should job applicants ask for references from their prospective managers?

A reader writes:

I am a hiring manager. I just did a phone interview where the candidate said, “Since you are going to ask me for three references, can you give me three references of ex-employees to find out if I would like to work for you?” How should I approach this?

The request itself is actually a good one — but the timing and wording that the candidate used raise some red flags for me.

First let’s talk about the request in general, leaving aside for the time being the way this particular candidate handled it. In general, you should welcome the idea that the candidate is looking for a position where the fit is really right and that she’s being thoughtful and careful in determining if this job will work out on both sides. In fact, I’m surprised that more candidates don’t ask to talk to people who have worked with their prospective manager before taking a job. Given the major impact that a manager has on what your day to day quality of life will be, it seems almost negligent not to talk with people who can tell you first-hand what the manager is like to work with.

So, yes, after a certain stage in the interview process, you should be willing to put candidates in touch with people you currently manage, or former staff members. (And in doing so, it’s perfectly reasonable to pick who they talk with based on who you think will be most helpful. You’re not obligated to connect them with employees who you’re not impressed with or who you don’t click with, or to put them in touch with a former employee who’s disgruntled, etc. …. just like candidates generally pick and choose who they put on their own reference lists. It’s up to the candidate whether they want to go digging beyond that on their own.)

In fact, even if a candidate doesn’t ask to talk with others on your team, it’s often a good idea to arrange it for your finalists anyway — because it will help them flesh out their understanding of your culture and the work you do, which will help attract the people who are the right fit and help those who aren’t self-select out, and because you can get useful input from others who meet with the person.

Keep in mind, too, that if an employer is resistant to allowing this, it’s going to signal to good candidates that they’re either hiding something because they have a culture problem, or that they think reference-checking should be a one-way street, which can indicate an environment where employees’ input and quality of life aren’t valued. And those aren’t signals you want to send to good candidates.

Now, all that aside, while I like these requests in general, the way your particular candidate handled this is ringing alarm bells all over the place. First of all, the wording was unnecessarily aggressive and a little adversarial. There’s no reason she couldn’t have said something like, “I’m looking for a position where the fit is really right because I’d like to stay for a long time. Would it be possible for me to talk with others on the team, to help me flesh out my understanding of the culture and the work?”

Secondly, the timing is way, way off. This was a phone interview, and therefore presumably a very early stage of your hiring process. The time for this request is when things have progressed much further and the candidate is a finalist, or even after an offer has been made — i.e., once both sides have determined that there’s sufficient interest in each other that it’s reasonable to take up other people’s time in this way. Asking it early on, and on a phone interview in particular (if I’m right in thinking the phone interview indicates it’s an early stage of contact) signals that this person is overly demanding and doesn’t have a good grasp on what’s reasonable and how things work. And that doesn’t bode well.

(And yes, I know that employers ask for references at this stage all the time, but as I’ve said many times here, they shouldn’t.)

So, the request itself: reasonable. The way it was made: not reasonable. Proceed with caution.

More specifically, I’d tell the candidate, “If we progress in the process, I’d be glad to put you in touch with people who have worked for me” … and I’d be on high alert for further signs of problems in how she operates.

{ 65 comments… read them below }

  1. EnnVeeEl*

    I agree with this being a good question, maybe asked at the wrong time. But I’ve asked this question before, actually talked to the team, and they would have never told me the truth about how crazy the hiring manager was. I could have pointed a gun at them and they wouldn’t have done it. So I don’t bother to ask it anymore. I don’t feel people are going to be honest.

    1. College Career Counselor*

      I’ve been pleasantly surprised at some of the responses I’ve gotten. I tend to ask questions like “what do you like best about working here,” followed by “what do you find to be the most challenging aspect.” Or, “can you talk about the office culture” or “how has senior adminstration dealt with recent challenges.” Yeah, you have to pay attention to the subtext, but I’ve often found that you get some remarkably blunt answers. Then again, those often tend to come from tenured faculty members, who are rather more free to offer their opinions than the untenured, or administrative, people.

