can a prospective employer tip off my boss that I’m job-searching?

A reader writes:

If a person sends their resume to a company that is accepting applications, can the receiving HR department and/or the hiring manager tell one of their employees that “so-and-so sent us their resume, and your mother works where they currently work, do you know them?” Or can they even ask their employee if they knew that so-and-so was looking for a job elsewhere?

I ask because this happened to me. The mother who was told is in the administration at my current place of work, and she told my immediate supervisor that I was looking for another job. I would love to know if this is legal/proper.

It’s legal, but it’s really, really crappy. At a minimum, tipping off someone’s employer to their job search before they’re ready to do that can cause awkwardness with their manager, and at worst, it could even cause them to lose their job.

Smart employers are sensitive to the fact that people applying for jobs generally expect their applications to be treated confidentially. That said, it’s not uncommon for a hiring manager to get an application from Jane Smith, realize that she knows someone who used to work with Jane Smith, and call that person for their informal take (i.e., not an official reference check) on Jane Smith. Anyone with half a brain will not contact someone who Jane Smith is currently working with, but sometimes people do it anyway because they don’t think through the ramifications of that.

However, sometimes people are careful not to reach out to anyone at Jane Smith’s current employer, but once they reach out to someone else about her, the information is out of their hands and could spread in ways they didn’t anticipate.

And then of course, there are people like the employer you dealt with, who apparently have no consideration or regard for how their actions here might have affected you. This group is in the minority, but they do exist.

Now, in case anyone is flipping out with worry about what this means for their own job search, be aware that it’s not especially common. It’s more likely to happen in small, close-knit industries, or if you have the random bad luck of applying with someone who just happens to know one of your colleagues or managers (and again, even then smart employers will be discreet). You can’t eliminate the risk, but it’s worth knowing that it’s not happening with the vast majority of applications.

Overall, though, employers should treat applications confidentially, or should stress the need to keep it confidential if they reach out to a contact about someone.

{ 58 comments… read them below }

  1. PEBCAK*

    What should the OP do re: damage control? Say something to the supervisor, or let it go?

    I’m of the opinion that everyone should be dipping their toes in the water at least every 2-3 years, so if I hear someone is out interviewing, it doesn’t really bother me. If they are a top performer, I’d already be doing what I could to keep them in my employ.

    However, I know a lot of managers aren’t nearly this laid-back about these things.

    1. Anonymous*

      Can we poll the audience on whether it’s common thought/practice that people start casually looking around for a new job around the 2-3 year mark?

          1. Henning Makholm*

            Hm, I remember that article, and don’t like it much even on rereading it.

            It seems to be telling me that just because I’m on my seventh year with the same employer and still like my job, I must have “settle[d] into a position of mediocrity” with no hope of ever amounting to anything. :-/

            1. Anon for this*

              You’re in development though, right? There’s even a caveat in the article that you can’t really apply it to skilled developers. Those are the kind of people you grab onto and keep them happy.

              I know it was a different time, but my dad started as a developer and was with the same company for 38 years and he was the most successful and brilliant person I’ve ever known.

              But you’re right in the fact that it’s not applicable to all positions and I should have made that clear.

              Many in IT here have experienced the need to jump companies to get the big salary bumps and I think this is true in a lot (not all) admin/analyst cases.

              IT is one of those areas where you can’t really just ask Jane from accounting to take over for a while – unless Jane has an IT background – because it’s a specialized skill set. What I’ve seen in SMB (fortunately not mine) is they start off outsourcing IT. That becomes really expensive as their needs grow and once you implement an ERP you really need someone in house so you’re not paying outsources rates for troubleshooting and the lag time is slowing the business.

              So you hire someone in and you pay them market – well they seem like miracle workers because overnight your outsourcing costs are cut and the mess you had is quickly becoming a manageable system with 100% uptime and users who now have support.

              But the problem is especially in places with a one person IT department, few people really know what IT does. Sometimes no one knows what they do. So after a couple of years of a stable environment and things working really well the big raises stop because – well everything is under control do we really need to pay someone so much money when there isn’t much going wrong.

              Because it’s labor dollars that people don’t really understand can look wasted.

