my interviewer wants a reference from my current boss

A reader writes:

I have been at my current job for about six years and have a good relationship with my manager. But for various reasons I have decided that it’s time to move on and have been looking for something new. My manager doesn’t know about my search.

Recently, the recruiter for a job I was interviewing for let me know that I was the final candidate and asked me for two references as the last stage: my current manager and a former manager. Since I didn’t want to alert my boss that I’m looking, I asked if I could give two former managers as references instead. The recruiter okayed it and the reference checks went well.

The day after the last reference check, the recruiter emailed me with the hiring manager cc’d, letting me know that the final step was a reference check with my current manager. I again explained my situation — my current manager does not know I am job-searching, and to alert her at this stage before a final offer was received could jeopardize my current job (or at the very least, make things awkward if the new job fell through). I offered alternatives: documents as proof of employment, a copy of my last performance review, or speaking with another former manager who still works with me at my current job. The hiring manager then called me to let me know that the only way to move forward with even a provisional offer would be to speak with my current manager – that is their policy. Once that and a standard background check were complete, I would get a verbal offer. In addition, they gave me a deadline of less than 24 hours to move forward or the offer would be withdrawn. This wasn’t enough time for me and I didn’t feel comfortable with the process, so I had to withdraw.

This is … not normal, right? It seems like this policy is designed to put a ton of pressure on the applicant and leaves them at a huge disadvantage. I don’t have anything to hide and I have a good relationship with my manager, but it still felt risky. This was at a large, prestigious, well-regarded company so I was really surprised they would have this policy. Do I need to adjust my expectations and process going forward, or is there any way I could have navigated this situation differently to help me stay in the running?

No, that employer was in the wrong. Really in the wrong.

Most employers do not insist on references from a candidate’s current manager for exactly the reasons you cited: Most people don’t want to tip off their boss that they’re job-searching until they’re ready to leave.

That’s not an overabundance of caution, either; sometimes when a manager learns someone is looking to leave, they will push them out earlier than the person wanted to go. Sometimes that’s punitive — a “if you don’t want to be here, then go” kind of response (which is ridiculous; employees moving on is a normal part of doing business). But other times it’s more subtle — like an employer that needs to make staff cuts for financial reasons and figures, “Well, Jane’s on her way out anyway, so we can cut her position.” And other times, you’re not pushed out but it affects your job in other ways; maybe your manager stops giving you interesting long-term assignments because she thinks you’re leaving soon or doesn’t consider you for promotion or other opportunities you might want. Or it can simply cause tension with your boss, depending on what the relationship is like. So there are lots of good reasons to want to keep your job search discreet.

And reasonable interviewers understand that. It’s very, very normal for job candidates to decline to offer their current manager as a reference, and it’s very, very normal for employers to be okay with that. Even if an interviewer does ask to talk to your current manager, most will understand if you explain why that’s not possible.

Sometimes an employer will propose getting around this by making you an offer that’s contingent on a good reference from your current employer. This is a better solution, but not an ideal one. If for some reason the employer doesn’t like what they hear from your current boss, you could end up with no job offer and with your current job in a less secure place. That said, usually when you allow this, the reference check is likely to be fairly perfunctory; an employer who makes an offer contingent on a good reference from your current boss is usually looking for a basic confirmation that you’re a reliable person who’s done the work you said you’ve done, not a nuanced discussion of your strengths and weaknesses. The idea is generally that as long as you haven’t misrepresented things and they don’t hear that you’re wildly incompetent, they’ll move forward. (Of course, if your manager is volatile or angry that you’re leaving and is willing to torpedo your reference over it, this is riskier.)

If you do agree to this kind of contingent-offer setup, make sure that you receive the offer and negotiate it before the reference call happens. Otherwise, there’s a risk that your boss gets the reference call and then you can’t agree on the terms of the offer. If you end up walking away because the salary is too low, for example, then there was no point in letting your boss get that call. It can make you feel more pressure to accept an undesirable offer, if you’ve already semi-committed to leaving by allowing that call to be made.

Of course, everything above applies to situations where you don’t want to tip off your boss that you’re job-searching. That might not be the case every time. Some managers create environments where it’s safe to tell them when you’re starting to think about moving on and have a track record of supporting people who do that and ensuring they’re never pushed out early.

But if you don’t want your manager to know you’re interviewing and an employer is pushing for a reference from her, what can you do? First, clearly explain why that’s not possible — “My boss doesn’t know I’m looking and sharing that right now could jeopardize my job.” Then, offer alternatives. For example: “I have a decade of experience doing this work and I’d be happy to put you in touch with anyone you’d like to speak with from my previous jobs — managers, colleagues, or even clients — but I’m not in a position to alert my current employer that I’m thinking of leaving until I’m ready to give notice.” You can also do exactly what you did: Offer to put them in touch with someone else at your current job whom you trust to be discreet.

If they won’t budge after that, at that point you’d need to decide if you want the job enough to agree to their request. But I’d be very wary of moving forward with a company that disregards professional norms and shows this kind of lack of concern for your job security. It’s not a great sign about them as an employer.

Originally published at New York Magazine.

{ 289 comments… read them below }

    1. Can Can Cannot*

      And do they expect that the current manager will give a truthful response? A manager that wants to keep an employee might soft-pedal any recommendation. Alternatively, if they want a bad employee to leave, they might give a glowing recommendation. In any event, the information given to the hiring manager is questionable.

      It’s like a prospective landlord asking a current landlord about a tenant. Not a good idea. Instead the prospective landlord should talk to the previous landlord, who no longer has any reason to lie about the tenant.

      1. shannanigans*

        Agreed! I would love to understand what information they think they’re learning from a call with the current manager that can’t be just as, if not more, reliably provided by the alternatives the LW offered.

      2. DireRaven*

        Yeah, the only exception I would make if I were job hunting to not contacting my current manager would be if I’m moving away from the location I’m currently in and transfer or distant remote work was not possible, and not moving was not an option. (Such as following a spouse who has been transferred to another location, or moving to care for a sick or elderly relative.)

      3. AnonPi*

        Yup, I had a supervisor bald face lie (even though I did ask if he could be a reference) about my quality of work because he was afraid I’d leave. Thing was that job was part time, and I was applying for other part time work because I needed more hours. I had told the group as much, because I asked up front if they could provide any more hours. I ended up leaving anyways since I couldn’t find other part time work to fit their schedule, whereas if he hadn’t done that I’d have stayed. I found out what he said to the other potential employer since a friend worked there, so my last day I let him know I was leaving because of that. He acted stunned, and the other two in the group were like WTF – director was not happy that he pulled that stunt and gave him an earful, since this was an internship position anyways, and it wasn’t right to give a bad reference when I didn’t deserve it.

        1. The Rural Juror*

          I was semi-honest with a boss once about having coffee with someone who was a regional manager or a vendor we bought products from often. They wanted to tell me about a role they were hiring for, not necessarily to steal me away from my former company, but to also ask if I knew of anyone to recommend if I wasn’t interested. The coffee meeting went well, then I went back to the office and my boss confronted me, so I felt put on the spot to answer. I fibbed and told him I wanted to recommend a friend for the position.

          Well, apparently he was super paranoid about losing me, so he called that guy and chewed him out for “poaching Rural Juror.” He told him that if he hired me away from his company he would never buy their products again. Luckily the regional manager called and told me what happened so I would be aware, but it was embarrassing and infuriating! My boss gave me a raise 2 weeks later thinking I didn’t know I had been made aware of his shenanigans. I accepted the raise, but had already started seriously job-searching and did not feel guilty at all when I was finally able to give my notice.

          So for that Jerk Boss, he lost his highest performing employee and that company dropped him as a customer and would no longer sell him their products directly, so he had to figure out how to get the products through a middle man instead and pay more. Karma!

        2. Self Employed*


          Wow, that is all kinds of wrongness.

          If you want to keep your interns, you give them a full time job, not be a dog in the manger keeping them from getting another job (part time or otherwise).

          1. TardyTardis*

            Oh, there’s a place called the Delta in Arkansas where teachers can’t ever teach more than one year if they want to go to somewhere else–you’ll get all kind of bad evaluations and they’ll be gracious enough to keep you anyway! You just can’t go anywhere else. Now, this was some time ago, and they may have changed, but this is how they used to be.

      4. Carol the happy elf*

        I think it’s much worse than changing apartments; I had a friend who was being quasi-stalked and the manager was the stalker’s cousin, AND had Toxic
        Blurter Syndrome; he could not. keep. his. mouth. shut.
        She had to request that the new company check with HR to see if they could have all but the most recent. (Another friend warned her that this might be a frying pan/fire problem)
        And it turned out so badly that when Quasi took it badly and went to her new job, yelling and pounding the reception desk, the new job fired HER.
        Frankly, I would never work for a company that has such little regard for my well-being.

      5. AnonInCanada*

        Exactly this. Why does this potential employer need to pry into the applicant’s current job by asking for their current manager’s recommendation is beyond me! What would they actually gain by getting that? OP already showed enough, and doesn’t want to have their current job jeopardized by being caught looking. Why would they put OP in a situation like that?

    2. Paisley*

      It’s so far out of the norm I wonder if it could have been someone who wanted a different candidate trying to force a withdrawal by the letter writer.

      1. This is She*

        If no offer has been made, they could just choose the other candidate of they wanted.

        1. My Boss is Dumber than Yours*

          I think what Paisley is getting at was that maybe the rest of the hiring committee wanted OP, but the person asking for the reference didn’t (because she wanted to hire a friend, or whatever). If the company is as large and prestigious as OP suggests, then it’s very likely this isn’t their MO and the reference checker was using it as an ad hoc way to get OP out of the running.

          1. Kalros, the mother of all thresher maws*

            My former job had this policy and I actually wondered reading this letter whether the company in question is in fact my former employer, which was one of the largest employers in the city with big name recognition. The only reason why I think it might be a different employer is because my former employer would make a provisional offer after two references, which this company refused to do, which is so wildly unreasonable.

            I experienced this policy as both an applicant and a hiring manager, and it sucked. I grit my teeth and dealt with it, but it certainly caused problems (trying to get exceptions in hiring applicants who were in between jobs, etc). Working there was fine on balance, but there was definitely this “you’re lucky to work here” vibe at the place, and this policy was a part of that.

            But all this to say, I fully believe it’s company policy, but I also believe it says something about company culture that that’s the policy. If they wouldn’t even make a provisional offer, OP dodged a bullet.

      2. Sophie*

        This was exactly what popped into my mind. I cannot fathom how a prestigious and well-known organization has been able to attract good talent with this kind of policy.

        1. Kalros, the mother of all thresher maws*

          Well, because it’s prestigious and well-known. People will sometimes go along with things they’re not comfortable with to “break in,” and if they don’t, there will be other candidates looking for the name on their resume. My anecdotal experience is that my former employer lost a lot of good talent to competitors with its “you should be paying US to work here” approach to hiring, compensation, etc., it just didn’t care because any vacancy drew a healthy pool of applicants. It’s a terrible p0licy but is very much a thing at some (thankfully few) employers.

    3. Des*

      Exactly. There’s no way I’m giving this kind of info to a place I haven’t accepted an offer from! That’s just silly.

  1. Calyx Teren*

    I hope LW describes their experience with this company in Glassdoor. It’s a terrible sign about how they treat people. I would want to know before getting involved with a company like that.

    1. Jack Straw*

      Yes. And also, I’m dying to know what “large, prestigious, well-regarded company” did this.

  2. Frankie*

    This is the dumbest policy I’ve heard all week and I’ve had a long week as it is. Has this company never hired anyone before? Has anyone who works here ever switched jobs? You can bet that if you take this job they will be a pain in the rear when you try to leave.

    1. High Score!*

      They may be preparing to low ball the candidate. Once the current employer knows they’re interviewing, they’re in a bad spot and must therefore be more receptive to alternative offers.