    2. OliviaNOPE*

      I agree, people aren’t going to be honest. HOWEVER, sometimes their body language will give them away. I remember a candidate for a job at my former employer showed up on the weekend and I was the only staff member there. She said she had been offered the position and wasn’t 100% sure if she wanted to take it and could I offer her any advice. I tried to be as neutral as possible but it really was a toxic place to work. The next Monday I got to work and everyone was bitching about how the candidate had declined the offer and they were pissed (she was an out-of-state candidate who’d been flown in and been through a LONG hiring process, which included two phone interviews, plus two full days of in-person committee interviews, which would typically indicate a strong interest in the position). Anyway, I had a mini freak out in my office wondering if she’d said something like, “Yeah I actually popped in this weekend and spoke to Olivia and she confirmed my apprehension at accepting the offer.” I never heard anything, though. So I think if you are concerned you should talk to people anyway, preferable in person. If they hem and haw, the manager (or the culture of the job) might suck.

      Also, I’d love to hear Alison’s take on asking to meet the people you’d be supervising or working alongside before accepting an offer. I have on more than one occasion popped into places I’ve applied to to scope them out and see how the staff interacts with customers, how diverse the staff is, etc. But I’ve never actually introduced myself as a candidate and spoken to them, even though I’ve wanted to more than once.

      1. myswtghst*

        Totally agreed about body language, and I think you can also pick up on it based on how generic / detailed the answers are (the more generic the answer is, the more likely they’re not being entirely truthful), as well as how enthusiastic / genuine they seem.

    3. Yup*

      Yeah, you have to be very diplomatic and subtle in the phrasing to get the info you need and not put the other person against the wall. Non-commital responses can be very telling, as can overselling.

      I’ve gotten useful data from process-type questions like “What’s your typical week like during a product launch?” and “What kind of onboarding and training do people typically get when they start?” and broad open-ended ones like “In general, what kind of people do well in this environment?” Just observing general attitude can be helpful — do these people seem excited and interested in the work they’re describing, or do they all seem to be tap dancing around land mines?

    4. Sydney Bristow*

      The candidate specifically asked about ex-employees, who I’d guess would be more likely to be honest. The problem though is that the employer isn’t going to give contact info for a former employee who would say anything bad, even if there are legitimately concerning things that another former employee might mention.

      A way that I’ve seen to get around this problem is to try and find a connection to an ex-employee on LinkedIn and ask someone who knows you both for an introduction. Obviously that won’t always work, but it could be really useful if you can find a connection.

      1. jennie*

        I don’t think they could ethically give out any contact info for ex-employees. It’s one thing to arrange a meeting with current employees on company time or even provide their work phone or email, but you can’t be handing out personal contact info for people who no longer work for you. That request is not practical.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          You’d reach out to the former employee first to find out if they were willing to do it; you wouldn’t just give out their info without touching base with them first.

    5. saro*

      I’ve been pretty honest at interviews, even when I was a very junior employee. I didn’t bad mouth anyone but I was quite honest about expected work schedule; type of work, office dynamic and expectations regarding vacations/time off. I was quite diplomatic but I think I gave enough information to form a clear picture of the office culture. It’s such a waste of money when you hire a candidate that doesn’t work out, I would think that most offices would appreciate this type of candor.

  2. Lacey*

    To me, it just sounds like they searched the web for possible questions to ask the employer, which is why the context was out of place. There wasn’t much thought put into it.

    1. fposte*

      Yes, it sounds like somebody’s bad idea of “how to be an empowered job searcher.” “What’s fair for them is fair for you, so any time they ask you something, you ask it right back!”

  3. B.*

    Yes, this a poorly asked/timed question but I agree it would be great to ask. You definitely can’t expect people to be completely honest for fear of getting fired or reprimanded but I don’t think most people would flat out lie. Hopefully you will be able to tell from what they don’t say more than what they do say. I also think that the more people you talk to, the more you can gather. It definitely doesn’t hurt.

