agree none of their beeswax! It’s been my experience that the vibe of a company’s application process is a good indicator of the actual company.

    For example – one I filled out last year made you click an acknowledgment that you were willingly providing the information and wouldn’t sue them. Weird!

  3. K.*

    I haven’t come across this (yet?) but I agree with your explanation, Sarah. Similarly, they may be wondering if you’re applying to “appropriate” positions – if you have a JD and you’re applying to be an admin assistant, they might assume you’re just using it as a filler until something better comes along. Still: none of their business.

    Totally agree with you too, Amanda. If a company’s application process is invasive, disorganized, creepy, etc., I think that’s definitely something to be mindful of when considering whether you want to work there.

  4. Steve*

    I would not put it on an application, but I have asked this during interviews before and there is a point.

    Usually the situation is that I have asked the candidate about their interest in a given position and the response was on along the lines that they would love to be an X, they have always wanted to be an X, their entire being is wrapped up in the X career field.

    So I ask this to assess their answer. If they truly want to become an X they should be able to cite other similar positions that they have looked into. When I hear back they have applied to mostly Ys and Zs it calls their answer and commitment into question.

    You don’t have to be in love with a given position to be hired, but don’t try to BS me.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I can totally see asking in an interview (not on an application), “what types of other jobs are you looking at?” but asking about specific companies is going too far. I suspect you’re probably doing the former, right?

      1. Steve*

        Correct, perhaps I misread the OP’s issue. I don’t really care which specific employers they are applying to, although that does come out at times. I do ask about the the positions they have applied for. And particularly for entry level it is fine to lack focus and be looking at more than one field – I have hired in that circumstance before.

  5. Doug*

    That’s terrible. If it were me, I would have just written “N/A” or “confidential.” If they reject me because of that, then that’s a company that doesn’t need me.

    Either way, if they do reject you, it doesn’t sound like it would be a huge loss for you. I wouldn’t want to work for them either.

  6. Sabrina*

    I’ve been asked that by staffing firms and in interviews, but never seen it on an application. Too bad you can’t answer by saying “Busybody Deflector at None of Your Beeswax, Inc.”

    1. Anonymous*

      I’ve had staffing firms ask me this a lot which makes sense. They want to know if you’re working with other firms. I always say I’m talking to other firms but don’t have a preference which one places me, it’s all about the position. That lets them know I expect them to be sending me potential positions quickly and I’m not sitting home watching TV.

      To play devil’s advocate, I can see how this would be valuable info to a hiring manager to gauge your goals, interest level, etc but it’s still none of their business.

      1. Elizabeth*

        I agree about using it to gauge goals/interest, as long as it’s vague (what types of jobs rather than what particular jobs), but even then it doesn’t seem like something that needs to get asked on the application. Wait for the interview.

        1. Anon in the UK*

          We’ve asked whether people have other interviews lined up (though never with whom) just because if we really like them and they have other interviews we need to get organised quickly

    2. Anonymous_J*

      “Busybody Deflector at None of Your Beeswax, Inc.”

      It WOULD be awesome if you could say that! LOL!

  7. JLH*

    A recruiter at one of the temp agencies I’m trying to find work through always tries to get me to tell her the names of the companies I’m waiting to hear back from–not the temp agencies, but where the position is. I managed to side-step it at first but got so uncomfortable about it I just started telling her “nothing new”–and there really isn’t anything new until I’ve accepted a position.

      1. SM*

        I’ve worked with a lot of staffing agencies, and even worked for one years ago. They ask because sometimes they might staff people at a company, but said company is also posting their own job listings, and there can be conflicts. They have always told me that they don’t care where I applied, they just want to make sure they’re not submitting me for the same exact position which would make everyone look unorganized.

        1. Recruiter*

          They are lying! I am a former headhunter. We ask because if you interviewed ad company X through an agency, we can call that company and pitch our services.

