how do job offers that are contingent on a reference from your current manager work?

A reader writes:

I don’t understand job offers that are contingent on a positive reference from a current employer. Do you give notice to your current employer, thus throwing your current job into jeopardy and hoping you will be given a good reference, since otherwise you may be fired for looking elsewhere for employment? Or if you don’t get fired, it seems like everyone would be upset with you for contemplating leaving.

Or do you not give notice, continue working for your current company, and deal with the awkwardness of a prospective employer calling at random to talk to your boss? Does the prospective employer explain that you applied to work for them, which would also seem to jeopardize any stability at your current job? It just seems like unless you are 110% positive you will get a flawless and fabulous reference, you may lose two jobs — your current one and the prospective one. Can you shed some light on how this process works?

Yeah, they’re not a perfect system.

The idea is that you don’t give notice yet — because the offer still has a contingency attached to it — but rather give your boss a heads-up about the situation so that she’s not blindsided by the call. Once the reference-check has been finished and that contingency has been removed from the offer, then you’d go ahead and give notice. (Obviously you’d want to come to terms on salary and any other negotiation points before the reference-check, to ensure it’s an offer you want to accept.)

And you’re absolutely right to point out that there’s risk involved. If the employer for some reason doesn’t like what they hear, you could end up with no offer and with your security at your current job in jeopardy since they know you were about to leave.

That said, usually when someone wants to make you a job offer contingent upon a good reference from your current employer, that particular reference-checking process is going to be something of a rubber stamp. They’re looking for confirmation that you’re not terrible or about to be fired or just were fired for something. It’s a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, basically — not the sort of nuanced discussion of your strengths and weaknesses that a thorough reference-checker would normally do.

So the idea is that as long as you haven’t misrepresented things and as long as you’re reasonably competent, they’ll get what they’re looking for and the offer will be a go.

The wild card is if you have a manager who’s volatile, or angry about you leaving, or who irrationally dislikes you … and who might therefore misrepresent your work quality on the reference call, thus hurting or even ruining your chances with the new company. That’s pretty unusual, but it’s not impossible or unheard of.

If you’re in a situation where you expect your manager to torpedo your chances, the best option is often to refuse the contingency. Explain that you can’t allow your current manager to be contacted because it will jeopardize your current job, and offer up as many other references (ideally managers) as you can. This is harder if you haven’t had many previous jobs, but if you’re fairly experienced, it’s reasonable to say, essentially, “I have a 20-year track record of producing results, and I’d be glad to put you in touch with as many people as you’d like to attest to that, but I’m not in a position to alert my manager that I’m thinking of leaving until I have a absolutely firm offer.”

Reasonable people will understand and respect that.

{ 28 comments… read them below }

  1. Anon234*

    What if your employer forbids all managers from giving references and only allow verification through the work number? All managers go through the same training and it is well understood? Would an option be to submit copies of performance reviews? How would you work around this?

    1. Mike C.*

      Yeah, my wife worked at such a place where she witnessed managers being walked out for this.

  2. Annie O'Nymous*

    I heard this story last year from a former coworker: She applied for a job with a competitor. The head of the department where she applied insisted she tell her bosses here that she was applying for a job there. Supposedly our boss said “this guy is a jackhole; I’ve met him etc.” but since no one here liked her or her work (I found out much later), they were fine with her potentially leaving and were not about to fire her (not for thinking of leaving, anyway!)
    However, she was not offered the job in the end. I don’t know if the competitor DID call and got a bad report, or what…She was supposed to have been one of two people left in the running.
    Anyone ever here of an employer *insisting* a candidate tell their boss they’ve applied elsewhere?

    1. LMW*

      The closest I’ve come to that situation was for an internal position. It was incredibly awkward situation — I was a contract W-2 employee (so a very tenuous position anyway) and had just been reorged under a new manager who was a complete jerk and had barely spoken in to me (no clue what I actually did). And they had just drastically changed my position (from global comms and website management to copywriting — which is really different). Oh, and my previous manager and VP had gotten a raise approved and told me about it and he never pushed the paperwork through. I really did not feel comfortable telling him I wanted to move. It ended up being escalated to the VP level, where two people I’d never spoken to debated my merits, but I was allowed to move (thank goodness).

    2. he-he-hello!*

      I was recently offered a job contingent upon them speaking to my current manager. I did as Alison suggested above and gave them several names of others that I work with at my current job and said that I was not in a position to alert my manager at this time. We went back and forth for a week with her telling me that this was absolutely a firm offer….with one contingent. The back and forth of her not understanding what I was saying to her was enough of a red flag for me that I asked them to rescind the offer.

      1. Hamburger*

        This is a great point. As confusing and “Catch-22” as this process can seem, sometimes the best answer is to stop and ask yourself what you’re doing. Does the insistence and irrationality of your potential employer make you uncomfortable? Are they being pushy and unsympathetic? If so, is this really a company, culture, and possibly boss that you want to spend the next several years with?