  4. B.*

    Also, to respond to the actual question asked: I think the OP should take Alison’s advice but it does seem this person is pushy or just naive about the interview process. I wouldn’t dismissed based on this but I definitely would look more critically.

  5. The Other Dawn*

    I think it’s a good question to ask at the right time, but I don’t think applicants will get a lot of honest answers. In addition to the fear of being fired or reprimanded for saying it’s a toxic environment, it could be that they have really high turnover and don’t want to scare off another warm body.

  6. Rich*

    Too soon. Waayy too soon. That’s like going on a first date and asking to meet the family. Wait…what?

    I don’t think I’d rule this person out if everything else went well on the initial screen. They could have just got this advice from one of these career sites and gave it a try without thinking about

    Also not a fan of the “since you’re going to ask me for three references” line, though I don’t know the tone of how it was said. Either way, I wouldn’t make assumptions about what’s to come…as if it’s a guarantee things will get to that stage. Build up a rapport over the rounds then ask.

    1. Anonymous*

      From the perspective of the interviewer yes but how about from the perspective of the candidate. Especially if the candidate has an offer all ready. They may want to make a decision on yor company early. Is thier a buyers market bias here?

  7. S. Martin*

    I agree that the phrasing could have been better, but if the applicant is looking for former employees not just current ones I don’t think the timing is that unreasonable. I don’t think most managers would be prepared to answer that question on the spot at an interview, due to not keeping contact info for former employees readily on hand.

    I have other questions to ask potential employers before the interview, but phrase them as ‘can you be prepared to answer this at the interview?’ rather than expecting an answer ahead of it. I may steal a better worded version of this one, too. As several people have alluded to, it can be hard to get the truth on the manager from current employees; former ones have a different perspective and freedom to their answers.

    1. fposte*

      I still don’t think this is the time–ask stuff like that when they invite you for the interview, not when they’re deciding if they want to interview you. Part of the problem with the OP’s applicant was the apparent conviction that she was absolutely going to move forward in the process.

  8. Adam V*

    I would say this is just a matter of doing your homework – just as the hiring manager will call references, both listed and unlisted, the prospective employee can look around on LinkedIn and other sites and find current and former employees to send messages to.

    But as Alison points out, this is the phone interview stage. No reason for either side to spend time looking around for people to talk to until you’ve progressed a bit farther.

  9. Just a Reader*

    Not a great way to ask but it is important. And people do have tells…phrases like “work hard play hard” usually mean “I live at the office” when coming from a team member.

    “Sets a high bar” means a really demanding boss and/or micromanager, in my experience.

    “Self starter” means you don’t get much training or direction.

    It’s all in the buzzwords…

    1. The IT Manager*

      Hmm … I always took “work hard play hard” to mean employees the kind of people who go out after work or on weekends and drink and party hard … kind of wild, adrenelin chasers.

      1. Just a Reader*

        I have worked for a few “work hard play hard” places and it typically meant 65 hour weeks, with forced office-sponsored socialization. YMMV

      2. fposte*

        Yeah, to me the bad subtext on “work hard, play hard” is usually “will turn a blind eye to harassment.” But that may be generational.

        1. Melissa*

          It may or may not be generational, but it’s true. I wish AAM would do a post or column on decoding job ads. Too often “dynamic environment” means “lots of yelling”, “fast paced” means “we need 3 people, but will only hire 1”, and (my favorite) “deadline driven” means “totally disorganized so everything is last minute”. It really is all in the subtext.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            I think that’s come up before, but I’ll never do one because the meaning differs depending on who’s saying it. For instance, there are employers that use “high bar” to mean “impossible to please micromanagers” but there are also ones that use “high bar” to refer to legitimately high expectations paired with good management. Same with “fast paced” and the others. You definitely don’t want to assume that it’s always code for the bad version.

          2. Wong*

            From personal experience, “dynamic” is a code-word for an abusive, screaming boss!

      3. Esra*

        I hear “work hard play hard” and think ridiculous hours, and people drink to cope.