    2. Elizabeth McDonald*

      Yeah, the rationale for it being “This is our policy” is also terrible. It’s a red flag when a company treats a policy as some kind of sacrosanct commandment that shalt not be questioned.

      1. Caduceus*

        As someone who works at a company like that atm, I cannot agree with this more.

      2. Cthulhu's Librarian*

        Prior to COVID, my manager and I got into a heated debate on the topic of whether policies should be written with the idea that they existed only to be enforced when needed, or whether they should be set with the expectation of being enforced, with limited exceptions made when those were needed.

        They were initially on the side of only selectively enforcing the policies.

        I am pleased that their viewpoint rapidly progressed to “policies shall be enforced across the board, but reasonable exceptions may be considered” when the pandemic broke out.

        1. My Boss is Dumber than Yours*

          Your boss’s attitude is exactly how companies get slapped with discrimination lawsuits… I was on a board and had an executive director that wanted to change the vacation policy to be stated as “unlimited,” but she would decide when each employee talked to her about taking time off if they deserved it—not just was it a good/possible time for them to be away, but had they “earned” that vacation. Dear G-d, that was going to set us up for an absolute nightmare.

      3. Susana*

        And then you say, I’m not giving you the name for a reference. That’s MY policy.

    3. MassMatt*

      It really is very dumb. And it would have the unintended consequence of tilting the field of candidates towards those that are currently unemployed. People who feel comfortable telling their current manager they are looking for another job before they have one lined up are really in the minority outside of interns, temps, and the like.

      1. RVA Cat*

        Thus could also be to tilt the field towards people with wealthy families who can take risks others can’t. Maybe they are aiming for someone with a high-earning spouse so they can lowball the pay while getting someone well-dressed and “polished”?

  3. Rachael*

    Can any UK hiring managers weigh in with what they normally do regarding references? I’ve never hired, but in my (fairly short) employment history I’ve always had an offer ‘subject to satisfactory references’. The reference check is often just a tick box exercise to verify you worked somewhere and weren’t fired, you already have the job unless something big comes up. It surprises me to see how it works in the US sometimes, though I could definitely see why the US system is probably better for the employers’ hiring purposes. I’m curious because I’ve never worried about putting my current manager down because I’ve always been fairly sure nobody will talk to him until I have an offer anyway.

    1. LadyByTheLake*

      Remember that in the US the employer can (in general) fire you for any reason or no reason without notice. So in the US it is a thing for people to get fired immediately if their boss finds out they are looking.

    2. LilacLily*

      idk if this is the norm in the UK, but my company only contacted my references AFTER they made me an offer and I’d accepted it – in fact, I think I’d been working for them for a week before my previous manager heard from them at all, which to me is WILD; if you already hired me and I’m already working for you, it feels like a moot point to only then reach out to my references.

      1. Almost Manager*

        Canada here. I check references before I even call for an interview. That way I know if they are worth bringing in and spending time interviewing. Reference checks are the first thing I do.

          1. College Career Counselor*

            It happens in higher ed for certain jobs. BUT, they typically say that they will be checking references before the final/campus interview process (ie, after they’ve had a first round interview). If they had to do it for 30+ applicants at 3-4 references per? It would take forever. I suspect Almost Manager up there still culls from the list by reviewing the applications first. But, at the least it’s bad form not to say that up front the references may be called before an interview. At worst, you may wind up jeopardizing that person’s employment for someone that you wind up not interviewing for whatever reason.

            1. Paulina*

              Higher ed is weird. We tend to check references for academic jobs before the final round of interviews, but the binary nature of job security in academia (either significant job security or none at all) takes away a lot of the concerns about getting references from the current job. The expense of site visits also means we want greater confidence in the choices we make for the short list. Candidates for higher administration seldom have current job references, since they often don’t want people to know they didn’t get the position — it can look bad — but offers conditional on a full final reference check are common.

        1. Yeah, No*

          I agree with the comment from What? and suggest that you read the thread below where Stumped, a manager, illustrates through their comments how reference-checking induces chaos. Your use of references to screen candidates entirely out of the interview process is not only inappropriate, as you know nothing about the candidate, so you’re pre-judging before they get the chance to represent themselves as an individual–it’s also a potential threat to anyone who lists their current manager as a reference, as you don’t know the circumstance, and you could jeopardize someone’s job. References are meant as an added layer of evaluation, not an initial one. At the outset, you have nothing concrete about the candidate other than their application materials, so you wouldn’t be able to ask viable follow-up questions with this “references first” attempt at screening. If I received a call from you seeking a reference, I would expect that you were seriously considering the person and had already spoken to them/gotten to know them. That’s how references work where I’m from.

    3. Cordelia*

      In the NHS – which I know can sometimes have its own rules – offers are made subject to references (and occupational health and DBS/criminal records checks). We make you a conditional offer, and if you accept HR then does the checks. As the hiring manager, I don’t actually see your reference, HR will just tell me that all the checks have come back ok and I will confirm I want them to confirm the offer (I assume if there was a problem with the references or other checks they would tell me, so that I could decide if it was enough to withdraw the offer for, but that’s never happened so far).

    4. Sweet Christmas*

      In the U.S. what you describe more often happens at the background check stage. But in those cases, they usually contact HR, not your current manager.

    5. Jack Straw*

      There *should be* a difference between a reference check and a job history check, but they are often treate dthe same way. I’ve been working for 25+ years, and this is always how it’s worked for me in the US, if they bother to call them at all:

      “I’ve always had an offer ‘subject to satisfactory references’. The reference check is often just a tick box exercise to verify you worked somewhere and weren’t fired, you already have the job unless something big comes up.”

    6. Ponytail*

      Yeah, in the UK, my current employer will definitely be contacted, but sometimes HR keep it to themselves, sometimes they give it to the line manager to complete. No way around it.

      Saying that… I once got offered a job, in my chosen career, where it was obvious I’d just finished my degree in the topic. Luckily I’d been working part time in the field so, yay, my current employer was able to sing my (professional) praises. Second employer ref was older, from a previous role in the same field. But no! The batshit future employer wanted to choose who I gave as references and demanded I give them the last TWO employers, not the current and some previous one. I was still on good terms with my last-but-one boss but even he scoffed at the idea that my baking skills – in a supermarket – would help with getting a job in a learned society. I am fine with demanding the current employer as a ref but all others are a choice, surely?

      (The reference demand came AFTER I’d applied/interviewed/been offered the job but BEFORE the HR request for me to fill in a standard application form because apparently this should have been done in the first place, even though they’d shortlisted/interviewed/hired me. I took the job but OOF the HR department was a nightmare, all through my time there.)

    7. Antony J Crowley*

      Uk person. Been working since 1997 and every job I’ve had, my current manager has had to give me a reference.

      It’s the only uk vs US thing that I think the US has better.

      1. pandop*

        I disagree, I quite like the idea that I can look for another job without the fear that I will be fired from my current job.

    8. misspiggy*

      In the UK, once you have accepted an offer of employment, even verbally, that’s a legal contract. The offer being subject to references therefore means that unless the references show something really damning, you will take up that job if you want it.

      (Usually the employment terms and conditions are attached to the offer, and one shouldn’t accept without having checked those. But even if they’re not, the law is very clear about minimum annual leave, sick leave, pensions etc, so there is often little difference between employers. And obviously no need to check health insurance.)

      This means you’re at almost no risk of losing out. Unless you have done something truly and verifiably appalling in your current job, the new place has to take you on. So accepting the new offer is effectively the same as giving notice.

    9. SwissE*

      In Switzerland, all former employers have to provide you with a ‘work certificate’ stating your duties, time of employment and an assessment of the quality of your work. It is standard to include them with your job application.
      Technically, you are allowed to request one at any time from your current employer. However, it is usually a warning to your employer that you are looking elsewhere unless you are changing roles or managers.

    10. Bob the Builder*

      I’ve got two previous employers, HugeConsultancy and BigCorp having ”policy” as well of not giving references except by the designated HR department verifying employment. No details on projects or clients or anything. There are obvious reasons for this, the biggest one is ”phishing”. And if someone manages to call you regarding a current or former colleague you are supposed to close the phone and report a ”security incident”. So good luck squeezing a reference out of my ex managers. Your policy can speak with their policy. Lolz.

    11. londonedit*

      I’ve only ever had offers subject to satisfactory references. The idea being that you accept the job offer, you hand in your notice to your current employer, and then the new company contacts your current employer for a reference. They don’t contact your current employer before you’ve handed in your notice. And references here are basically just ‘yes, they’ve been working for us in the role they say they have’ – unless your job requires some sort of security clearance, there’s no ‘background check’ where they want to go through your entire employment history. You provide two references, they contact them, job done.

  4. LilacLily*

    all I’ll say is: OP dodged one heck of a bullet there. I would not want to work for an employer with such an odd and punitive policy.

  5. Skittles*

    My current employer has the same policy and I raised the same exact concerns with their HR/recruitment person but it wasn’t negotiable. I was fortunate that my direct manager had very recently changed and I was able to use my former manager but if they had insisted on my current manager I would have been in a very difficult position. I don’t really agree with the policy but at the same time they are a company that people aspire to work for so I think having some candidates withdraw isn’t a huge concern to them.

    1. Self Employed*

      You’d still think it would be good not to select against candidates who are so good their boss doesn’t want them to leave, though.

    2. Kalros, the mother of all thresher maws*

      This was exactly my experience with my former job, which had this policy. When I was interviewing, I’d been in my role for a short enough time that my previous manager’s reference was sufficient. I don’t know that I would have moved forward if they hadn’t made that exception, but “we have people lining up to work for us, so, your loss” was very much the company’s approach to policies that were offputting to candidates.

  6. RJ*

    This is an extremely risky and very antiquated policy. OP, you dodged a bullet with this one. If they are this punitive with references before you even have an offer, can you imagine what hidden treasures loom in their employee handbook?

    1. Carol the happy elf.*

      Kinda like my Grandmother, who wanted to work as a Stewardess, for one of those new “Aeroplane Firms”; if you got married, they fired you- and she had to be seen by a Gynaecologist, to make sure she wasn’t with child.
      Every year.
      Oh, and they weighed you every couple of weeks. Antiquated indeed.

      1. Evan Þ.*

        Airline stewardesses are one of the very few jobs where I could still understand weighing the employees… if they’re working one of those extremely small planes where one person’s weight might throw it off balance. Passengers on those planes get weighed too, and assigned seats accordingly.

        But I don’t think those small planes usually even have stewardesses.

      2. RJ*

        Ha! My father’s cousin was a stewardess back in the day and thanks to that, was able to escape Havana in 1960! She told stories about the weight-ins, girdle checks, being required to have your hair a certain length (no longer than shoulder) and having to wear a particularly ugly Revlon lipstick in the late 50s/early 60s.

        1. allathian*

          Yeah, and I think it’s insane that so many girls used to think that being a “stewardess” back in the day was a glamorous job!

  7. Stumped*

    Similarly, I just received a reference check for a current employee in the mail and I had no idea she was looking. I’m really not sure how to handle it. I did confront her on it and we plan to speak about it, but I’m feeling stuck between a rock and a hard place. Very unsure how to handle that since I’m not sure we could come back from it.

    1. HRArwy*

      I don’t think there is anything to come back from. I would recommend reframing your relationship with your employee from one where they owe you loyalty to one that is transactional in nature and based on mutual respect. If they’ve been a good employee, I think it makes perfect sense to provide them with a reference.

      1. Kay*

        Agreed with HRArwy. Although since the employee decided to give her manager as a reference, she probably should’ve spoken to her about it beforehand if possible.

      2. Stumped*

        Yes, I’m well aware it’s transactional which is why my focus is whether or not I need to fill her position. You’ve made some assumptions about my perception of employer/employee relationships that isn’t accurate. I’m aware that she’s looking but hasn’t landed something and that’s going to be an issue for any employer.