              But they aren’t aware – and sometimes don’t want to hear – what goes into that stable network environment. And all the changes and upgrades that happen which you don’t know about. And that a well run system is never an accident.

              So maybe your IT is stagnating pay wise and makes a leap to another company who needs someone to rescue them. Rescue comes with significantly more money so they leap. Company goes back to outsourcing because “who needs an IT when things are so smoothly” and then they are back at square one and now are willing to throw more money at someone else to come in and save them.

              Again, this hasn’t been my experience since my company values technological growth so I can’t stagnate even if I wanted to – and I am fortunate to work for a boss who absolutely knows what goes into a well run network and appreciates what I do and makes damn sure I have the resources to do it.

              But I see it the above scenario in IT forums time after time. It’s as common as bad cover letters and contributes to the high burnout rate in this sector of IT.

              I happen to be a fan of the up or out philosophy in many cases…and I think Jack Welch had a good idea which unfortunately is rarely implemented correctly. But absolutely neither of those things are appropriate in every situation.

              1. Jamie*

                Good thing when I’m anon I just don’t want to be searchable and it’s not for nefarious purposes because I’m always forgetting to swap out of my secret identity.

                That was me above – btw. :)

              2. Henning Makholm*

                I don’t see any such caveat. The article is specifically about developers (and TDWTF is a venting site that caters specifically to developers), and specifically claims that skilled developers are the ones who will quit sooner rather than later. In other words, if I don’t job hop I cannot really be that skilled and if I don’t instinctively feel burned out after a few years in the same job, it must be because I’m actively bad at what I do.

                1. Jamie*

                  I see what happened here. I linked the up and out article – but my response was based on the linked article within that one. Totally my fault – I’ve always read them together so they’ve become conflated in my head.

                  The caveat to which I was referring was in the linked article where the point is to retain good people by not having a dead sea culture where the mediocre are rewarded – and certainly not every work culture is like that.

                  The purpose I think articles like that serve are to put the thought out there that it’s okay to work for a company for a while, do a great job, and move on. It’s not an act of betrayal and I think businesses should be prepared for that and expect it.

                  And the cravath system is absolutely not for every culture – companies in which high performing employees are doing valuable work for the company are the exception. Happy companies, happy employees…it doesn’t matter the point of view of an article author or anyone else – that’s best case scenario.

                  But, most of us don’t work in best case scenarios and it’s important for both employees and management to realize that it doesn’t have to be that way. If your company isn’t giving you the growth you need you can look elsewhere and that should be accepted. If the entrenched employees aren’t giving the company what it needs than they should look to replace them with talent which will better meet their needs.

                  A lot of people get stuck in crappy jobs for decades – long before the economy tanked – because they didn’t look for something better. A lot of companies get stuck with sub-par employees for decades because they don’t want to make the difficult changes…and there is a lot of overlap where you have disengaged employees hating their jobs with employers who wish they would just quit already and find something else.

                  The reason those articles speak to me are because they clearly point out why both sides should be proactive in this.

                  But if people are happy where they are at – and you sound happy – that’s awesome and what everyone wants…but few people find.

                2. Henning Makholm*


                  Okay, that one is a lot more sensible — because it describes what it talks about as an ailment that can hit some workplaces, rather than as a universal law.

              3. Henning Makholm*

                Also I don’t see how your description of the outsource-insource cycle relates to Alex Papadimoulis’s advice that you should seek to push out everyone after a few years of employment, because those who haven’t quit spontaneously by then must be stagnating imbeciles. (With a possible exception for those who want to move “up” and become managers rather than developers — no thankyouverymuch, that’s not where my strengths are).

        1. AnotherAlison*

          Industry/Gen splits: Yeah, I disagree that people look around 2-3 yrs. You really have your best advancement opportunties at your own company (unless your company is dysfunctional and hires from outside rather than promoting). Caliber and size of company, industry, and location also limit opportunities. You don’t want to drain the pool of potential local employers in your first decade of work. Most of my peers (10-15 yr people) have been at 1-3 companies, and if it’s 3, there was generally a short stint at one and a long stint at another. (Benefits, vesting, and vacation also play a role in moving around in my industry).