          1. Tax Nerd*


            I’ve heard “work hard play hard” too many times, and this is always what it means.

            But then again, in my industry “Work-life balance” means “If your work is your life, you’ll be in balance.”

      4. Brandy*

        I’ve worked at a self-described “work-hard/play-hard” place. It meant that from 8-5, it was heads down working at full speed. Sometimes it was from 8-7. But then everyone went to the bar to blow off steam. Or went home to their kids. We also got big fat bonuses directly in line with the fervor with which we worked.

        Young people (<30) loved it; the over 30/with kids crowd did not like the lack of flexibility for before-6pm family things.

        1. SLG*

          I also work at a self-described “work hard/play hard” company. In this case it means exactly that: You’re expected to produce absolutely the best work you can every day, you will get thrown in the deep end regularly, and you will always have more to do than time to do it. But the office sponsors regular after-5 happy hours and a catered lunch every week, people laugh a lot, office pranks are legendary, and soon after I started I was told that my boss’s boss left at 5:30 every day because he has kids. (And I’m sure he works from home in the evenings too.) But based on what I’m reading in this thread, maybe I should stop saying “work hard/play hard” to candidates I’d like to hire!

    2. Anonymous*

      Wow, I hope “sets a high bar” doesn’t always have that connotation. I would think saying something like that would be appealing to motivated, productive workers who don’t want to be surrounded by mediocrity.

      1. Just a Reader*

        I think it depends on context. If everything else about the job/manager sounds good, this isn’t a flag. But if people seem unhappy, overworked, etc. it can definitely be an indicator of a boss who’s tough and not in a good way.

        I fell for “sets a high bar” combined with some less appealing points a couple of times and ended up in a hellhole.

        1. Sammy in London*

          Yeah, I’ve fallen for that one too, a couple of times. I quit the last one when my doctor told me I had mild PTSD symptoms.

          1. nyxalinth*

            I worked in a bank call center once, and when I started having those kinds of symptoms, I quit working there. It was a solid 60 calls in queue all day, 40 percent angry people, 35 percent downright vicious (not just angry) d-bags, 20 percent people who would keep me on the phone for almost an hour because they were almost too dumb to live, much less have money, and five percent nice people. I have a pretty thick skin, but you’d have to have armor plating to work there.

      2. Jane Doe*

        It’s one of those phrases that doesn’t mean much because no one would ever state the opposite, so it makes people nervous about what is actually being said. No company wants to think (or admit to prospective employees) that they have a lot of employees who do the bare minimum, or that they’re slow-paced and un-creative.

      3. The Realist!*

        At the best of times it does mean just that; sadly, all too often it means that you’ll be required to do far too much with far too few resources, with impossible deadlines. I always flinch when I see that phrase in a job listing.

    3. nyxalinth*

      LOL! Reminds me of this which I saw recently:

      “Only mature, sophisticated candidates with impeccable appearance and superior verbal and written communication skills who are upbeat and have high energy need apply”

      I can translate this:

      “Mature” No, not old, we want twenty-somethings who act like thirty-somethings.

      “Sophisticated” Snobby.

      “Impeccable appearance” Thin and conventionally attractive, preferably white and blonde. Clothes must cost more than this position pays in one week.

      “Upbeat” Only extroverts need apply.

      “High energy” See thin. Also, could mean “We need three people, but are too cheap to hire the other two.”

      1. Kerr*

        Truth! Though for “high energy”, I usually read either your second definition, or insanely outgoing.

        And I’d totally rather read those ‘code words’ in the ad and be able to knock it off my list, instead of spending time on something that won’t work for me or the company. Case in point: the job that sounded like a good fit for a (friendly) introvert like me, and when I showed up at the interview, they wanted a “big personality”. If that’s important to you, put it in the ad!

        1. nyxalinth*

          I had a situation maybe four years ago where an agency sent me on an interview for an office position. they said that the main factor would be my personality. so I went and didn’t get the job, and in scolding tones the agent said, “Well, I did tell you it would mostly come down to your personality.”