          1. JLH*

            Yes, this is the impression I’ve been left with. Which is why a lot of temp agencies–including this one–won’t even tell you the company they’re sending in your résumé until they’ve accepted you or want to interview. Especially with the way temping is structured now–it used to be that temp agencies had more relationships with companies, now there’s some database where companies can post positions and then whatever temp agency sends them a candidate they like that’s who they go with.

            1. Kelly O*

              I just have to add I really dislike the whole “we can’t tell you what the company is” line. For example, in Houston if you say “oil and gas company” it could be anything, and could be anywhere in town. (Yes, I’ve had a third-party recruiter tell me she could not tell me what part of town the company was in until I agreed to come in and fill out her paperwork.)

              As I have said before, and will continue to say until I’m blue in the face apparently, is that hiring is a two-way street, even in a bad economy/recession/double-dip recession/autonomous collective. It’s not just about the company deciding if they like me, I also have to decide if this is a company I want to work with and for.

              (And I may be a Bad Applicant, but I am not telling where else I’m looking, or who I’m working with. I gave that information once and it came back to bite me.)

              1. Elizabeth*

                I can see a justification with it *sometimes*, like if the company is planning to fire the Senior Coordinator of Engineering and doesn’t want her to know that yet, but they do want to start looking for her replacement. Or they don’t want the stockholders to know the CFO is retiring until they have the replacement lined up to present to them. Most of the time, though, it doesn’t seem like such secrecy is warranted…

          2. Nyxalinth*

            Do you guys also run ads with fake job listings? I’ve heard of this being done to either collect resumes or to collect the names of former employers to pitch the services.

            I don’t mean your agency in particular, just wondering if this is truth or rumor!

            1. Sabrina*

              I’ve seen that. Or they will call me with the “perfect” job and pay and why don’t I come in to update my profile and when I get there the “perfect” job isn’t going to work out but something that is low paying and not at all what I’m looking for is available.

          3. Anonymous*

            My housemate worked for a recruiter, and one of their candidates told them they had applied for a job with a company they were also recruiting for, and had got to the final interview. My housemate was instructed to call the company and warn them off hiring the candidate, because he had a “bad reputation”! Just so they might get the commission for placing another candidate!

            1. Anonymous*

              An agency tried that with me! I got placed through an agency in a short term position and my last position was lost due to a dispute over the sickness policies.

              An agency I was registered with but hadn’t put me forwards rang the client and said “Don’t hire her, shes known to be unreliable”.

              The incident I was sacked for? Taking two weeks off during the Avian Flu epidemic and having flu!

              Luckily I’d told the client the circumstances and he told me that the other agency had tried this.

            2. Ask a Manager* Post author

              I hope your housemate refused, if it wasn’t true. Under the law, that could qualify as tortious interference, which is a legal violation related to intentionally damaging someone’s business relationships.

        2. perrik*

          It’s not always for nefarious reasons, honestly! External recruiting agencies live on commissions, and you only get that money when you “own” the candidate. Screening/interviewing/preparing a candidate is a waste of time when said candidate has already been presented for this position by another agency, or has already applied directly through the client’s career site. We had a fantastic candidate for a position that had been tricky to source, but then he revealed that he had applied directly to another department of the client company within the last year. By the terms of our contract with the client, we wouldn’t have received a dime for placing him.

          Thus the question about where else you’ve applied. However, that should only come up in the form of “the position is at Company A, have you applied for any job there in the last year, or has another agency submitted you there for anything?”

  8. EngineerGirl*

    I think the correct response to the question is: N/A (not applicble). You’ve answered it truthfully without giving them the information they are inappropriately seeking.

  9. Elizabeth West*

    Whoa. I haven’t run into this but I’ll certainly keep an eye out for it. If it’s an online application program, and it won’t let me proceed until I enter something, I guess I’ll try to flub it like “Various companies” instead of actually giving a response that is none of their bidness.