        Sometimes we’re so desperate for some little shred of hope in our job hunt that we ignore these warning signs. A potential employer has an obligation to check you out, but they should not be bull-headed or ignorant about what impacts their nosing around could have on one of the most serious areas of your life. If they are, you should seek employment elsewhere.

  3. J*

    I’ve been able to negotiate using higher-ups who are deeply familiar with my work (a project manager for a project I worked on, the manager of a team I worked closely with) rather than my direct supervisor as references in the past. You could ask if that would be acceptable.

  4. Liz*

    This happened to me once as my boss was awful. Unrelated but I really think he had an issue with women (joked around the boys, was distant and cold to women if we were lucky, treated inferior when not). Luckily my potential job, and now current company, was nice about it and just spoke to a couple of my coworkers who were happy to give me a good reference since they were dying to get out as well.

    Another option might be to talk to HR – they can verify your employment at least and hopefully would remain quiet about it.

    1. Liz*

      Oh, I also offered up clients I was working with as references although they said it wasn’t necessary. But they were pleased to hear I had close enough relationships with many of my clients to be able to make the offer.

  5. Anonymous*

    I have heard of this being a requirement for a few academic positions. One university even insisted: it must be the current supervisor. Past supervisors, co-workers, peers, X years of experience – not accepted.

    1. Anonymous*

      This happened to me applying for a job with a university! They were so weirdly adamant about it that it completely turned me off to the job and the supervisor and I passed.

    2. Bernard*

      I experienced this behavior during the time when I was studying in Germany. One of our teachers had an application with another university and they contacted his manager – needless to say, what happened. His manager didn’t want him to leave, so he talked bad about him and in the end the job offer was cancelled and the teacher had a bad relation to his manager which recovered slowly over the years.

  6. TP*

    This just happened to me on Monday. Never have been asked this before, ever. I got a call from the HR rep asking me for three references, one of which had to be my current supervisor. No offer on the table yet, they’re in reference and background checking mode still. I had to push back and explained it would jeopardize my current job. The HR rep said managers usually appreciate being asked and having a heads up that an employee may leave, and most also understand people want to grow and advance their careers. Bah! I didn’t buy it at all and I certainly didn’t do it. Instead I offered up four people, three who I work with currently, including someone I have a dotted line to, and am hoping that will suffice. The HR rep of course did ask one of my references if there were any personality issues between myself and supervisor and if that’s why I was hesitant. Luckily she confirmed there were none. The funny part is that the person to whom I have a dotted line, I’ve worked with for over 7 years and really is the best person to speak with in regards to my overall work and history. The current supervisor I’ve only worked with for a year and she only knows one side of my work as there was a re-org which didn’t necessarily make the most sense for my position, but whatever. In any case, I’m just hoping that my pushing back on this didn’t raise a red flag. If they push on this, I will oblige, but only after an agreeable offer is on the table.

  7. Marmite*

    I’ve recently been offered a zero-hours contract second job that is contingent upon reference checks. My current employer is no problem as my manager knows I’m looking for a few extra hours and even put me in touch with the second employer, so she’s happy to give the reference.

    The second employer requires checking with my last three employers, though, as listed on my CV. One of these is a part-time three-month internship I did almost two years ago for a small organisation in an entirely unrelated field. My supervisor there has since moved on and I don’t have new contact info, I never even met most of the other employees there since I worked offsite, and they’re too small to have an HR department. The new second employer is sticking to the reference requirement though, all I’ve been able to do is give them a general contact e-mail address for that organisation and warn them they’ll probably only be able to confirm dates of employment and not comment on performance.

    I’ve offered multiple other references from longer-term jobs in relevant fields, but they’re sticking with their most recent three employers rule.

  8. Nameless*

    I would never dare give my current supervisor’s contact information. I have seen 4 former coworkers give notices and they were all terminated that same day. So what can I do in this situation? It’s not about my work but I know for sure I will be resented once the employer realizes I am about to leave.

    1. Jessa*

      Exactly. I have worked for some real flakes. They get a hint that you might be looking and you’re dismissed on the spot.

  9. Becca*

    Slightly unrelated but about job checking references. My college roommate asked me to be a reference for her, since we worked together for 4 years as well and she needed like 10 references or some crazy number.

    They called our former place of employment and the new manager said “No, she only worked here for 1 year” when in actuality we BOTH worked there for 4. She still got the job but man was she horrified. Makes me worry when I do the same thing soon!

  10. Limon*

    I have been gaining strength in these last few months and when it comes to interviews, I am a different person now.

    If a prospective employer is pushing to endanger my current position? I will turn them down and walk away. In this awful job environment, I am shocked at how poorly candidates are treated and for myself – I do not want to harm the good job I currently have in order to satisfy the whims of an employer who has made no investment in me. I am an experienced worker, and I value the benefits of having and keeping a good job. If a company is willing to cause me harm by endangering that job and is not flexible on that point? I am ok declining the position and walking away.

    I never was able to really do that, but I have learned the benefits of declining positions. Graciously declining is far better than getting professionally mangled by others interests and goals. These are awful times, but we still have to take care of ourselves professionally. Interestingly, people are often way more interested in me once I decline ! figure that one out.