        1. Cthulhu's Librarian*

          Do you worry about whether or not you’ll need to fill someone’s position every time they go on vacation? Or you hear they’re commuting? Or when they call out sick and you don’t know how serious it is? What about when you hear they’ve started a new relationship and it’s getting ‘kinda serious’?

          If you wouldn’t worry about replacements in any of those circumstances, then you should do your best not to worry about it in this situation, until and unless your employee gives you notice.

          One of the reasons you ask for employees to give and work for a notice period is because it gives you time to plan for replacing, and have them wrap up and document projects. If you think this particular worker needs to give you more time than that, that would be an appropriate thing to discuss with them “Hi John, I got a request for your reference. I’m happy to be one, but if end up leaving, we’d like to ask you to provide X weeks of a notice period, so we can have enough time to find a replacement for you.”

          If you think all your workers need to give you more time than a typical notice period, then you need to change your notice periods across the board, and incentivize them (through severance agreements) to be willing to accept those longer periods.

          1. Stumped*

            That argument is a false equivalency. Knowing and employee is job searching is not the same and someone going on vacation. And no where did I say anyone was required to give me more than 2 weeks notice. I never mentioned notice periods so I’m wondering why you commented so heavily on it.

            1. Student Affairs Sally*

              “Going on one interview” isn’t necessarily the same thing as “actively job searching”, though.

            2. Cthulhu's Librarian*

              Because changing your notice periods would be a reasonable response to your concern – identify how much time you need to replace this or any other employee, and ask them to provide at least that much notice.

              Hiring their replacement early, before you even know if they’ve taken the job, is not.

              After all, what are you going to do if you hire a replacment and they say “actually, I didn’t get the offer?” Now you’re overstaffed, and presumably need to cut some one. Whichever of the two you cut (the new or the old employee) you’re treating them poorly, strictly in the name of expedience for yourself – and expedience that you don’t really need.

              1. Stumped*

                This is a very difficult time to hire – everyone in our industry is understaffed and we have a talent shortage. So it can take months to add someone. If I cut someone who told me they intend to leave, that’s not treating them poorly. It’s making a business decision. Please don’t make assumptions about what level of expedience I need.

                1. Sweet Christmas*

                  This is why we get paid to be managers. I work in an understaffed industry too. Hiring sucks. It can take a couple months. It’s just part of the job. It’s not my employees’ responsibility to think about how I’m going to replace them and try to make it easy on me. That’s mine.

                  And putting someone out of a job before they’re ready (and potentially losing a good, experienced employee – who may not ever actually leave! She just had a reference check!) isn’t necessarily the best choice for you or your company.

                2. OceanDiva*

                  Not weighing in on the content of the discussion, but this reaction is absolutely why nobody wants to add their current manager to the reference check list before having an offer in hand.

                3. Cthulhu's Librarian*

                  Fair enough, I shouldn’t assume you don’t need things to be that expedient.

                  But, the claim that cutting someone just because they told you they might leave isn’t treating them poorly? I’m skeptical. If they told you they were looking to become an astronaut, and you got a call from their references, would you look to cut them then? What about if they said something less far-fetched, like they were thinking about going to law school, or joining the National Guard?

                  Your language, your rationalizations, and your insistence that no one else should judge you for cutting them really makes me think that you WANT to do it, because you think it will save you a headache down the road. What I was trying to highlight for you with the discussion of notice periods is that it doesn’t have to create a headache for you – You have choices that can mitigate that, which will probably be just as functional for your purpose as cutting this person on the basis of the fact that they are thinking about leaving.

                  Those options would also be more humane, and long term, they are likely to be better for your employee retention overall. Both of those things are harder to quantify and justify though, I suppose.

                  Despite my disagreement with what you seem to want to defend doing, I do thank you for posting your comments – they provide a perfect example of why policies like the one in the letter are bad ideas, and I acknowledge that even you have observed that they highlight why it is a bad policy for any employer to have.

                4. WellRed*

                  Confronting your employee? Maybe you didn’t mean it as such, but confront is such and adversarial and confrontational word. Also, people are going to leave. In this case, you have a slight heads up. It’s not personal,

                5. Carol*

                  But…if there’s a shortage…why would you cut someone prematurely…

                  Vindictive and punitive, and short-sighted. Searching for another job is not usually personal, and you seem to be making it very personal.

            3. Sweet Christmas*

              It’s not a false equivalency. All you know is that you’ve gotten a request for one reference check. The reason someone mentioned it is that you’re treating this as if she has given notice to you that she’s leaving when she has not. Until she does, you should treat her the same as you did before.

        2. STG*

          Job hunts can take months though. The employee may not be leaving for quite a long time. You are pulling the trigger early so you are reinforcing the same assumptions that you are denying.

          1. Stumped*

            I haven’t done anything yet so I’m not sure what you are referring too. She’s told me she intends to leave so I am going to interview for her role. That’s my job and I’ve every right to do so just as she has every right to job search.

            1. STG*

              ” You’ve made some assumptions about my perception of employer/employee relationships that isn’t accurate.”

              I’m telling you that your comments say otherwise. She hasn’t given you notice. You need an exit plan of course but you should have that for all of your employees. I’m not sure why this is a special exception.

            2. Amaranth*

              So are you going to fire her if you find someone else and she doesn’t put in a resignation?
              Consider that if just talking to another company is going to cost her job, it creates an environment where the rest of your employees will start hiding things from you in fear they’ll be next. Also, please confirm that this was a reference check for a job and not for credit or something else before you start taking action.

              1. Self Employed*

                It could be for a volunteer opportunity that doesn’t compete with her day job, even. What if she just wants to be on the HOA board or play organ at her place of worship>

        3. Jules the 3rd*

          Just make sure her tasks are documented, and see if you can cross-train anyone to help with the transition. That’s the exit plan, and you should be doing this with all your employees.

        4. Esmeralda*

          Well but, Stumped, you said you don’t know how to handle it and you confronted her about it. Confronted sounds rather adversarial.

          That may not be what you meant but we only have your words to go on.

          How to handle it: if this is a good employee, give a good reference. Promptly.

          1. Jack Straw*

            This was my take as well, so much so that I copied “I did confront her on it” to paste into my comment. There is no confrontation needed. Zero. Nada. None at all.

            Also, saying you are “[v]ery unsure how to handle” is so odd to me. You are truthful about their performance. That’s how you handle it. The fact that you think there are other options is a glaring red flag about you and your performance. You cannot replace them until they quit. That’s what notice periods are for.

        5. Sweet Christmas*

          They were assumptions based on the way that you framed your comment, though – phrasing talking to her as “confronting her” about it, saying that you felt “stuck” (when there’s really nothing to be stuck about at the moment), and framing it as you being between a rock and a hard place. That all sounds negative.

          You don’t know whether or not you need to fill her position, and talking to her now isn’t going to help you figure that out because SHE doesn’t know either As hiring managers, we need to assume that we’re always going to need to fill someone’s role eventually. It’s not really an issue unless you make it one.

      3. Snuck*

        Yep. HRArwy…. I am a bit gobsmacked at all these people saying they’d never trust their manager to give a reference for them. Current employment situation aside… why would you work for a manager you can’t trust and who doesn’t like your work? Six years is a long time for this person to have worked with their employer, and any older references are fairly old.

    2. Observer*

      What are you “confronting” her about? That sounds like a very accusatory stance. And what is there it “come back” from?

      1. Stumped*

        It’s just a word – there was no accusation involved. She certainly has every right to job search. But now that I know, my priority is ensuring we are covered from a staffing standpoint.

        1. Cat Tree*

          Words have connotations though. If you didn’t intend to sound adversarial, this is a good opportunity to realize that your word choices came off much differently than you intended. That is very common when communicating only through writing. So consider it a favor that you have learned this and can choose differently next time.

        2. serenity*

          I think your attitude towards your employee is, in fact, important and your word choices give that away. Your comment wasn’t centered around *your* staffing choices but rather in feeling angered toward your employee.

          1. Stumped*

            It’s pretty typical to feel frustration if you find out an employee is job searching. That’s not what happened here. I was asked to provide a reference which is a more complicated scenario.

            1. Distracted Librarian*

              I disagree that it’s normal to feel frustrated about an employee job searching. Employees leave. It’s a normal part of business. I may be concerned about covering their work and getting approval to fill the position, but I don’t feel frustration, and certainly not at the employee who’s searching.

            2. Esmeralda*

              Sure, it’s reasonable to feel frustrated or even a bit angry. But Im not seeing why that makes giving this employee a reference complicated. And must be a valuable employee since you don’t want them to leave. Why wouldn’t your response “Of course I’ll give a good reference even though this employee leaving makes my job harder”

              That’s what everyone’s responding to, I think. Why wouldn’t you give the reference???

              1. Stumped*

                That wasn’t the complicated part. I gave the reference. I never indicated in my comment that I wasn’t planning too. The complicated part comes into play when I consider my obligation to this employee at this point beyond that if she doesn’t get the job.

                1. Jack Straw*

                  Except that “[v]ery unsure how to handle” seems to indicate you didn’t, in fact, handle it and give the reference. Rather than being defensive, maybe take some time to sit with the responses you’ve received here and reflect on what’s happening…

            3. JelloStapler*

              Concern? Yes. Anxiety about how to adjust if they leave? Sure. Frustration? No. If a ton of people leave, I can see frustration but that would also mean that perhaps there is a bigger picture to consider (why are they leaving, can we change anything, etc) – not saying that is happening here.

            4. Grizabella the Glamour Cat*

              Why is it complicated? You give a reference that is n honest and accurate reflection of your experience with this employee. End of story. There is absolutely nothing complicated about that.

              If you mean that replacing her is going to be complicated, well, that’s life. Employees come and employees go, and replacing the ones that go is part of a manager’s job. It may not always be convenient and easy to do, but one does what has to be done.

              Regardless of what you do about replacing this person, that should have absolutely no bearing on giving her a reference. Those are two completely separate issues. I’m pointing that out, because it’s not clear from your comments whether you are viewing it that way or not. If you are, great!

        3. DireRaven*

          Well, really you should always have a little bit of slack in your worksite’s workload capabilities. Otherwise, people can’t take days off (come to work sick, don’t take vacation days or necessary medical leave) without coming back to a massive disaster of dealing with the stuff from when they were out plus their current stuff when back or their coworkers end up pulling massive overtime to cover the redistributed workload because no one really has the bandwidth to do so. Or, the company must turn down projects because there is not the manpower to cover it. If one of the employees were hit by a bus on the way to work, the remainder might have to do more work to keep things afloat until either the person recovers and returns or it is determined they will not be returning and their position is filled.

        4. Susana*

          Stumped, thanks for that clarification. I do think the reason some people are pushing back here is because of the word “confront.”
          Still – I wonder what you get from discussing it with employee? It’s going to probably freak out the employee, whimsy then step up job search (and you really don’t know if there’s an active job search – might have been a random thing based on an opening in a coveted place, or someone approaching employee, who smartly decided to hear them out at least). You could just file it away as a reminder that you cold lose anyone at any time. or – if you really like the employee – you could have a meeting and say, are you unhappy here? Are there opportunities here you’d like and are not getting the chance to pursue?

          1. Grizabella the Glamour Cat*

            Yes, the choice of the word “confront” had connotations of, “How dare this employee apply for another job!” “Confront” is what you do when you feel someone has done something wrong. It’s not a synonym for “having a pleasant chat,” lol.

            Some of us got the feeling that you were angry with this employee for having the audacity to consider leaving. If that’s not the case, I’m sure we’ll all be glad to know that! :-)

      2. serenity*

        I think this person’s comment is an excellent and sobering reminder of the real world consequences that await some employees when managers find out they are interviewing or looking for other jobs.