    Off topic, but AAM, I asked THE question in an interview yesterday–the one you like because no one asks it–and for the very first time, got an actual response! And it was a response that impressed me! Usually they just look flustered and say “Um, blurrgghhhwarrggarrbbbblle.”

    I think I might have a shot at this job, and it seems like something I’d really enjoy as well (small company, a safety education non-profit). I will let you know how it turns out. :)

        1. Laura*

          To continue the hijack, my husband just used the magic question in a panel interview. All 3 people remarked on what a great question it was and it impressed them enough that they took some time to decide which group got him. He starts his new, closer-to-home job in 2 weeks. Thanks!

          1. Rachel*

            I also asked “the question” in a job interview last week. The senior group member that I was interviewing with got this great smile, and then she started describing her favorite characteristics she’d seen in excellent employees in this position… and THEN she went into a tangent about how strongly she felt that I have that quality.

            Needless to say they made me an offer, and I took it.

  10. Charles*

    AAM, do you have all the information from this letter writer? I think we really need some clarification.

    If this is with the actual company that she will be working for; then, absolutely, it is none of their business. And it might be in her best interest to say none.

    However, OP, if this is the recruiting agency that is asking then it is somewhat their business in that if they submit you to a position that someone else has first “dibs” for submitting you earlier then they will lose out even if they did “all the work” at getting you in the door. The recruiter is just protecting her commission; or, really, I should say, just protecting herself from doing all the work for no reward. (and I don’t blame her for that!)

    So, be sure that it isn’t the agency that you are not answering to. They will drop you like a hot potato if you do not seem “cooperative.”

    That being said, I’ve never run across this in “written” form; it has always been during a phone screening, or a quick email, or an in-person interview. And usually they will simply ask “Have you recently applied to company X for position Y?”

    1. Kelly O*

      I have run across this more than once, in written form, on third-party recruiting agency application forms. To be clear, I have also seen this in three different markets, so it’s not like it’s just confined to one geographical area.

      And I realize this may seem harsh, but I look at a third-party recruiter this way. They are not working to get me a job. They are working to fill open positions for employers, not to put Kelly the individual into the perfect role for her. More often than not, I run into third-party recruiters who will tell you all sorts of wonderful things while you are there in their office, and never call you back. (I shared the story recently of the guy I practically had to beg to just tell me something.)

      That third-party recruiter gets paid by the company when they place a person. Yes, I’m sure the goal is to get them past whatever time frame needs to pass before the check can clear, but I have gotten the distinct impression from many that they don’t seem to care much past that.

      Now, I will readily admit there are exceptions, but those exceptions are rare in my experience, and for the type of roles I’m normally applying for. I truly appreciate those rare recruiters who seem to truly care about putting the right person in the right role, and I wish there were more of them.

  11. Sarah*

    No, this isn’t an agency; it’s the actual company!

    I have also been asked this in interviews before; it was seeing it in the application that surprised me.

  12. Jess*

    When I worked hiring interns for a Public Defender Investigations division we asked if a candidate had applied to any law enforcement or legal jobs. We added it after we accepted an intern and then found out he was going to begin working for the local police starting right after the internship. We couldn’t place him with any attorney after that, since no one wanted to take on that inevitable conflict of interest (luckily we ended up finding some special projects for him). So, something like this would make sense, but not a general question.

    1. JT*

      I’ve asked this question of potential interns, and didn’t think it was a bad thing. If they were looking at similar organizations to ours it tended to strengthen their application – it shows their interest in our kinds of work. But I’ve also used the opportunity to describe similarities and differences between the various organizations. And in a few cases I’ve frankly said something like “I’m sure the experience you’ll have with us will be great, and while I’m not sure of what you’d be doing a [other organization], they’re much more widely known than us so there is probably resume building value in spending time with them.”

  13. HH*

    By the way, how are we supposed to answer that question when asked during an interview?
    I was asked only once and was really open and honest about the companies’ names and positions, as in this field everyone kind of knows each other, but would you have a more general answer?