  11. Karen*

    I am in that “rare” situation in which the manager was “hired” over four of us with experience/degrees.. this person has none. This person contributed to eliminating all of our positions- bottom line– retailiation. Yes,the reason, we all brought it up to HR- no assistance there. I was informed by my attorney to not use previous employer for any reference. Lucky, I have recommendation letters, from this past plus over twenty years, so I am in good shape there.

    Also, another thing I found out, if in this situation, the person who answers the phone, can only say if you have been employed there. I have found out that a person answered the phone and gave a very bad reference which is illegal.

    Still difficult in finding a job.. full-time. have an assignment that is 18 hours /week.. It’s better than zero.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Just to be clear, unless you’ve worked out an arrangement to the contrary with your employer, the law doesn’t restrict the employer to only confirming dates of employment. Bad references aren’t illegal unless they’re factually inaccurate.

  12. Rachael*

    I just had this happen to me this week! I interviewed, gave dozens of references other than current employer who, in the small company I work for, would have been ticked that I was leaving. BUT the school district potential employer (AKA SD) continued to hound me to let her call my current supervisor, stating she was having difficulty getting ahold of the other 3 references from my last job (and no one else would do with some 23+ years of experience!). I refused, stating it would place me in a awkward situation and gave her another phone # to call for my last supervisor. SD called back stating she still needed to talk with current. At the same time, I asked what my salary would be – that had NOT been clarified. I made it clear I was only leaving for salary/benefit issues and was not sure that SD could meet my salary requirements. SD said sure, we could sit down and discuss BUT ONLY AFTER current supervisor was called. This went on for over a week.
    I walked away….I do NOT want to work for a bully, which is exactly how this felt. And be placed in a position to again be bullied into doing something I did not find ethical or right. I withdrew my application.
    SD called me back and said I was an untruthful, lying person because I had not told my current supervisor I was looking for a new position and could not be honest employee!! What an ass……glad I walked away!

  13. Stevie*

    Wow! When did this crazy practice start? Is this just in academia or nonprofit world? I’ve never heard of this in the commercial sector. I wonder how many candidates withdraw because of this?

  14. Ron*

    I was given a contingent job offer and had 4 great references and had a perfect job until I came to California. I passed the background and the physical exam and the manager wanted me to start ASAP. I gave an early notice at my prior job and then the manager at the new job called me the night before I was to start and reminded the job, no reason given. Now, I have no job. I think someone from the old job sabotaged me because in 21 years of professional work, this has never happened.

    1. Confused older worker*

      I was recently offered a position at a university and even had a tentative start date. The only remaining “technicality” was the background check, which was said to be a mere formality, but a requirement just to remain “legal”. After completing the background check form, which required my date of birth, my phone calls and e-mails to HR and the professor offering the position are being avoided and unanswered.

      I don’t even have traffic tickets; therefore, the background check had to be returned as negative. Further, I submitted strong current letters of reference, and to date, not a single former employee has been contacted for reference.

      I am told that I look 15-20 years younger than my actual age (58); however, several individuals at the university have advised that most likely, I am being discriminated against because of my age. One of these friends has a direct contact in HR and was told that if the university delayed long enough, I might walk away from the job offer. Apparently, the professor is concerned that I might only work a few years before retiring. This is such a horrendous situation because I am caught…I can’t apply for other positions, but cannot get return phone calls to determine if/when a final offer will be made. Had the professor asked, I would have gladly stated that I would continue to work until I was at least 70 years old. My accomplishments, credentials, and references did not change just because he became aware of my birthdate, but I turned out another job and other interviews to accept the offer made. To me, this situation represents the ultimate lack of ethics, plus an EEO violation, but because I learned of the situation through a friend who would lose her job, I can’t push the issue.

      How can I get a resolution to this dilemma without destroying my changes of employment with another division of the university?

  15. Anon*

    I have recently applied for a job where the prospective employer sent our reference letter to my current manager the same day as the letter to me offering me an interview. Meaning my employer knew i have the interview before i did as Im at work by the time post is delivered. I then discovered that the formal interview date was also included on the letter sent to my current employer but not the dates of the practical interview. She then started to make things very difficult for me to take the time off for the interview even despite the fact i have 2 days annual leave and 6 hours time owed in lieu, leading to there being even more of an uncomfortable atmosphere. I have since discovered over 2 weeks after receiving the letter that she has still not returned the completed reference. Even though she promised is was going to be done and sent asap. During the 2 week period is has now become apparent that she has discussed my potential job offer and stated to staff that i am “leaving” not only to staff in my team but to company staff working several different location across the town. I had not discussed this with any other member of the staff team and made this clear to my manger the day she received the reference. Is there anything i can do about her sharing my personal information with the other staff like this? particularly the staff outside of my team.
    Due to the nature of the work i do this is likely to happen again as many employers request references before interview due to safeguarding. Which I can only see leading to an even more issues and negativity in the workplace.

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