            1. Deanna Troi*

              Yes, Stumped’s attitude is EXACTLY why it is dangerous to have a potential employer contact your current employer. A shiver went up my spine as I read their comment.

        1. Stumped*

          Which is precisely why people should never contact a person’s current employer without their knowledge.

    3. Salad Daisy*

      I’m not sure I would use the word “confront”. After all, this is an employee, not an indentured servant, and they have the right to look for another job.

      1. Stumped*

        Perhaps not the right word choice but I also can’t be expected to ignore the information provided to me. I need to prepare whatever that might mean.

        1. hbc*

          You should always be prepared to replace staff. The way you prepare when handed information like this is to let them know that you appreciate as much advanced warning as you can get but that you won’t be holding it against her, making sure all of her institutional knowledge is documented, and get your job posting ready.

          If you do anything more than that, you will guarantee that you will be replacing others with no warning in the future. That’s what you “wouldn’t be able to come back from.”

        2. SheLooksFamiliar*

          No one is suggesting that you should ignore this situation, just that you reconsider your initial reaction to it.

          This is a normal situation and good managers not only expect this kind of thing, they plan for it. Great managers coach their team in career planning and development. This last part is usually for movement within the company, but sometimes it isn’t. Again, totally normal, you will lose team members to other opportunities.

          Also, I agree with whoever said your employee should have let you know you were going to get a reference request, but it’s not something I’d let derail your relationship with her.

        3. Lana Kane*

          You do have to prepare, but there isn’t much you can do until that employee gives notice. Generally, you should be prepared for anyone to leave by ensuring you have proper documentation for your workflows and processes. This way when you do need to hire a replacement, onboarding will be smoother. Getting a reference check for them is just a heads up to make sure your documentation is in order.

      2. Guacamole Bob*

        I’ve been wondering if there are variations in the understanding of the word “confront”, given how often it shows up in letters to advice columnists about situations where being adversarial is entirely unnecessary. Do some people think it just means “talk to”?

        1. Myrin*

          I would very much think so. I mean, from follow-up comments, it seems like it conveyed Stumped’s viewpoint somewhat accurately, even subconsciously, but I know that I’ve definitely thought before in a variety of situations that some people aren’t really aware what connotations “confront” carries.

    4. Shirley Keeldar*

      Why confront her? Why do you feel you can’t come back from this? She hasn’t done anything wrong—she’s just looking for a new job. Didn’t you look for the job you have now?

      If she’s a good employee, tell her you’re happy to be a reference and you wish her all the best. If she’s not, tell her you’re sorry but you can’t commit to being a reference. That’s it, that’s all you have to do. No confronting required.

    5. Golden Rod*

      “Confront” is an alarming way to describe this – she didn’t do anything worth “confronting” her over! People move jobs! This is a thing that happens, and you should be able to handle that professionally without making it personal or confrontational!

      What is there to “come back” from? She is job hunting, not betraying your relationship. You deal with it by recognising that she hasn’t done anything wrong, processing your feelings about that privately, and treating her with scrupulous professionalism. If you cannot handle that, you shouldn’t be managing people.

      This comment demonstrates exactly why the OP is right to be concerned – because some people have real reason to worry due to having bosses like you.

      1. Stumped*

        There’s a real issue with knowing that an employee is on company time job searching. I don’t think it’s entirely unreasonable to ask questions about that.

        1. Blackcat*

          How do you know she’s “on company time” doing her job search?! Presumably she’s handling her search professionally and doing so outside of work hours.

        2. lost academic*

          You need to dial it way back – that’s a big leap and quite frankly everyone has a right to explore new opportunities and it’s quite likely this person had no idea that the reference check was going to be sent to you. Honestly, I think everyone should be exploring new opportunities every few years to make sure they understand their position and the job market clearly.

        3. serenity*

          Your hostility and defensiveness towards both your employee and towards dozens of comments directed your way is not doing you any favors. Maybe you can sit with some of this feedback and think about it.

          You’re also talking to commenters here that have perhaps managed direct reports for many years at many different companies. They are telling you that your punitive attitude towards an employee interviewing for another job, which is a bog-standard part of managing direct reports, is alarming and does not inspire confidence in your ability to manage staff with empathy, understanding, and with good judgment.

      2. Okay, great!*

        Ok, maybe instead of ending your comment with a big “and YOU are the problem!” to the commenter, just keep to why you think the situation is a problem and how to remedy it. This community is supposed to be helpful, not punitive.

        1. Golden Rod*

          I already explained why it was a problem and what they should do. My final point wasn’t “punitive” – I have no power to punish “Stumped” (unfortunately – if I was their manager and was aware of this there would be a very serious meeting about to happen) so it cannot be. It was simply intended to point out the genuine consequences of the attitude they are demonstrating by their aggressive and confrontational manner.

    6. AdAgencyChick*

      Whether you value her as an employee or not, you now have EXTREMELY valuable information.

      If you value her, now is your chance to find out why she went looking and try to fix the problem if you can. Please just front with her and tell her that a) you know she’s looking for another job and b) you know because an employer contacted you for a reference check. (I once had a boss who found out I was interviewing because someone else at the hiring company knew him and ratted me out. That boss did not say to me that he knew I was interviewing or how he found out, but the way he asked me “Why are you unhappy here?” told me that he knew. Because I didn’t know how he found out, I then became paranoid wondering whether the company was monitoring my email or phone in some way, and I was very guarded about what I would say to him. I think I might have been more honest if *he’d* been more forthright with me first.) And tell her that you’d really like her to stay, so you really want to find out what you can do to help with any issues that made her look. Maybe the issues won’t be resolvable, or maybe she won’t feel safe telling you (especially if one of the issues is her relationship with you), but maybe there IS something you can do.

      If she’s a mediocre or problem employee, you also have valuable information that hopefully you won’t have to deal with this person much longer!

      1. Stumped*

        She’s not unhappy she just wants to be in a different industry. I think it’s awful that someone would contact a current employer and let them know someone is interviewing and I would never do it myself. That said, once you have the information you can’t just unlearn it.

        1. Cthulhu's Librarian*

          That’s bollocks. Just having learnt a thing doesn’t mean you have to act on it.

          I mean, would you consider it a defense if someone learnt your banking information, and then said “well, once I knew it, I couldn’t reasonably decide to NOT steal from Stumped. I couldn’t exactly unlearn his banking data.”

          Try to be the best employer and manager you can. If you need the person to stay on for longer so you can replace them, because of real staffing and coverage issues, try asking them to do so.

        2. joe*

          You might not be able to lumearn it, but you can and should take active steps to prevent this information from affecting how you treat the employee.

        3. SomebodyElse*

          I think you are getting a hard time here, and to be honest I agree with this “That said, once you have the information you can’t just unlearn it.” Even if you are the most supportive boss in the world, it is going to have an impact on the working relationship and future plans.

          (Yes employees can leave at any time, all managers know this, but it’s different knowing that an employee is actively planning to leave. Before the arguments start, go back and reread any letter from an employee asking “I’m planning to leave, how do I handle X” to see that it’s the same from the employee’s perspective)

          Some quick examples off the top of my head:
          1. Training – how much effort do you put into an employee you know is interviewing. Do you send them to that fancy and expensive class?
          2. Opportunities – That big project you were going assign this employee, does it make more sense to give it to someone else to avoid a transition?
          3. Planning – Hmmm… well no sense in naming this employee as a candidate for succession planning

          I could go on, but it’s unrealistic for anyone to think this knowledge wouldn’t affect anything even if it’s at a subconscious level.

          1. AdAgencyChick*

            Totally agree. All of these examples are perfectly reasonable ways an employer might decide to treat an employee differently once they know the employee is on her way out, without actually pushing that person out.

          2. Stumped*

            Thank you – you did a far better job of articulating the concerns than I did.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              That stuff is reasonable!

              You are getting the response you’re getting here because you said you “confronted” her about it (which sounds very aggressive and like she did something wrong– maybe it was just the wrong word?) and that you’re not sure you can come back from it, which sounds like the relationship is ruined (which would be an extreme overreaction, but again maybe that’s not what you meant).

              1. Stumped*

                Yes, my words were poorly chosen. Coming back from was more in reference to if she doesn’t get the job which she told me she wants. The relationship wouldn’t be ruined because she hasn’t worked for me very long. However, her standing in this company would be in limbo. But certainly I could have chosen better words.

                1. Jack Straw*

                  I am still concerned? vexed? confused? about this person’s status being “in limbo” because they wanted to move into a different industry (as you stated in another comment). If they are a good employee, they will continue to be a good employee.

                  You can either let them continue to do good work or force them to quit by treating them as if they are “in limbo” or not trustworthy. Only one leaves you with a position to fill and staffing you’re very worried about maintaining.

                2. Old Admin*

                  “However, her standing in this company would be in limbo.”
                  You know, you can backpedal all you want, but you already have shown your hand. A very toxic one, indeed.
                  It would benefit you a good deal if you were to think back when **you** were job searching and had to tiptoe around current bosses. Or did you get your job through vitamine C(onnections)?

                3. serenity*

                  Your words continue to raise alarm bells. A direct report interviewing elsewhere is now “in limbo”? With you? With your company? And why?

          3. Student Affairs Sally*

            And this comment perfectly demonstrates exactly why an applicant wouldn’t want their current manager to know. Just because you apply for ONE job and make it to the reference stage doesn’t necessarily mean you’re “actively planning to leave”. They may be very happy where they are, but heard about an interesting opportunity and wanted to explore it to learn more. They might love the work they’re doing but are intrigued by the potential of a higher salary. Having an interview isn’t the same as accepting a job, and the fact that you would think “Oh, I guess I should stop trying to train/develop this employee and shouldn’t even consider them for a promotion” on the basis of one interview is the entire reason this question was necessary.

            1. SomebodyElse*

              Gently, you are looking at this from the employee’s perspective. A manager’s job is to plan. It is literally our job to plan for things like employees leaving, future needs, and current resources and you have to use all the information available to you to do that. Knowing that an employee is interviewing is going to have an impact.

              It has nothing to do with ‘loyalty’ or any of that nonsense, it does have to do with me making the best choices for my team long term.

              Which, for the record, is why it’s a very crappy policy to require a current manager’s reference and one that I don’t agree with.

              1. Bola*

                Of course, but that’s the point. It is your job to plan for this whether or not you know that a specific employee has applied for another role elsewhere.

                “Knowing that an employee is interviewing is going to have an impact.” Why? It’s your job to plan regardless. It’s not personal, not something to confront the employee over, not something that should affect your planning. When you make it personal you demonstrate exactly why it isn’t safe for employees to share this stuff.

          4. STG*

            And if that employee is there another year…..2 years….5 years? Now that assumption that the employee is suddenly leaving has actively hurt her career by limiting duties all from a reference call.

            It’s unfortunate for both parties but only one really has the potential to end up damaged by it.

            1. Self Employed*

              Exactly! The employee may have been interviewing out of curiosity, but when the offer (and other features of the job they interviewed for) was not better than the current job they would naturally decide to stay in the current job. But now they’re damaged goods or something and won’t get the full benefit of deciding they WANT to stay with their current job.

          5. JSPA*

            But there’s no evidence they’re getting the job; in fact, they might be searching as a way to bolster their perceived strength (or create urgency) as far as development or succession planning.

    7. Confused employee*

      What do you mean “I’m not sure we could come back from it.”? what precisely has this employee done that requires your forgiveness and reconciliation?

      1. Jean*

        Thank you. Jeez. THIS IS WHY COMPANIES SHOULD NOT ASK FOR REFERENCES FROM CURRENT EMPLOYERS, PEOPLE. Because a lot of times they can’t handle it in a professional manner and will act like it’s some personal affront.

        1. Stumped*

          No I didn’t handle it like it was a personal affront. It’s an odd situation – is she doesn’t get it where do we go from there? Reasonable line of thinking.

