can an interviewer tip off your boss that you’re 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.

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 58 comments… read them below }

      1. HRish Dude*

        I feel like substituting “legal” for “a jerk move” in a lot of questions would get a lot more traction.

    1. The Cosmic Avenger*

      It makes them not only a dick, but an unprofessional, somewhat unethical dick. Being a dick is not in and of itself a firing offense, but being a dick towards others, whether coworkers, clients, or prospective hires, certainly can be.

      1. Chriama*

        Well I think being a dick is defined in how you relate to others. So is it ok to be one as long as it’s only in your personal life?

        1. The Cosmic Avenger*

          My point was a little strained, but basically you don’t have to get along with everyone as long as you can work together effectively. People may dislike you for reasons that have nothing to do with how you treat them. That was a very hard lesson for me, one I’m still working on mastering. But it’s OK to not be nice to coworkers, as long as you’re civil and communicate about work. Some people would say that makes you a dick if you avoid socializing or even making small talk with coworkers, but in my book that’s not necessarily being a dick to your coworkers, even if that’s how they perceive you.

          I have a very fine art pencil to draw lines this fine. ;)

          1. Chriama*

            Well it must be a great pencil because your point is well made.


            Sorry, I’ll see myself out now.

  1. Granny Smith*

    I think if I were in that position, I would let the hiring manager know how her move affected me, and I might even cc her boss to give her a taste of her own medicine.

    1. Sketchee*

      In this case, I definitely agree. Also, don’t sites like Glassdoor allow you to share your interview experiences? Worth sitting on for a month and then writing out your thoughts in a professional manner

      1. Koko*

        Glassdoor doesn’t seem as helpful here, because the person who screwed up is her coworker (the mother) at Company A, not anyone at the Company B where she was applying. The HM should be told so they can tell the son at Company B that his mother at Company A screwed the pooch, but it’s not really the fault of Company B that the mother of one of their employees has no discretion. It’s totally normal to do this sort of background checking, it’s just that the informants are supposed to respect confidentiality.

        I suppose she could write a negative review on her current Company A’s Glassdoor page, letting her fellow employees know that So-and-So in Accounting leaked her job search to her boss, but I’m not totally sure that would help anyway, since any coworkers also job-searching would have no way of knowing where all her various relatives work.

        1. Mike C.*

          I think it’s still useful because it shows that their HR doesn’t respect appropriate, professional boundaries.

        2. Marisol*

          I would argue that the mother actually had an obligation to tell the manager–it’s her employer; she can’t act against their interests. I wouldn’t sit on information like that. The HM at Company B should have enough sense not to contact the current employer, which includes other people working at the employer.

  2. designbot*

    One thing I do when sending out my resume, especially if I happen to know of any connections between my company and the one I’m applying to, is explicitly mention that hey, I realize teapot design is a small world and we have a lot of overlap in connections, and I’d particularly appreciate you keeping this application confidential since my employer is not aware that I am exploring other opportunities.

    1. Koko*

      Probably a good failsafe to include, but I’m shaking my head that that should even need to be said.

      I once applied for a job that told me the wrong time to come in for an interview. They had intentionally left a 1-hour gap between the previous candidate and myself. When I showed up early they apologized and asked me if I could wait at the coffee shop around the corner until my actual interview time, because “it’s such a small industry” and they wanted to eliminate any potential awkwardness of me and the other candidate seeing each other coming and going and recognizing each other.

      1. designbot*

        I once went on an interview where they made me step outside, then the guy interviewing me came out and we walked to a coffee shop together, so that I wouldn’t walk past the guy I’d be replacing and make his spidey senses tingle about what was up.
        Some places go to extremes to be confidential, and others are completely clueless. You never know which one you’re going to get!

  3. Biff*

    I’d consider that a a strong sign that HR is not doing their job appropriately, which would furthermore be a signal that I didn’t want to work there. If my boss came down on me about it, I’d tell them that I was not looking for a job with that company. Which would be the truth right then, even if it hadn’t been previously.