        2. Mike C.*

          Yeah. My company hands out pins for every 5 years of service. One gal recently received her tenth pin. She was also the first female engineering manager, which I think is awesome!

      1. Sam*

        Sure, I’ll casually look at other jobs after a couple years in a position. It gives me a good sense of the market and lets me know if my compensation is staying competitive. And in some companies – and even some industries – it can be hard to get internal promotions and competitive raises.

        Perhaps it’s my generation or my cynicism, but I don’t expect companies to offer training, career advancement opportunities, or any kind of loyalty to employees. I can’t take any of that for granted. Every company I’ve worked for has spent far more on recruitment than on internal development. And my entire work history has taken place in an economy that necessitates strategic job hopping for promotion opportunities.

        1. Elizabeth West*

          It didn’t used to be this way, but it is now. It’s like cable companies bending over backward to get new customers, but long-time ones get nothing in the way of deals, etc. With companies, they don’t value us; they end up dumping us for the cheaper newbies. This should not be the case. But since it is, we have to insure ourselves against it.

          1. Mike C.*

            And yet they expect those newbies to have five years of experience in technologies that are two years old. Can’t they just make up their mind?

      2. Camellia*

        I recommend changing jobs every four to six years, if possible, especially earlier in one’s career.

        That gives you the opportunity to go in, learn, make your mistakes, gain experience, and then move on to another company where you can start fresh, negotiate a higher salary (hopefully) and leverage your experience without the shadow of novice mistakes coloring perceptions.

        Stay at one company too long and it can become like a dysfunctional family, with those quavering Walter Brennan voices saying, “He did a good job yesterday?? Well, that’s as may be, but FIFTEEN YEARS ago he…”

  2. CatB (Europe)*

    While I still managed a team, in my pre-freelancing times, I encouraged my subordinates to come tell me before any interview and I would do a quick rehash with them of what a good interview entails, to make them reach their best shape. I didn’t want to lose any of them, of course, but being that open and accepting (as part of a larger personal policy of openness) helped me keep my best performes, as they compared this attitude to what the prospective employer had in store. Truth be told, I lost five or six good people over a course of about ten years, but that’s very little compared to the average turnover of the industry and period.

    Plus, I almost always received the heads-up I needed without spying on them.

    1. Jamie*

      This. Why can’t more employers understand that someone weighing their options or testing the waters is just part of smart people looking out for themselves?

      I’m not talking about never being happy where you are and constantly on the prowl to where your current job isn’t getting the attention that it deserves. But it’s wise to do an assessment, from time to time, to make sure your current situation is still the best for you and to see what other options you have.

      It isn’t personal. Employers assess labor costs all the time – as they should. Looking at labor to billing is an important part of maintaining a healthy bottom line and that is data factored into salaries, etc. Why is it any different for an individual employee to assess their own situation and see if they can improve that?

      1. CatB (Europe)*

        Often times they would come the next day and tell me how the interview went. We would analyze the who and the how and the why of the interviewer and many a time they would draw the conclusion that “this wasn’t for me anyway”. Talking employee loyalty!

        1. Jamie*

          Yeah – loyal in quotes. Because my idea of company loyalty is doing as good as job as I am capable of doing while working for them, honoring confidentiality, and (should I move on) giving them notice and ensuring as smooth a transition as possible.

          I think that’s fair.

          My loyalty – not in quotes – the kind of loyalty that is there even if reciprocated because it’s unconditional? My family and myself. Maybe I’m cynical, but my list is that short.

        2. GeekChic*

          At one previous place of work they actually had “loyalty” on the performance evaluation. Made me wretch. I used to tell my boss that he should give me a zero because I wasn’t loyal (he never took me up on it)

          1. the gold digger*

            Yeah, I’ve never been able to drink the kool-aide, either. I’ll work hard and do a good job, but that’s because I take pride in what I do. I am glad to work at a place whose mission isn’t repulsive. I don’t think I could work at a kitten-strangling factory – but other than that, it’s a job. They could lay me off tomorrow.