          1. disconnect*

            Why don’t you ask her? I mean, now you know she’s looking, and she knows you know, and you know she knows you know etc. So set up a 20-30 minute meeting with her, ask her about her career plans, and listen to what she says. Tell her exactly why you value her, so she understands that she’s not just a cog in this machine, that she’s appreciated by you. Talk about a timeline; how soon is she looking to move? What happens if she can’t find anything in 3-6 months? Is there anything you could change about her job that would keep her there? Probably not, but ask!

            You’ve been handed a gift of knowing that this particular employee is looking at the door. You can take it as a personal affront and be all upset with it, or you can recognize it as advance warning that you may have to replace this role soon. You can confront her and let her know your displeasure, or you can keep it professional and recognize that people sometimes leave jobs.

            And how you act here will speak volumes to the rest of your staff. If you treat her with professionalism and respect, you’ll show everyone else that yes, you can be trusted with this information, and you’ll be more likely to get advance notice down the road, because you’re a decent boss. Because when you type things like “if she doesn’t get it where do we go from there” it sounds like you’re unable to maintain a good working relationship with her, and that’s entirely on you at this point.

          2. Jean*

            Except it’s not an odd situation, at all. You have an employee who’s looking for another job. This is something that happens often and is a very standard part of employing people. If she doesn’t get it, she stays in her current job, at least until she finds something else that’s better for her. What do you normally do when someone leaves? You hire someone to replace them, right? I don’t see what you’re so stumped about here, honestly.

            1. Stumped*

              It’s not standard to receive a reference check for a current employee that you weren’t expecting and weren’t provided a head’s up for. That’s even what Alison said in the original letter.

              1. serenity*

                Then your feelings are more from feeling betrayed or upset by this unexpected news than your actual staffing needs? Is that correct?

                I’m just trying to wrap my head around a manager harboring this much suspicion and antipathy towards something direct reports do in the regular course of business all the time.

          3. Susana*

            I know – but maybe try really hard not to take it personally. It’s easy to see it like – you’re dating someone, not super-seriously but exclusively, and you see hem flirting with someone else at a party. Is it a sign of something more serious? Is the person enjoying his/her attractiveness? Just seeing what’s out there? Actively looking to replace you? You don’t know.

            The thing is, people leave jobs and entertain new opportunities all the time – unless this is the only place in your life you’ve worked, that includes you. If she doesn’t get it, maybe have a talk about what she’d like to be doing at her current job – or if she’s looking for something else at your firm she’s not getting.

            But really, you’ve drive yourself crazy if you see it as a personal betrayal. I know it can feel that way, but it’s not.

            1. Stumped*

              I never indicated I was taking it personally or viewing it as a betrayal. That narrative is being driven home by others. I was faced with an atypical situation of being asked for a reference for an employee and I wasn’t given a head’s up. Any reference should know ahead of time that they may be contacted especially if the person is currently employed by the reference. Trust me, I’ve been a hiring manager for 15 years and I’ve seen almost everything. This was a new one.

              1. Amaranth*

                They might not have given you as a reference but the company decided to contact their current manager as a reference. Or somebody in HR just messed up.

    8. Khatul Madame*

      What are you not sure about?
      You provide an honest reference. I hope this part is not in question.

      The employee is looking to switch jobs and eventually she will, with or without your reference. The job market right now is very applicant-friendly. So you need to start the process to backfill.
      Alternate scenario: employee gives notice, you counter, she stays. The applicants for the potential opening get a “no thanks”, but that’s par for the course.

      Seems pretty clear-cut to me.

      1. Stumped*

        I provided a good reference. The issue is she wasn’t sure if she actually had the job. So, I need to consider what to do in that case.

    9. pleaset cheap rolls*

      Give them accurate information, and if the person has been a good employee, err toward being overly supportive. That’s the only way to be.

      You can be stumped on how to fill her position, but doing anything other than being supportive (assuming she has been a good employee) adds to risk of bad outcomes.

    10. TWW*

      Not sure why you thought this was something you needed to confront your employee about.

      The attitude expressed here confirms the worst fears of most other commentators.

      1. Stumped*

        Confront as in, do I need to fill your role? Pretty reasonable question in my mind.

        1. Myrin*

          I feel like this illustrates pretty interestingly how true “words have meanings” is – this whole thread wouldn’t have happened (at least not in the way it did) if this had been clear from the beginning, because that’s not usually a situation where you’d use “confront”; you’re basically just having a talk with her about her role/the situation as a whole.

        2. Bluestreak*

          I imagine she will let you know if you need to fill her role. That’s what notice is for. If you ask before that she likely won’t know the answer and the fact that you are asking will almost certainly cause stress.
          And if you are considering filling her role before she gets another job, the you’re an exact example of why people don’t share their job searches.

        3. SheLooksFamiliar*

          No, it’s not a reasonable question to ask your employee, not just yet. She’s interviewing and someone has shown interest in her. That’s it. It happens more than you think, you just happened to hear about it because someone outed your employee. It’s clear you were taken by surprise and could be internalizing some of this. I get it, been there myself several times. It’s also clear – to me, anyway – you need to handle workforce planning better, like so many of us do. This WILL happen again.

          Your heart might be in the right place but the way you’re interacting with commenters doesn’t really express that. You’re taking a fairly aggressive stance and defending your use of a word with a negative connotation. That tells me you’re more interested in being a manager, and not a leader. I hope I’m wrong!

          1. Stumped*

            I didn’t defend the use of the word confront. I was very clear that I made a poor word choice. And it’s much farther down the road than someone has shown interest in her.

            1. SheLooksFamiliar*

              My apologies about taking you to task for the poor word choice.

              However: the employer has only shown an interest at this point. Now, an offer is a sign of commitment. ~40 years in corporate staffing tell me this.

              1. Stumped*

                Well without going into detail that’s where it gets really hazy. But I don’t say anymore except it’s more than just an interest.

          2. Khatul Madame*

            I beg to differ. Stumped should remain a good manager to this employee, but she also needs to take steps towards backfilling the role.
            Having a staffing contingency plan is part of management. Workers leave jobs all the time – they want to change industries, go back to school, die, move cities and countries, win lotteries, or just walk out in a huff for no good reason. Whatever the situation, the hiring team just activates the backfill plan.

            1. bluestreak*

              Having a contingency plan is much different than flat out asking your employee, “do I need to fill your position.” It’s overly adversarial, and you won’t get an answer unless she is coming to tell you she has an offer.

    11. Foreign Octopus*

      Having had more time to think about this comment, a lot of this depends on your relationship with your employee.

      If it’s a good relationship then I think you can discuss this with her and get a general overview of her plans on the proviso that nothing changes except that she documents her processes in the event that she does hand in her two-week notice.

      I see in another comment that you said she’s applying for a completely different industry so, assuming that this is brand new information to you, I think the best thing you can do is just make sure that everything is in order so, when she does leave, you can divide her work evenly among the rest of the team until her replacement is hired. However, beyond that, I’d argue that you shouldn’t be thinking about replacing her. Until she hands in her notice, she is a member of your team and she shouldn’t miss out on opportunities simply because she may or may not leave in the future. Keep training her, keep including her in meetings and the like because she may find out more about the industry she wants to move into and find out it’s not for her.

      And I don’t think you should feel between a rock and a hard place. This is the nature of business. People leave all the time for a variety of reasons and, yes, you have knowledge that she may be planning to leave in the future but that doesn’t mean you have to make a big deal about it. Talk to her, document processes, and then keep it to yourself.

      On a side note that’s been well covered in the comments, you do come across as sounding personally annoyed by the situation. I don’t think you should be. Like I said before, people leave jobs all the time and switch industries so it is what it is.

      Don’t penalise her for it because word will get around your team/office/company and that means that your employees will have their lips glued together until the last possible moment. You have a unique opportunity here to set the culture for your team and you should want to take full advantage of that.

    12. Seeking Second Childhood*

      I’m a little startled by the phrase “confront her on it” — why a confrontation?
      People look around, even if they like their current employer & manager. I’ve been at my company for 20 years and yes I read the want ads. Because if something falls in my lap for a huge pay increase and permanent WFH you can bet I’d consider it — but they’ll have to match the perks that come with seniority.
      Every time I look around and decide to stay, it makes me just that much more invested in where I am.

      1. Seeking Second Childhood*

        I caught up on the comments and my apologies for sounding like a broken record.
        I like points made by Disconnect and Khatul Madame. You HAVE been given a gift. It’s not just a heads-up that this one staff member is ready to move up. It’s a reminder that staffing contingencies are always needed.
        You need to plan to cover the work if someone gets sick or injured or wins PowerBall — or if YOU get do.
        Good luck!

    13. Sweet Christmas*

      Personally – I am a manager, and I would just do the reference check and then not say anything more about it.

      You’re not really stuck between a rock and a hard place. Your employee is looking for another job – perhaps she’s applying broadly, or perhaps this opportunity was too good to pass up – but really, that doesn’t change anything. She still works for you. She might change her mind, she might get to the offer stage and realize the new offer won’t work for her…

      Any of our employees could choose to leave at any time. That’s normal; employees move around to different places! What could you possibly hope to gain from…doing anything differently?

      1. Stumped*

        Be able to solve for a hiring situation before it happens? A reference is a last step in the process typically – if I can get more notice than normal and start planning I’m going to take advantage of that. A manager’s role is to do just that.

        1. typical*

          Not every search is “typical”, though. For the interview process for my current job, reference checks were the second step in the process – I had one interview, then they contacted my references, then I had a second interview, then a third interview + presentation, then the offer. They checked references before determining who to pull to the next round. Granted, they told me that was their process ahead of time and I was able to notify my references that they would be contacted, which it sounds like your employee didn’t do. But you shouldn’t assume that just because it’s at the reference-check stage that an offer is necessarily eminent. And even if an offer IS eminent, you shouldn’t assume that your employee would accept it.

        2. Disabled trans lesbian*

          Stumped, if you want employees to give you more notice than the minimum they’re required to give, you have to prove it’s safe for them to do so. Right now, I’m not convinced it would be safe to give you advance notice, due to the issues previous commentors have already pointed out.

        3. New Jack Karyn*

          So, let’s say you post for her job, get a bunch of applications, sift through them and start interviewing. And then–your employee never hands in her notice. Now what?

    14. JSPA*

      Why is this a confrontation? She owes you good work for the pay, professionalism, and however-many weeks notice is specified or regionally-normal, whichever is longer. She does not owe you advance notice of a job search. She does not owe you feedback that she’s not satisfied in her current job (especially as that may not even be true–someone may have reached out to her, and she may be going through the process to see what her options are).

      For all you know, she may be needing to move, planning to shift careers, needing to go part-time while going back to school, or any of a dozen other things that do not reflect in any way on how she has felt about working for you.

      If you want to retain her, you can of course open the discussion of what she’d need, to stay, or look into the options for advancement in your company. But she isn’t “your person”–she’s “her own person”–and she has every right to have a focus on her own life and her own career that’s separate from her dedication to doing good work for you.

    15. learnedthehardway*

      That sounds distinctly odd. I can’t imagine requesting a reference for a current employee by mail.

      Are you sure this other company even asked your employee’s permission to do a reference? If she didn’t agree to them contacting you, I wouldn’t assume that she’s looking for a new role. Could be that someone mentioned her name and some bright spark at this other company decided to do some “pre-referencing” to see if it is a good idea to call her or not. (That’s highly problematic for many reasons, but it DOES sometimes happen).

  8. jm*

    I’m sorry that happened to you. My current employer insisted on hearing from my supervisor at the time. Both of my direct supervisors were unprofessional bullies who had tightened up requirements for taking PTO because they knew everyone in my department was interviewing. I didn’t trust either of them to give me a decent reference. Thankfully I was able to get one from a coworker who was technically in a supervisory position and I got the job. The HR here is rigid and lacking in empathy, but I’m happy here and grateful for every other aspect of the agency. Good luck with your search!