    1. Recruit-o-rama*

      I agree with this. As an in house recruiter in a very close knit industry, I am super careful with candidate information. It is almost without exception the case that when I am searching facility managers, they are coming from one of a handful of our competitors and that someone else in my region has worked with them or knows their boss or something along those lines. I always am sure to make myself explicitly understood that checking for references by personal connection should be done ONLY if we can protect the candidate. Our reputation depends on this. If my team expects me to find well qualified heavy hitters to fill our positions then they better be working WITH me and not against me.

      1. Biff*

        I can’t imagine how frustrating it is to deal with people who do your job, only badly and without much ethical consideration. I’m so sorry. You sound like the kind of recruiter I’d love to work with.

        1. Recruit-o-rama*

          Ha! Working in house in vastly different than working as a contingency recruiter, I have done both. I find that recruitment is the red headed step child of HR, which is not widely well regarded in the first place. But, in all professions there are bad eggs so I take it with a grain of salt. I have been a recruiter for my entire career, except a short stint in commercial real estate right out of college. All in all though, this is an amazingly rewarding career. My reward for the bad parts is that I get to offer people jobs every single day, there is nothing equal to that.

  4. Anon Accountant*

    That just happened to me about 2 weeks ago. The hiring manager at the company I applied to is friends with 1 of my bosses (didn’t know before applying) and called my boss to ask what type of employee I was. Now things are more tense than ever, good projects are being given to others, and management is very cold to me.

    I withdrew my application and emailed their HR department stating I withdrew because a current boss was contacted without my permission and put my employment in jeopardy. Which it really did. When they need to cut jobs I’m at the top of the list.

    And you can sure bet I’ll advise others against applying there.

      1. Anon Accountant*

        She did surprisingly. She wrote they were “investigating the matter”. I hope they have a serious talking to and action taken. Even if it’s a stern conversation warning to never do that again.

    1. neverjaunty*

      Wow, that’s awful. Definitely leave them a review on Glassdoor as well so future applicants are aware.

      1. Anon Accountant*

        I absolutely did. Future applicants should be forewarned that they disregarded a professional norm/courtesy.

  5. New Bee*

    This happened to my husband! The interviewer called his boss before he (husband) even made it back to the office. The boss’s reaction implied my husband owed him a heads-up (literally, “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me!). It was annoying, especially since 1) they only called to say my husband had been interviewed, not even to request a reference and 2) that office ended up having a hiring freeze and withdrew the position. Fortunately, less than a month later my husband had another interview, he told his boss about it, received a glowing reference (even though the company says they’ll only verify dates of employment), and got the job. We were lucky; I think it’s rare it works out that way.

    1. chocoholic*

      The very first time my husband tried to make a job change, this happened to him. He had been called for and went to an interview at a different architecture firm. Someone (not involved with the interview, but involved with a project he was working on with this firm at his current employer) saw him there and mentioned it to my husband’s boss. Who then called him into his office to ask him why he was looking for a different job.

      My husband was genuinely kind of scared to look around again after that experience, and really only did it when we were looking to make a move out of state.

  6. AdAgencyChick*

    It’s legal, it sucks, and it has happened to me. It’s made me much more careful about how much I ask around about people who are interviewing with me! The niche of advertising I work in is small and incestuous, and you just never know whether asking Fergus about Lucinda is going to reach the ears of Lucinda’s boss, even if Fergus doesn’t work for Lucinda’s company any more.

    Schadenfreude: The person who ratted me out to my then-boss, four years ago, causing him to call me into his office and ask, “Why are you unhappy here?” was just fired from her bigwig job last week. In general I can’t rejoice over a firing, even if the person was really not doing a good job, because it’s never fun to see someone lose their livelihood. But…I can’t say I didn’t do a little jig in this case, especially since ratter-outer is well known in the industry as a flamingly rude individual in other ways.