          I said “My personality is fine, but if they were looking for a bubbly, yakkity extrovert why did you even send me?” She didn’t have an answer.

          Later I found out that the CEO is a hardcore Conservative. I am the opposite, so it wouldn’t have ended well. Bullet. Dodged.

  10. Another English Major*

    This is a great idea. I’ve been doing this on my interviews since I started reading this blog (the way Alison advises, not how this candidate handled). It’s very helpful.

  11. Richard*

    What I have done in the past is to ask future colleagues to speak about the positive/neutral aspects of their workplace.
    – How is a typical day?
    – How are meetings handled?
    – Which part of your job do you like the most?
    – What’s the best quality of your manager. How does he help you day to day?

    In my (very limited) experience, that type of question led to interesting responses.

  12. Omne*

    I would never consider giving out contact information for non/ex-employees to a relative stranger. All I would need is for them to be stalked (RL or cyber) or something. If they want to find them on the internet themselves fine.

    Current employees I might consider since I can give out their work information.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      As I wrote above, you’d reach out to the former employee first to find out if they were willing to do it; you wouldn’t just give out their info without touching base with them first.

      1. Omne*

        It might be because I’ve had to deal with stalking incidents in the past but I would still not be comfortable doing this in case something happened. Even if the ex-employee agreed I would feel responsible. It would be the same if anyone wanted a current employee’s personal contact information.

        1. fposte*

          Wouldn’t it then also extend to prospective employers asking for your references?

          1. Omne*

            Not exactly. I see a potential employer somewhat differently than an individual that I have never met and only know from a phone call. Could something happen because the hiring manager was a loon? Possibly but I would rate it somewhat less likely than with the the individual applicant. For all I know the applicant is a level 3 sex offender who just got released from prison. It’s unlikely the hiring manager is, at least at places I would be applying at.

            I understand that reasonable people can differ on this. For me it’s more of a gut feeling and I usually go with them. If I’m going to make a mistake I’d rather err on the side of caution.

            1. Kristie*

              I’m with you. I’m very leary of blind ads as well. These days it’s almost impossible to be too careful with your personal information. Everyone else can and likely will lie to you if need be, but your gut always tells you the truth.

            2. Cat*

              Pretending to apply for jobs in order to get the phone numbers of completely random former employees is a really weird way for a sex offender to hunt down victims.

              1. Kerr*

                I suspect the worry here would be giving the contact information to a genuine applicant who, for whatever reason, wound up with an unhealthy interest in you. I wouldn’t be thrilled about a company giving out my personal info without permission, at all. And I’d probably only give permission if the applicant were a finalist and (possibly) had been background-checked.

    2. Anonymous*

      I see your point, but I don’t really think most people have an issue with their, say, cell phones or emails and names being known. I think the Internet has actually made us much more wary than we used to be in some ways. Phone books listed your name, home address, AND land line!

  13. Elizabeth West*

    Depending on how much experience the candidate has, it may be something (s)he was told to ask, or read somewhere that she should ask. If so, it doesn’t seem like her source gave her any information about how to do it effectively, or she misinterpreted it.

  14. Diane*

    I like the idea of the question, if done right. I work in higher education, where it’s customary to host forums for staff, faculty, and students to meet candidates for high-level positions.

    Here’s what doesn’t work: Twice I’ve been in forums where I, as an interested audience member, asked the candidate something about their level or knowledge. One question was about articles she’d read lately that she found particularly interesting, and another about why he wanted to locate to this area. Both turned the question around to me without answering it themselves, utterly missing the opportunity to take an easy question and show off their enthusiasm. I was not impressed. Also, in a forum with 50 colleagues, I knew most did not really care what obscure stuff I was reading.

    1. T*

      I think it would be all right to turn it around AFTER they answered the question themselves — like “I recently read this fascinating article about [obscure historical subject] in the History Times. Are you familiar with that periodical ?” But I would hesitate about doing that in an audience of 50– I’d only do that in a one-on-one interview.

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