    1. Bubbles*

      I had a former toxic boss do this so I wouldn’t be able to interview! He suddenly announced I wasn’t allowed to take off Mondays or Fridays anymore in the presence of the office manager and stormed off. It was an extremely small business so he was the owner as well. I told the OM that wasn’t going to work for me and ignored it. When I interviewed out of state I said it was for a wedding. And then quit.

  9. twocents*

    Potentially stupid question: I understand why from the employee’s standpoint that you don’t want your manager to know that you’re looking in the event of a layoff that your job would be on the chopping block. But from an employer standpoint, if layoffs have to occur, doesn’t it make sense to cut someone who has one foot out the door anyway over someone who has no intention of leaving? I’m just a little confused why that is consistently presented as this nefarious pushing someone out.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It’s not nefarious — that was a distinction I tried to make in my response. But it’s absolutely not in your interests as an employee to open the door to that, and it’s something you want to guard against.

    2. Elizabeth McDonald*

      Maybe I’m not in general interested in leaving, but a really unique position opened up somewhere else. I might interview for it, but be satisfied to stay if I don’t get this one role. But I may or may not be able to convince my current employer of that if the other company lets them know I was interviewing.

    3. Smithy*

      I think the reason for it being presented as nefarious is because someone job hunting may not necessarily be someone who has one foot out the door. Or someone who does, but it’s a job market where they want to look under conditions where they are not desperate – and for some fields, that search might easily take a year if not longer.

      Whether it’s an employer being deemed as being nefarious or sensible – the end result is the same for the employee. And in a system where employees so often have less power, it’s why it’s just never encouraged to give it up freely.

    4. alienor*

      I think there’s a lot of grey area between “no intention of leaving” and “one foot out the door.” Maybe the employee wasn’t planning to leave, but they got contacted by a recruiter and the job sounded cool, so they interviewed for it to see what happened (I’ve done this before). Maybe they were planning to leave and started looking, but circumstances have changed since then and they’ve backed off the idea. If the employer just mentally marks them as one foot out the door and pushes them out, then they could end up losing a good employee when they don’t have to.

    5. SarahKay*

      But people aren’t necessarily looking to leave generally. Sometimes it’s one specific job has come up that the employee would love to have, but would otherwise stay very happily in their current company.

      I’ve actually been in that situation recently, when a potential ‘dream job’ might have been available. It’s almost the only job I’d (willingly) leave my current one for, at least in the next 2-3 years. It didn’t work out, but imagine if, along with it not working out, my manager had been asked for a reference and decided I had one foot out of the door and marked me down as layoff-able? I really didn’t have one foot out of the door – maybe one toenail out of the door, at most!

      In other cases, sometimes they’ve been approached by a recruiter, and are willing to think about it, just to see what the world out there is like. Sometimes, of course, you’re right, and they want out of there, but I really don’t think this is always the case. Plus, of course, the employer is only laying off the person they are aware of looking elsewhere – maybe the person they retain is just luckier in reference demands and will leave of their own accord a week later.

      1. Filosofickle*

        I just went through this! It was a one-off opportunity that came to me through a contact, and ultimately after multiple rounds we agreed it was not the right fit. I’m not traditionally employed so I don’t have a “boss” but there is a partner I do nearly all my work through and he would struggle without me. I didn’t mention it, even though we were getting into choppy waters on potential contracts he needed me for, and I’m really glad I held back. He doesn’t need to know. There is no upside, only downside.

    6. Letter Writer*

      Letter Writer here! This line of thinking is exactly what I was worried about, TBH. Layoffs are a very real possibility at my current place of employment, and I don’t want them to think I am expendable just because because I applied for another job. If there was a possibility of me being laid off, I would hope my employer considered other factors–my performance, how my position supports the whole company’s infrastructure, overall finances, etc.–over the fact that I applied for a job one time somewhere else.

      1. SomebodyElse*

        To be honest they probably wouldn’t. Think of it from their perspective, if there is a layoff, there is a high probability that is paired with a hiring freeze. So now there would be risk of laying off person A, then having you resign, which would leave them with an unfillable open position.

        Even if you were the best employee I’d ever had, I would have to really think long and hard about the situation.

        Again, it’s fine that employees look for other jobs (managers do it too!) as a manager I expect that I’ll have turnover and plan for that. But at the same time, I’d be untruthful if I said that knowing someone is actively looking wouldn’t have an impact on decisions like this.

        BTW… it sucks that you were put in this position. It sucks that this is their policy. And good luck for future job searches :)

  10. Kay*

    I had this happen to me too but thankfully the new employer took my concerns into consideration and agreed to speak with my team’s assistant manager rather than the manager I reported to. However, in my case, this experience should have been a red flag that my new employer had standards for her staff that were generally out of scope with professional norms.

  11. Lady Municipal Employee*

    This actually happened to me for a prior admin role at a major university in my city. I offered a current coworker instead and they were OK with that but the request was really off/not the norm.

    1. PT*

      I applied for a few jobs at a major university in a major city that required you to include the name and contact info of your current boss and check a box “yes you may contact my boss” on the application.

      I am fairly certain they threw out the applications that said NO, unemployment was really high at the time and they could afford to be picky.

    2. Letter Writer*

      Letter Writer here! I tried to mask this, but the company in the letter is actually a university. I currently work at a university as well that most definitely does NOT have this policy, but maybe it’s actually more common for the sector than I thought!

      1. Tina Belcher's Less Cool Sister*

        It happened to me at a university too! I don’t think it’s the norm here but universities have weird norms around hiring and employment practices (probably a carryover from the bizarro world that is faculty employment).

      2. Brett*

        Is it a public university? Not only are universities a little strange, but public universities can be bound by public sector rules, where requiring references from current bosses is a more common thing.
        It has a lot to do with the additional protections you get against arbitrary termination.

        1. Letter Writer*

          It was actually a private university! I have a ton of experience in the public sector, where I would expect this kind of rigidity to be more common but that has not been my experience.

        2. look for america in new jersey*

          I’m in the public sector, where it is not a required thing to have a reference from your current boss!

          I did have a boss in the public sector once who really wanted to speak to current managers before hiring, but she had been in the public sector only for a couple years at the time after spending decades in the private sector, so it was a habit she had brought in from that direction.

      3. Lore*

        The only time I’ve had this happen was also a university! They also told me December 15 that they wouldn’t make any decisions till January and then called me December 23 to say they needed to speak to my manager. I was able to successfully push back—I flat out told them I would withdraw my application in that case—and they then made me an offer on December 24. My office is closed between Christmas and New Year, so I could not give notice or have a conversation with my boss till January 2, and I couldn’t accept an offer with a start date without talking to boss. All of which they knew.

        They started pressuring me on December 26. I turned down the offer—I’d been a little on the fence but the behavior around the offer itself was the final straw.

        1. Self Employed*

          So were they expecting you to teach right after winter break? Otherwise, I can’t imagine any of the universities I’ve attended having anyone in the HR office between Christmas and New Year.

      4. Charlotte*

        I work at a private university and we have this policy, although I received an offer and negotiated it before they talked to my boss, so it was more of a formality. I didn’t consider pushing back because I had no reason to believe my boss wouldn’t give a good reference; not sure what would’ve happened if I had.
        I was surprised to see the comments about this being a red flag, I didn’t think it was particularly out of the norm.

        1. Charlotte*

          And just checked back in my email — I had received and signed an offer letter before they spoke to my boss, so I wasn’t afraid of it falling through. I probably wouldn’t have felt as secure without that written letter.

          1. Frank Doyle*

            If they had already made you an offer, and you had already accepted, what was the value of your current boss’s reference? Were they willing/able to pull the offer if the reference was poor?

      5. Distracted Librarian*

        My previous university had this policy when I was hired (early 2010s), only it was even worse: they wouldn’t give a campus interview without contacting my current supervisor. If I hadn’t needed to make a change so badly, I would have told them no. Sometime after I was hired, HR changed the policy to match what you experienced–they have to talk to a current supervisor before making an offer (which still sucks but is better than their previous policy).

      6. JelloStapler*

        Universities are weird this way. However, I have always gotten around it by offering a different person I work with and they understood.

    3. Bluestreak*

      At the university where i used to work, they were remarkably rigid about requiring your current manager. I think part of this was a rule, but they also just thought it was essential. It was a weird part of the culture. To the point if you were an internal candidate, you could be certain your boss would be called, regardless of whether you gave your permission.

      1. SomebodyElse*

        Internal candidates are different, most companies (outside of academia) have some type of policy about notifying the current manager. For my company it is if you are offered an interview. At that point the candidate/employee is required to inform their current manager.

        In practice we have a great culture for internal hiring/promotions, so 9/10 times the candidate/employee is either pointed to the opportunity by their current manager or is informed at the application/interest stage and will provide a good word for their employee.

    4. Seeking Second Childhood*

      Another option for some of us is a project manager whose tasks you’ve been doing, rather than the manager you report to for HR purposes.

  12. Mina The Company Prom Queen*

    LW should feel confident that hey made the right decision. I once interviewed for a job where the hiring manager insisted upon talking to my current manager, even when I declined on that request and offered other references. I found that really odd and ended up having to withdraw from the process. Do these companies and/or managers who request or insist upon this have any sense at all? I found something better, so it all worked out.

  13. Squirrel*

    This happened to me years ago. And guess what happened? No job offer AND I was fired about a week later. Totally sucked. The hiring manager assured me that most people are totally fine with giving a reference for a current employee. Unfortunately she didn’t know my boss at the time (petty and emotionally unstable). My boss actually asked if I was giving my 2 weeks when I told her someone might be calling! It was bad, she was a really bad boss.
    You did the right thing. Employers who require this suck and don’t care if an applicant loses their job. Hopefully they will learn when one too many of their top contenders refuse like you did.

    1. sofar*

      I’m so sorry that happened to you!

      And your last sentence was exactly what I was thinking. What kind of company has the time on their hands to find a top candidate and then remove them from the process because they won’t provide a reference from a current manager? When we find someone good, we want to HIRE them asap. Good references from former managers are plenty good — I can’t imagine wasting a whole bunch of time trying to get the candidate to jump through a totally abnormal hoop.

      Good candidates with good judgement will balk at weird requests like these, and this company is missing out on hiring good people.

    2. irene adler*

      ” The hiring manager assured me that most people are totally fine with giving a reference for a current employee.”
      Sure! She’s got nothing to lose by saying this to you.

      I’m sorry this happened to you.

  14. Bobs Your Uncle and Aunt*

    I worked in a niche field where most folks at the C level knew all of the other folks. We always asked for a recommendation from your current supervisor. If you were unwilling to give it, our C level person would reach out to your C level person and get one anyway. There were no secrets to be had.

    Of course, this is a very specific environment. I think that in most fields it wouldn’t be necessary, but again, if your industry is as weird as mine was, then it just might be how things are done in that industry. But, again, totally not a normal thing from what I’ve seen.

    1. BAP*

      I worked in a field like that too. My old boss called my new boss at different company after I had given notice in order to negotiate my notice period. Instead of trying to negotiate it directly with me, you know, the person who was leaving.

      1. Anonymous Hippo*

        Wow, how did your new boss respond? Because if they came to an agreement, and then came and told me what it was, it would likely be I wouldn’t work at either. Way to overreach.

        Plus, what if I’m trying to have a vacation in the middle? lol

    2. learnedthehardway*

      Where I live, that could get the hiring company in trouble now because of privacy legislation. Unless a candidate has agreed to let a company do references, having “back door” references done by executives at the company could lead to a complaint against the organization. If the person lost their current job because of this, they’d have grounds to sue the organization whose executives violated their privacy.