      2. Joey*

        Are you advocating a free agency type employment market where employers and employees annually test the waters for something better? Sort of like the sports world where even though you might be performing well you can expect to get cut if someone better comes along?

        1. Jamie*

          Actually – that’s an analogy I’ve used before with my bosses…I’d absolutely be okay with business being a cut sport.

          Have a certain period of time – maybe 3-5 years (won’t happen so I never thought too deeply into the specifics) and then reevaluate the position (do the duties still make sense for the company) as well as the employee (is this still the best fit).

          Because a good employee – even if you reevaluate the job will add value somewhere and this would help keep them engaged by making sure they aren’t stagnating. Under performing or slacking employees – well that should be addressed anyway, but often isn’t – maybe a regular reevaluation of fit for the role would inspire managers to move them out and get employees on board who do add value.

          But yes – although it will never happen – I would love it if every so often companies AND employees were free to openly reevaluate their options transparently.

          1. Elizabeth West*

            That would be nice. I think I would not have gotten so bored after six years. There was nowhere to go from there except out. Getting my position cut was a blessing in disguise.

        2. Jamie*

          Another example – which I’ve also discussed with my boss – is vendors. As a contract comes up even if you’ve had no complaints you get quotes from other vendors and do a cost-benefits analysis on the various options out there. With vendors I’m not looking to get the lowest price at any cost – but to get exactly what we need (either goods or service) for a the lowest market cost without sacrificing value.

          I would say 9 x out of ten I end up re-signing our current vendors because we’re happy with the service and the pricing is fair. But I know it’s fair and that we have the optimum package we need because I spent the time to evaluate what else was out there.

          Besides – in my fictional world where this happens – looking for another job would be easier and above board also because you could look without hiding it from your employer. Kind of like the Amish have rumspringa – where the young can go out into the outside world and make a conscious choice to remain or leave the community. This would be like an employee rumspringa where you could be open with both your current and prospective employers about the process.

          But again – this discussion is just an intellectual exercise because it will never happen.

      3. Xay*

        I loved one of my previous supervisors because he recognized that because he was happy in his position and had no plans to leave, this meant that his staff would eventually have to work elsewhere if they wanted a promotion or a significant raise. I told him that I planned to relocate a year before I left. He did his best to find the funds to give me a raise to persuade me to stay but once that was not an option, he also used his network of contacts in the city I planned to move to and helped me find work.

        Now my current employer views it almost as a betrayal if you leave, even though they are a contracting company and your job is only as good as the contract you are on.

    2. FormerManager*

      I actually talked to a recruiter who mentioned a company where all senior managers and directors were REQUIRED to interview for jobs outside the company every three years. The reason? To see if they were still marketable and, if not, what areas they needed to work on. She said this also allowed them to spend time assessing their skills and weaknesses.

      1. Victoria Nonprofit*

        That sounds interesting, but I’d hope the company would have their own ways of determining the skills and weaknesses of its employees.

  3. AdAgencyChick*

    This happened to me last year. My industry is small and everyone knows everyone, so unfortunately it’s a risk you take when you’re interviewing. HR/recruiting is professional enough (one hopes!) not to blab around, but what happens is that someone from Agency A comes in to interview, and someone at Agency B sees them and immediately texts her three best friends at Agency A “OMG GUESS WHO’S HERE?!” I tried to control this by asking for early-morning (before the start of a normal workday) interviews. This didn’t work; someone at Agency B was BFF with my then-supervisor, as it turns out, and once she heard my name, she called him up. This was a very senior person, too. Grrrr.

    OP, here’s my advice for you having come out of that situation:

    1. It sounds like your boss has had a blunt conversation with you about your interviewing, but (hopefully) hasn’t fired you. If your boss is good, and isn’t the reason why you’re leaving, you may want to have a conversation about what’s making you unhappy and how you can make it better. Not necessarily because doing those things is the final outcome you want, but at least your boss might be reassured enough not to immediately start hunting for your replacement. But, if my situation is any guide, your boss *will* be wary of your loyalty for a while. So you may want to…