    1. Anonymous_J*

      I would limit it to field and position title, personally.

      ex: “I have been applying for administrative support positions in media…or nonprofit…or (insert field here.)” I would NEVER give a company name, unless I was asked, “Have you applied to work at Company X?”

  14. Kev*

    Oh my. I had an application recently ask me to list every department I’d ever applied with, the status of the application, and if I remember correctly, it even asked for contact information!

    I turned in the application with rather less information in that section than was requested. I got a reply email telling me I was under consideration, but wanted me to resubmit the application and be more specific in that section.

  15. Scott Woode*

    My first thought upon reading this letter was “Wow, since when did applying for a job become applying to college?”

    The next thing these companies are going to ask for is your GRE scores, and possibly require an IQ test. “I’m sorry, but we only hire MENSA candidates.”

    Pure ridiculousness…

  16. RHOPE*

    Hello all, my situation seems almost too good to be true, February 2012 I applied for a job out of state (I’m in NYC) not thinking anything of it, I get a call in March, the creative director wanted to do a phone interview on the spot. Well after coming from another interview that day and, picking up the phone in the car wash I thought it was over, but he wanted to know more about me and asked will I be able to fly down on their dime. Of course I said yes he said he would get back to me. But after a month it is now April, he calls me to see if i was still interested in the job I told him yes and He apologized for the delay, (they just got a new soccer team in the city, thus was really busy with promos). So that same day booked my flight and hotel for the following week. So flew down met the eam, met about 4 managers including the News Director. The creative director was such a great guy, from the same city and took the same route to success. Well went home e mailed my thank you’s to everyone. well 1 week passed I decided to ask him the progress. He said sorry for the delay, but he will have a decision my that Friday or possible Monday. What i want to know is what is the hold up, his he waiting for another candidate ?? it kills me because this can be my dream job. I do know he contacted someone from my old job that wasn’t on my reference list. (you can see who checked out your profile on Linknd) Now I feel like I may not have it, so Now Im preparing for the worst and hoping for the best but this process sucks!! thanks guys

  17. Sarah*

    Thought I’d posted previously but for clarification, this wasn’t a question I was asked by a recruiter; it was on the application from the company itself! I haven’t heard anything back from them but I’m not holding my breath. :-P

  18. sharon*

    Sounds to me like they’re fishing for something. They may be looking for companies from which to poach employees. Or they may be making a list of competitors, or trying to figure out what the local salary are. Whatever it is, it’s not relevant to ask the applicant.

  19. Anonymous_J*

    I’ve gotten to the point where, if I can skip a question on an application, I do. I submit a cover letter and resume (or at least just my resume) for any and all jobs for which I apply. All the info they need initially is right there, and they can ask me any questions they still have.

    When it comes to fields (electronic) where information is “required,” I fake it or put in nonsense (i.e., all 0’s, etc.)

    I agree with AAM: Employers are overstepping, and they need to stop!

  20. Jamie*

    I also have been experiencing this question alot. Actually, in almost every interview that I’ve been on! I agree that it’s not an appropriate question and actually feel that it is bordering on discrimination!

    I have been out of work for a little over a year in this horrible economy trying very hard and actively to find work; however, still have not landed a job and have re-done my resume so many times I can’t even remember what I started out with! Being a woman of a “certain age”, I also feel that is playing a part in it. Although I’ve never seen the question on a “written” application, again it’s been asked of me in 99.97% of all interviews I’ve been on. Not only that but following that question were a few times, what were the results of your application to the companies and if I didn’t get any call backs or interviews, why do I think that happened? REALLY?

    I even had one woman ask me in a phone interview, “why do you think you’ve not found a job yet?” Again, REALLY? OK, like, how do you answer that without getting indignant?

    In closing, I do find the question totally inappropriate and if anyone has good suggestions on how to handle this question….do pass them on!! Thanks!

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