  15. Nea*

    I got caught in this situation once and the other company gave me a huge guilt trip about not being able to contact my current boss (and refused to move forward). Glad to know I dodged a bullet.

  16. Tasha*

    I’d ask if the new company’s managers regularly give positive reviews and treatment to employees who ask them for a current reference.

    1. Dandy it is*

      Seriously this. I don’t see how this is helpful. My company’s policy is we are only allowed to confirm employment and not provide a reference. Which kind of sucks as that can be read as a dodge to not recommend the person. The other company gains nothing and it is viewed as a knock against the employee and depending on boss could upset relationships. Lose-lose-lose all the way around.

  17. comityoferrors*

    Policies like this scream “we’re going to lowball you” to me. Once you’ve “invested” by disclosing your job search to your boss, it’s in your best interest to get out of your current job ASAP for all the reasons Alison mentions. That makes you more likely to agree to an offer that isn’t quite what you wanted — because hey, Slightly Disappointing Offer is better than the fear of being pushed out before you find something better, right?

    Even if they aren’t lowballing you on your salary explicitly, the places I’ve seen that pull this crap manage to lowball employees with other shady stuff. Yeah, your salary is competitive, but…oh, we forgot to mention we all work 50-60 hour weeks (thus decreasing your hourly pay); or oh, yes, our insurance plan is $300/month for an individual and covers 80% after your $1500 deductible, good luck with that; or oh, yes, we offer 15 days of PTO — oh shucks, did we not mention that your sick time is combined with your PTO, and we take 8 federal holidays that are covered from that same PTO bank?

    You should always be given a chance to review and ask questions about the ENTIRE offer, both direct compensation & benefits, without pressure. I walk away from any company that tries to minimize my (relatively minimal) power in that part of the relationship – it’s never been worth it, in my experience. I’m glad OP walked away from this, too, and hopefully they found a better job that views employees as people instead of as pawns to manipulate.

    1. Job Searching Sucks*

      My current job did this. But, we negotiated my salary first and I insisted on a written offer before I would talk to my boss. I explained that leaving would put them in a bit of a bind, and I didn’t want to worry her unnecessarily if I wasn’t actually leaving. So, I got a written offer that was contingent on a positive review, and I spoke to my boss before giving her number.

  18. Firecat*

    In these situations, if the HM is apologetic enough and I am fine with working at a place with rigid red tape like that, I’ll offer that if they are willing to offer me a written offer contingent on background and current manager then I’ll go for it. Otherwise withdrawn.

  19. Exhausted Trope*

    So not normal. My company has a box on our application forms specifying if we are permitted to contact current supervisors. Most everyone checks No. And we don’t.
    My company also has a policy prohibiting current supervisors from providing references of any kind, even after their employee has left the company. We’ve only once received pushback on this and it was from a UK firm who demanded to be put in touch with the old employee’s former supervisor, even though both had left the company 15 years ago….

    1. RescueMe123*

      This is actually a requirement in the public sector (Government) in NZ – they will reference check your current manager. Very difficult to get out of it, but it stems from a Government employee who stole millions from several Govt departments and had always provided phony references. In a country of five million people, that sort of thing is remembered.

  20. Maika*

    OP – are you in higher education / university setting?
    The reason I ask is because I know that our HR has this absurd policy across the university, among many others, like unable to negotiate your salary. I’m sorry you’re in this position – it is absolutely infuriating.

    1. Letter Writer*

      Letter Writer here! Yes, this actually was a university. I currently work at a university that does not have this policy, so I was taken aback. I also talked about it with some of my close colleagues who were surprised, but maybe my current employer’s policy is not actually the norm?

      1. Tomato Frog*

        I dealt with this same thing and several people told me it was not uncommon with universities.

      2. Maika*

        Ahh! there we go. Yes, most universities I know in my area and even some across the country have this policy. It has also impacted by ability to job hunt within that sector and so am looking to get out of it – cannot jeopardize my current job in a middle of a pandemic. Sounds like your current employer might be outside the norm – which is amazing. There is just no way around this absurdity, and that list is long. Good luck!

      3. Goldenrod*

        I work at a large university, and they absolutely, totally INSIST on getting a reference from your current employer. To the point where it’s absurd. For example, I was applying to another job within the university because my job had switched me into another role (not for any performance reasons) that wasn’t the job I really wanted.

        I had GLOWING recommendations from everyone else I’d worked for within the university, including someone very high up within the organization with whom I’d worked closely for over 3 years. In the role I’d been moved to, I’d been working only TWO MONTHS.

        This department STILL insisted on talking to them – which actually worked out fine, they gave me great reviews too and I ended up getting a merit increase because they didn’t want to lose me. But guess what? I did NOT get offered the job I’d applied to!

        So…if that hadn’t happened to work out well for me, by sheer good luck, I would have been really screwed over by this! And it makes no sense. But they are absolutely inflexible about it.

      4. Snuck*

        It might be a fairly reasonable thing in education to have this – so if you are skipping out on a job while under a cloud of investigation the future employer can find that out. More so than most other jobs this could be very important.

  21. Tina Belcher's Less Cool Sister*

    I’ve had this happen to me before too, for my current job. My boss wanted to speak with my then-current boss because I was leaving after one year. Fortunately I had the very reasonable and understandable excuse that I’d moved across the country to take the job and it was just too far from family – my then-boss knew I was unhappy so it probably wasn’t a huge surprise I was leaving, and he was happy to support me. It would have been way worse if I didn’t have geography to blame, but rather his poor management and general bad attitude of the workplace.

  22. Goodbye Toby*

    This same thing happened to me at one of the largest universities in the country, no job offer – even contingent – without a reference check from my current manager. This is despite the fact that I gave them 3 or 4 other stellar references and offered people I had supervised in my current role as well (it was a supervisory position). I similarly chose to withdraw rather than jeopardize my job. I later learned they do this to everyone, from high level execs to entry level teaching/fellowship jobs like I applied for. I think it is because they are one of the largest employers in town and have the power, but I know that others and myself told them this was a bad practice that would drive away candidates.

    1. Letter Writer*

      Letter Writer here! This situation actually was at a university, also a large one with a lot of power in its town. In looking at these comments, maybe this is actually common at universities? I currently work at one where this is very much NOT the practice.

      1. Sara without an H*

        I suspect it may be more common in higher education, where there are many more applicants than available jobs.

        1. Maika*

          also probably because universities move at a glacial pace in terms of revisiting their policies. this might’ve made HR sense back in the day (which I would still contest is a bad practice), but to change anything, there is so much bureaucracy, red tape, etc that it would take years to do this.

      2. Goodbye Toby*

        Mine was Ohio State, just fyi. An acquitance was up for a exec/VP job and got the same runaround, but was able to successfully push back because they were so in demand.

    2. Goldenrod*

      ” I think it is because they are one of the largest employers in town and have the power, but I know that others and myself told them this was a bad practice that would drive away candidates.”

      YES! Not only that, but it drives great workers out of the university system – because great workers who have abusive managers (not uncommon) must leave the university system altogether. They can’t get another job within the system to escape the abusive manager, because it’s assumed that that manager’s reference is important. They lose a LOT of great people this way.

  23. Good to Know*

    Oh wow, I genuinely thought this was normal and to be expected. Glad to know there’s some standing for pushing back on it and that it might actually be a big red flag.

  24. Bookworm*

    Thanks OP for writing and I’m sorry that happened. I haven’t been quite in that situation but am thinking I might be there now–I’m trying to keep it so as few people know because I’m miserable where I am now and am seeking to escape ASAP.

    Based on the replies it seems like this is disturbingly more common than one would like. Agree that you probably escaped a bad situation but it still sucked it happened. Hope something better comes along for you soon!

  25. Sara without an H*

    Can someone who works at a company with such a policy please comment and tell us about the thinking behind this? Because it sounds as though enforcing a rule like this will filter out a lot of promising candidates.

    1. Alexis Rosay*

      My boss tried to make this policy but I pushed back on it successfully. His reasoning was that it would be considered ‘due diligence’ and someone (who?) could sue us later for negligence if we hired someone without fully checking their references. Thankfully he listened when I and a board member informed him in strong terms that this is not considered normal.

  26. I'm just here for the cats!*

    The only time i’ve felt comfortable with giving my current manager as a reference was when we were being laid off because the location was closing so it was known that everyone was looking for new jobs.

  27. Tomato Frog*

    I had a similar situation getting hired at a university. I pushed back (and was prepared to do so, thanks to reading AAM religiously!) and they agreed to an offer contingent on a reference from my manager (not “good reference”, just reference — which makes you wonder what the point was in the first place?). What struck me was that the HR person was extremely surprised by my objecting and assumed that I was concerned about getting a bad reference, and I had to explain to her the other reasons why it’s a problem.

    Soon after I was hired, they dispensed with the policy, which I take full credit for (in my own head).

  28. Turanga Leela*

    I had this experience with a small business. They really wanted to hear from my then-current manager before finalizing an offer. I told them it was a hard no. I anticipated (correctly) that my boss was going to be very upset to hear that I was leaving, and that might color what he would say; I couldn’t even be sure the final reference would be a good one.

    The owners of the small business reluctantly agreed not to contact my boss, but I didn’t get an offer. Within a few years, the business had dissolved. Alison is right–this issue was indicative of larger problems with the organization.

  29. Nicki Name*

    I’ll add another exception to the list: my current job was a contract-to-hire arrangement. At the end of the contract period, the company wanted references as part of the conversion to a permanent hire. My boss was happy to provide one of them.

  30. Atlantic Beach Pie*

    What the dumptruck is up with recruiters these days? I’ve worked with external recruiters in the past, but the processes I’ve been through have become more and more complicated, to the point that I’m anticipating that they’ll ask me to juggle fire and swallow swords next. I was recently asked to have 3 references fill out a survey. When I hear survey, I think, “Rate ABP on a scale of 1-10 in the following areas: organization, leadership, staff management, etc…” NO! This was 15 short answer questions. Here is a verbatim example of one of the questions, “Looking back on the candidate’s performance, considering that there is always room for improvement, what would you say were some of the things you would have liked him/her to have done differently or better? Knowing the candidate well, what advice/coaching tips would you give him/her for this role?”

    This was after questions about my strengths/weaknesses, performance, stakeholder relationships, goal setting/achieving, etc. It took each of my references AN ENTIRE HOUR to fill out the survey! And Y’ALL, I DID NOT EVEN GET THE JOB!!! They had me do this before the final interview, and they went with another candidate!

    1. College Career Counselor*

      Same situation happened to me. I thought there were going to do reference checks by phone. Nope. Turned out to be a series of written short answer responses to prompts like you mention. I’m assuming they did this for each of the four finalists (I’m assuming there were four, based on what I could glean from the interviewing schedule). I suspect the search firm was driving this more than the institution so that they could demonstrate what others have referred to as “due diligence” by presenting realms of information on each of the finalist candidates. In fact, the stuff I filled out after submitting my resume and cover letter took me several hours as well. After all that information from multiple applicants, they hired the interim candidate.

      1. Atlantic Beach Pie*

        They did that for FOUR candidates?? Woof! Hilarious that they went with the interim in any case.

        I got the impression here that it was either that the recruiter was trying to impress the client with “look how thorough we are!” to prove that they got their moneys worth, or that the client was driving the process and the recruiter didn’t have the guts to say no to unreasonable requests. After the “final” interview the client asked to see an X document I had prepared for my previous employer. I had mentioned during the interview that I was new to area X but that I had been successful at it in my previous role (note: this job would be supervising someone who was responsible for X tasks and maybe doing some of the work occasionally). Now, X documents are highly confidential and the intellectual property of the employer, not the person who wrote them, so even if I wanted to share it wouldn’t be ethical of me to do so. Recruiter knew this because they had 20+ years of experience in the field. A corollary would be: you’re a programmer, and they ask you for code that you wrote for a current/previous job, rather than giving you a coding test to prove that you are skilled in the language. I offered up a writing sample instead of the X doc–I wonder if that’s why I didn’t get the job in the end.