    2. Inform any other companies that you interview with that you’re especially cautious about your confidentiality since it’s been breached already. Interviewing once can be passed off as curiosity. If your boss hears of more than once, though, you’re probably screwed. I wouldn’t say anything about this in, say, your cover letter, but when you get called to schedule an interview, I would mention that you’d like to take precautions because your confidentiality was breached by another company already and you can’t afford to have it happen again. This could be things like interviewing at unusual times, asking that your resume not be passed around to anyone who isn’t directly involved in the hiring process, or even, if they are willing, having your interview off-site so that you aren’t seen by anyone else. (I asked for this at the next company I interviewed at, but if your industry isn’t small and insular, it’s probably not necessary — it’s only if you have a high likelihood of being recognized by sight.) They may or may not say yes, but hopefully they’ll understand how serious the potential problem is and not just think you’re making diva requests.

    Good luck, OP! I feel for you.

    1. Jamie*

      I feel for you – I am also in a small industry where everyone knows everyone and I would be very reluctant to put out feelers for this reason.

      Yet another reason I think employers should just understand that people looking is just a part of business.

    2. AdAgencyChick*

      PS: OP, you probably already know this, but scheduling any future interviews such that they don’t require you to take time off is a good idea for at least the next few weeks. Now that your boss knows you’re interviewing, the fewer “doctor’s appointments” and such you have, the better!

      Also, I wanted to add that my story has a happy ending — I did interviews over lunch and drinks at the next place I interviewed at, so that I wouldn’t be seen, and I got the job! Take that, blabbermouths.

      1. M (OP)*

        I did get three interview requests before I had to let them know that I have tentatively accepted a position (at my same place of work) and was planning on doing them all after-hours. I won’t risk giving away who I am (you never know) by saying what I do, but it’s very common in my field to have the initial phone interview done in the evening. Typically if you’re applying for a different job in my field it’s not usually in the same city because my job is rather scarce so the phone interview after hours is a necessity.

        As for the appointments – I hadn’t thought of that!! I actually have a few appointments in the coming weeks. I wonder if they’re going to think I’m up to something?!?! Oh well….

  4. Mike C.*

    OP, make sure you let people know who these employers are and how they don’t hold the confidence of people applying for work there. It’s only fair they be punished by not having access to good talent for screwing people over like this. I doubt you’re the first one.

    1. Sharon*

      Agreed! I would also cross that employer off my list and tell them exactly (but politely) why. Just in case it was one loose gossip who was the culprit, then the company has a chance to correct the situation.

      1. AdAgencyChick*

        Maybe it’s because this kind of thing is (unfortunately) so common in my industry, but I wouldn’t necessarily write off an entire company because one person was loose-lipped. It may not even have been the hiring manager who blabbed (in fact, in my experience it hasn’t been at all) — very likely the resume got shown to other members of the team that has the job opening. I think hiring managers are more aware, because they’re in charge of the process, of how a breach in confidentiality can hurt someone, whereas someone else on the team just isn’t thinking when they shoot their mouth off. It’s still a really, really crappy thing to do to someone, and I know my own experience has now made me HYPER-aware of the need to keep my lip zipped if someone happens to show me a resume.

        Again, I wouldn’t out the company and try to keep others from applying there, because one blabbermouth isn’t necessarily indicative that the company as a whole has this problem. (If it’s a very small company, though, it might be!)

        Whether or not to inform the company that your confidentiality was breached is up to you. I did — I left a professional but very unhappy message with the recruiter saying that I was now in a very bad position because someone there informed my boss — and heard absolutely nothing back, which disappointed me. No apology, no nothing. And certainly no “okay, now we’ll offer you the job to make things right.” I do wonder whether the recruiter spoke to anyone there to reinforce the importance of confidentiality, but given that I didn’t get an apology, I doubt it.

        1. AHK*

          Something similar happened to me when I was working in the publishing industry. I applied for a position at another company, and included in my application a request that they not contact my employer, but that’s exactly what they did. The manager at the new place knew the head of my department and called. My department head kind of flipped out, and had no idea I was working late, and heard all of it from my cubicle. I never thought to contact anyone at the place I applied, to let them know about the backlash. But I’ll keep that in mind for future.