  7. JacqOfAllTrades*

    At my last job, the receptionist that received all of the applications would chatter with anyone who would listen about all the applicants – even to applicant A about applicants B, C, and D! When I mentioned to her that wasn’t a good idea, she complained to HR that I was being critical of her and HR handed me my ass. The HR Director shrugged and said, “It’s a small town and a small world, stuff doesn’t stay secret.”

    Now I’m the HR manager in a small town and a small world and if I caught the receptionist here blabbing about applicants, we would have quite the discussion about privacy.

  8. Not really a newish lurker anymore...*

    What if the HR person used to work at the company where the candidate is currently employed? And left on bad terms? If all they want to do is verify that John Smith is currently employed there?

      1. Not really a newish lurker anymore...*

        I don’t know if the HR person had permission or not. I’m assuming not but I don’t actually know. It’s a smallish company with a history of not handling people moving on well at all, which she’d have known from her time there. She asked a friend, whom she knew wouldn’t talk, to confirm that John Smith was currently employed there.

        John Smith did turn in his notice a couple of days later.

      2. Chris*

        Absolutely. And yet, having said that, most candidates will not put official references on their resume who would give them less than a glowing reccomendation. So in most cases, it’s not a useful avenue to pursue. The exception is probably their manager at a previous company they no longer work at.

        Most hiring managers, in my experience, develop a network of trustworthy senior contacts across their industry, for those situations where things check out on paper but you have a feeling there’s an issue, and you want the straight story without your interest becoming public knowledge.

        In my opinion, that’s the most ethical way to find out the real story and minimize the risk of causing damage you didn’t intend, while protecting the interests of your own organization.

        There are a lot of companies out there that don’t care about those aspects. Can’t say I respect them for it.

        1. Anonymous Educator*

          And yet, having said that, most candidates will not put official references on their resume who would give them less than a glowing reccomendation. So in most cases, it’s not a useful avenue to pursue.

          I disagree. Most candidates won’t do anything but put forth what they view as their best foot, but it’s still useful to interview them. Same deal with references—of course the references will likely be glowing. Press them. Ask hard questions. Ask for specifics and not just adjectives. You can learn a lot from even a glowing recommendation.

          1. Koko*

            Yes, some candidates don’t have *anyone* who would give them a glowing reference, so they have to settle for listing the people who would give them a decently positive reference. When you’re hiring, you definitely take notice when references are clearly enthusiastic about the candidate and speak warmly about how they were constantly surprised by their achievements and initiative, say they would hire them again “in a heartbeat,” vs references who are like, “She did a great job. Always came to work on time. Yeah, sure, I would hire her again.” #2 didn’t say anything bad but they weren’t jazzed enough to go out of their way to sell the candidate, and that’s good information. References have value beyond just ferreting out completely incompetent people and liars, they can also help distinguish the good from the great!

            I also always ask former managers what advice they have for me about what the candidate needs for success and if there’s anything I should pay attention to. I have gotten some great information from that question, like, “Fergus sometimes needs encouragement to share his ideas in a large group setting,” or “Lucinda sometimes struggled with saying ‘no’ to last-minute requests from other departments and ended up working more hours than we needed or wanted her to work, which we didn’t realize was going on for a while.” That kind of stuff is invaluable for a manager with a new hire, to be able to immediately learn what previous managers had to spend months/years learning about the candidate’s needs.

        2. neverjaunty*

          So in most cases, it’s not a useful avenue to pursue

          As AAM has pointed out repeatedly in the past, this is flat-out wrong.

          For one thing, it’s wrong to assume that the candidate is 100% correct in having picked out candidates who will only give glowing reviews; lots of bad candidates put down references without confirming, or are completely delusional about how highly their references think of them. For another thing, those ‘glowing’ references may well fall apart when you ask more pointed questions that get into specific facts; people who think they’re just going to say their friend is a fantastic person tend to get evasive when asked pointed questions like “did you ever supervise Fergus?” or “give me examples of specific projects Fergus improved”.

  9. Anonymous Educator*

    This kind of behavior isn’t only horrible… it’s also impractical. If you tell the boss of every applicant you get about the interview, who is ever going to take your job offer?