        2. Mike C.*

          There are things that you read at work that aren’t supposed to be brought outside of work, and the identity of job applicants is one of those things. I’m not going so far as to say that it’s proprietary information (though it might be), it’s inexcusable none the less.

          You don’t have to be a hiring manager to understand that telling someone’s current employer that they’re looking elsewhere is a breach of confidence – anyone who has a job should understand this.

          Painting the entire company as bad wasn’t my original intent, but if they can’t keep their mouths shut about something this obvious and this damaging, what else can’t they keep in confidence? Reasons people use the company EAP? Personal financial information? Reports about sexual harassment? Confidential client information? Internal research and product development? Unintentional exports?

          Maybe I’m sensitive about this because I’m up to my eyeballs in information that is sensitive on many levels, but how clueless can one be to contact the boss of the person applying? This is common knowledge.

    2. Anon*

      Yes. You don’t want to work for a manager who can’t hold confidences. I worked for one of those once and told her something and lived to regret it. I had no idea she was a gossip. Found out the hard way. I can’t believe these people did this!

    3. AnotherAlison*

      In this particular case, I don’t think I’d go so far as crossing the employer off my list. I think it’s normal for people to ask a common connection if they know someone; most people understand this should be “just between us.” The jerk was the mom who blabbed to the OP’s supervisor, and she works at the OP’s current company, not the new one.

      1. Adam V*

        The HR person who asked her mother also needs to be spoken to; she apparently didn’t make it clear that this was something she needed to be discreet about. If she *did*, then she still needs to be told, so that she can talk to her mother and say “your actions have put me in hot water here”.

        Regardless, I too would cross this company off my list and move on. Now that the job search is out in the open with the boss, I’d pick up the pace as well.

  5. Wubbie*

    The first time I read this post I misread it and thought it was OP’s mother who tipped his supervisor off, lol. I was like WTF???

  6. Just a Reader*

    You guys are nicer than I am…I would want to see heads roll for that.

    OP, do you know what the consequences will be in your current job?

    Regardless, I’d call the company and explain that you were outed. They need to know that their employees aren’t treating the hiring process as confidential.

  7. Ann*

    I really hate the pussyfooting around when you’re job hunting. I hate lying. It makes the whole process so uncomfortable, and you feel like you’re some sort of undercover spy always waiting to get caught.

    What I hate most of all is having to come up with half-baked excuses to take time off work to interview. I work in an office where people are somewhat.. noisy. If I tell them I need time off I always get 50 questions (not suspicious or ill-intended, just curious. This is the same person who always wants to peek at what I’m having for lunch). I hate lying. I’m bad at it, and it makes me feel like a bad person.

    In fact, I was just asked for a second interview. I really don’t know what to tell work.

  8. M (OP)*

    I just wanted to say thank you to everyone for your responses – including Alison.

    I am fortunate that in spite of working in a relatively small field, my job was not at risk. Everything happened very quickly, and I asked Alison about this the night that my supervisor found out. In fact, as a result, my employer held a meeting with me the day after finding out to make me an offer which would make staying at my current job more feasible. I was leaving due to financial reasons – my current salary would not be able to support my husband’s impending salary decrease due to a change of profession as well as some upcoming rising costs in obligations that our family is currently able to manage. So, I have tentatively accepted their offer, and will most likely not say anything to the offending school/hr dept/individual who told her mother she knew I was applying.

    I am optimistic that it all happened innocently and no one meant to cause any harm. I feel lucky that it didn’t because even with good intentions it would have been awful if I could have lost job over it.

    Again, your comments and suggestions have been insightful. Thank you.

    1. M (OP)*

      I should add that one of the interview requests I got was from the prospective employer that started this whole mess for me. This is part of the reason why I think the “leak” was not the result of anyone trying to do something improper but more along the lines of, “Hey, your mom works at the same place where this gal is currently employed. Do you know her?” Of course, I could be totally wrong.

  9. J*

    I’ve also seen employers post as anonymous companies on the web just to try and catch employees that are looking for other work. It’s true, I know one company was doing it because our boss was very nice and told us all specifically one day that our company was doing it, and to be very carefule when applying to any anonymous companies.

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