  10. Audiophile*

    I love the stock photo on this article!

    Seriously though, this a is a horrible thing to do to an applicant. I know at least one of my previous employers would have retaliated by letting me know I was on thin ice, if not outright firing me.

  11. mander*

    I don’t really understand why employers respond with firing or freezing out the employee, though. Is it some kind of misguided sense of loyalty? Or lack thereof, rather? Surely if a good employee is looking elsewhere you should consider ways to keep them instead of firing them in a huff.

    1. Mike C.*

      Yeah, pretty much. You end up with managers who have unrealistic notions of “loyalty” and it goes from there.

    2. Chriama*

      The aggressive employers are just jerks. But even good employers could be concerned because they know you’re looking around. They don’t necessarily want to hand you anything complicated if they’re just going to have to transition it soon, and maybe they’d like to start interviewing potential candidates right now to minimize the gap in coverage. Of course this can all be avoided by being a good employer and making it safe for employees to tell you when they plan to move on so you get as long a notice period as possible, but I think a lot of employers forget that employment is a 2 way street or that sometimes it’s better for all parties if someone who has outgrown the organization is able to smoothly transition out and you can get some new blood in.

  12. Interviewer*

    My candidate pipeline shuts down in a hurry if no one thinks they can trust me or my company to keep their recruiting process confidential. So it’s really frustrating for me when people I invite into the interview process want to go rogue with reference checks (“I just called a friend of mine who works there!”) or chat openly in the break room about the interview they just attended. It has never ended well for the candidate, or me.

    I never assume any more that people I bring in to conduct interviews will stay quiet. I always explain that they have to keep the candidate’s recruitment confidential, FOREVER. Even the assistants with access to their supervisors’ calendars (where they can see names & resumes for the interview appointments) get The Speech from me.

  13. TeaPotDesigner*

    Ungh, this is the eternal gordian knot of job hunting – you shouldn’t quit before you find a new job, but the very act of finding a new job can jeopardise your old job! If you quit before you start job hunting, hiring managers will act as if you have been chased out of your old office by an angry mob. It is SO irritating!

  14. Akcipitrokulo*

    Completely stunned this is legal! It’s illegal in the UK (Data protection act) … lesson in not assuming :-)

  15. JOTeepe*

    I think asking at this stage is a bit questionable, though it can sometimes be innocent. I recently applied for a position (which I received! Yay!) where this happened to me … in this case, the hiring manager contacted my boss innocently, as it was an old friend of his. “Hey, we just got a resume from JOTeepe, looks like she works with you. She looks great on paper, what’s she like?” My boss glowered at him and replied, “She works FOR me.” He was apparently mortified. (She went on to sing my praises to him, though, which was lovely of her.) Fortunately, in this case, I had every intention of telling her … she was new to my agency and had (coincidentally) come from the agency I had applied to (government administration; different agencies but very similar pools of candidates, and a little incestuous in that regard), so I knew there was a good chance she might get tipped off. It also didn’t come as a huge surprise to anyone, as it was a promotion.

    However, something somewhat similar also happened to me a few years ago, though at this point I was candidate of choice. I was transitioning back to government from the private sector, and was selected to work on a special project as I had a previous working relationship with the hiring manager. (Pro tip: Cultivate those professional organization contacts and hold them close! It pays off!!!) Because it was a high profile project, a High Level Administrator of the agency had to sign off on the hire before they could officially offer me the position. OF COURSE (again, coincidentally), said HLA happened to be married to a manager in my CURRENT office (not my manager, but at a parallel level to my manager), so of COURSE he asked her about me. This prompted her to go to my boss (and their boss) to see if there was something they could do for me so I wouldn’t leave. I wish she (or SOMEONE!) had just come to me directly first, as I would have told her it was the project, not the money, that was enticing. Anyway, long story short – I didn’t find all of this out until after I started the new job and my current boss filled me in on why it took so long. It explained why my boss was not at all surprised when I gave notice …

    TL;DR, the smaller the town and the more tight-knit your industry, the more likely these kinds of things will happen.

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