  31. Peggy Olsen's Blues*

    I’m in government, and this is required by our hiring process.

    1. Cthulhu's Librarian*

      Do you by any chance work with positions that are governed by Civil Service Exams? I know I’ve heard of this being common for those sorts of government positions, because the positions are required to be offered to candidates in the order of their exam rank, unless you get some sort of indicator that they are otherwise unfit.

    2. The New Wanderer*

      I filled out a federal job application earlier this year and although they had places to put current supervisor/manager and their contact info, it was an optional section. There were also three options for contacting: Yes, No, and Notify me first. Note that they still had fields for current salary and GPA (in the education section), both of which were also optional which shows some progress in allowing jobseekers to not have to disclose information that is either irrelevant or potentially harmful.

      Fortunately, if I were required to provide my current manager as a reference, I could because she already knows I might have to leave to progress my career (similar to the letter last week about supporting an employee in a no-growth situation). I can’t say that about most of my previous managers, though, and on principle I still left the contact info blank and selected Notify me first.

      1. healthcare worker*

        Yes, I just filled out a federal application that was the same. However, then when I got the job offer, they were very clear in the letter that it is a tentative offer, pending the results of their very thorough background check, and explicitly said not to give notice until receiving the final offer. But in the background check form, I had to provide the name and contact info of my current supervisor, and it stated that even if you requested in previous stages not to have your current job contacted, they would be contacting them. Kind of defeats the purpose, and I had to have an awkward conversation about how I’m not exactly giving notice, but kind of.

    3. RavenclawJ*

      In the education sector in the UK, this is common because it is in the KCSIE guidelines. References are sought prior to interview for all shortlisted candidates and any discrepancies or omissions on the application are highlighted before interview so that they can be discussed.

  32. Conundrum*

    My company won’t give references, ever. No exceptions so I’m not sure what one would do in this situation. ‘I need to talk to your supervisor.’ ‘My company doesn’t give references so they won’t speak to you.’ Not sure how that gets resolved.

    1. I should really pick a name*

      When I’ve worked for companies that have policies about not giving references, I’ve had managers give me a personal number that could be used for a reference instead of the company’s number.

      1. Conundrum*

        I’m sure a few managers to that here as well but many refuse do to company policy.

  33. frazzledinHR*

    I live on the West Coast of Canada and have long aspired to work within one of our health authorities. Last year, I had an interview with one of them and it went super well BUT they wanted to speak to my current manager before proceeding to an offer. Same as other posters, I knew this would go sideways with my current employer if I didn’t land the new job as they didn’t know I was looking. So, the health authority closed my application as I wouldn’t/couldn’t give my manager as a reference and I was so disappointed. What a terrible position to put someone in insisting that they take a risk of that magnitude. (In my current role, I do the recruiting and hiring and would not in a million years ask to speak to the current manager.) The OP definitely dodged a bad situation here.

  34. Data Analyst*

    I feel like this will (purposefully or not) leave the employer with a pool of mostly people who are newer to work and don’t know how weird that is.

  35. Alexis Rosay*

    I was hiring someone who provided FOUR references, all glowing, and my boss still wanted to make the offer conditional on a reference from a current manager. Thankfully, I was able to push back by asking him what concerns he specifically had about the candidate so we could figure out if there were other ways to address them. He finally admitted that he didn’t have any, he just thought a current manager reference was considered ‘due diligence’.

    I think some people are very insecure about their own hiring judgment and want to cover their ***es through these crazy reference requirements.

    1. Elenna*

      …and how, exactly, would your boss have reacted if one of their employees asked for a reference? Somehow I don’t think they would have found it quite as normal then…

  36. Selina Luna*

    My current school district has a policy similar to this-they required that I allow them to talk to a current supervisor. My BOSS boss had already left town completely and wasn’t going to be back for a couple of weeks after this. Luckily, I called my direct supervisor and she was able to provide a reference. I gave her number to my new principal and it worked out, but legitimately-what if my old boss is out of town when you want to do the reference check? What if my CURRENT employer requires that reference seekers go through HR, and only give information about current employment (something my first school district did)?
    What if I’m leaving because my current boss is a terrible human being? I don’t want to say that in an interview and torpedo my chances at the new job because I have a boss who, if they find out about the upcoming job, will just completely go INSANE and that’s why I’m leaving. That was a run-on sentence, but I’ve worked in some awful places, and if I ask you to contact another manager instead, I’ve got a good reason.

    1. Goldenrod*

      “What if I’m leaving because my current boss is a terrible human being?”


  37. TJ*

    I think this happens more often than people think. My husband just went through a hiring process with an MLB team and they asked for his current boss as a reference. Maybe it’s less common in more entry-level/mid-level roles? Or certain industries is standard? I wouldn’t see the ask as the Red Flag but their response certainly was great. Especially if the LW was a top candidate, I would think they would hear “This could affect my current job negatively” and be more accomodating.

  38. Inot*

    My job (a university) has that same policy of wanting a reference from a current manager. However, my last institution had a policy of no references, which is how I got around it. Thankfully so, because my former boss couldn’t hold ice water (part of the reason I left) and would have told everyone I was interviewing somewhere else. I’ve since discovered at the new job there is a spot to check off if a current manager was unable to be reached, so I do wonder how hard nose they really had to be.

  39. Lucious*

    If one thinks about this, it’s a classic conflict of interest.

    The current manager of a job searching employee – all things being equal- probably doesn’t want them leaving on their own initiative. So why would they give honest feedback about their performance? The next employer will hear whatever answer suits the current manager’s interests. Not the truth about the employees performance.

  40. Manic Pixie HR Girl*

    I work in Government, and this is pretty common because moving in/around different agencies/positions for promotions is SO common and actively encouraged. Managers expect that their best lower level employees will eventually be picked up elsewhere if they are unable to promote them in their current office. However, I am constantly reminding hiring managers to not ask about contacting a current manager for outside-of-government hires that it is NOT the same environment elsewhere. Career government employees often forget some of these key differences!

  41. irene adler*

    This makes me so mad!
    I’ve been asked to provide my current supervisor as a reference a time or two.
    No. I will not do this. If I am to risk my current employment situation then this potential employer of mine must put up something of equal risk. And I’ve even pointed this out. Didn’t garner much sympathy when I did.

    Now, if they agree – in writing- to indemnify me $5,000 per month of lost wages should I not get the job offer and my current employer fires me, then sure, I’ll let you talk to my current employer.

  42. Arctic*

    This is the norm in a lot of government work (not all, of course.) It may not be right but it isn’t something that will be changed.

  43. CRM*

    I had this happen to me when I applied to work at a large university (which seems to be a common theme here), and they refused to provide any details about a potential offer until they talked with someone. Thankfully, they were okay with talking to a former manager of mine (who managed me while I was doing the same role that I was in at that time) instead of my current manager. I think most places would be willing to accept something that!

    The part of this that really felt off to me was the 24 hr deadline. They expected you to reach out to your boss and have a really sensitive/potentially problematic discussion within a day? What if your boss was on vacation? Or out of the office dealing with a family issue?! I understand that they don’t want the process to drag out, but giving you 24 hours for to drop this bomb on your current boss is absolutely ridiculous and unreasonable, even by the most archaic hiring standards.

    1. C.*

      Exactly. Not to mention, at least in my experience, university hiring processes move at a glacial pace.

  44. Madam Librarian*

    I once started to apply for what I thought would be my dream job, but then I saw it required you to list contact information for your current supervisor and check a box certifying that they could contact them whenever they wanted in the process. Just to apply! Hard pass.

  45. College Career Counselor*

    Unfortunately, this is often the norm in higher education, particularly if you’re working with a search firm*. A while back, I was asked for SEVEN references, including my current boss, a current peer colleague at my institution, a current direct report, and a current faculty member, and so on. I knew I would never move forward without those, so I had to trust the discretion of the people in question. I was able to push back slightly on one of them (and offer an alternative), but certainly not the current supervisor.

    But, in the case of my current boss, I also knew that it would be important to say that I had been head-hunted (ie, had not been looking), and to demonstrate that I was still highly engaged in the strategic planning work of my department. I certainly did not want to give the impression that I had one foot out the door, because I did not want this to color his impression of my investment in my work, affect whether or not I get put on interesting, higher-level, or future-focused projects, or otherwise dilute his enthusiasm for supporting my initiatives here. The kicker to this? I have an EXCELLENT working relationship with my boss. But I also know that bias can creep in over time and at the very least alter how you’re perceived, if not blemish your reputation or outright tank your advancement prospects.

    *Interestingly, these same kinds of search firms don’t do this when they’re engaged in a presidential or provost search. They provide tremendous secrecy and often don’t publicly name any of the candidates (in some cases even the finalists) because “we find it has a chilling effect on the size and the quality of the applicant pool.” However, unless you’re high enough up the food chain to start, that’s a consideration not generally offered.

  46. Workfromhome*

    Big red flag. It might be incompetence but more likely is a ploy designed to reduce your negotiating power. If they alert your boss and you lose your job you pretty much have to accept whatever they have to offer even if its far below your expectation.

  47. Mimmy*

    This is why I love reading this column. Otherwise, I would’ve thought this was completely normal and that pushing back would be seen as unreasonable.

  48. Nursecrys*

    I ran into this with my most recent hire. My company actually does have a policy that states I have to speak with the current manager before I can offer, but I wasn’t aware of it until now. This is the 4th position for which I’ve been hiring manager. My grand boss absolutely would not sign off on the offer until I had spoken to the candidate’s manager, which frankly put both me and the candidate both in incredibly awkward positions. Me because I had to call the candidate and explain the requirement to speak to his manager and him because he had not yet disclosed that he had applied for a new position.

  49. Database Developer Dude*

    I would immediately withdraw. I’m not in academia and never have been. This is so not normal it’s a red flag. RUN FORREST RUN!!!!

  50. Snuck*

    Hrm. I’m going to go counter to the crowd here and say “if I was hiring a person who had worked for six years for one employer I would want a reference from them, or from prior employers AND current other professional party”. Six years is a long time, particularly if the person has less than ten years or so work history, and I’d want to know how they were as an employee, especially if the roles was team based, needed people skills or needed soft executive function (decision making etc) skills – this stuff is hard ot teach, and hard to recruit well for.

    BUT… I would respect the OP’s needs within reason. I’d say “I can give you a provisional offer, but will need to talk to your manager, or an adjacent peer in a working role with you, and will need to talk to them in the next two days, before I can convert it to a definite offer. This is so I can understand better a little more about you in your current experience. This is the job offer we would make if this reference works out, please look at it, and let me know within the next couple of days who we might talk to.”

    The OP has to admit one day they are job hunting – it’s not good for them to surprise their employer out of the blue with a two week notice – where’s the mutual trust and respect here? The manager is apparently a good one/on good terms, so why can’t the OP be a little more open with them? What history is there to suggest that this is dangerous? If there’s prior form for letting people go, if there’s a chance she’ll be pushed out sooner than she wants, if the company with holds bonus or promotions… then they deserve less trust, but the OP hasn’t said this. And it takes longer than two weeks to recruit and train a good replacement usually so if the OP wants a healthy reference from this employer in future they need to remember it’s a two way street, trust runs both ways.

    It’s possible to say to the manager “I’ve really enjoyed my work here, but another opportunity has come up, and I’m curious, would you mind being a reference for me for it – yes it’s a bit of a surprise, I didn’t plan to leave, but I’m also really keen to see how this other role can work in my future career plans”, or ask a team lead from another work team to reference for you in confidence. But I don’t think it’s a screaming ugly red flag if the prospective company wants to talk to your current employer before they hand you a coveted job in a select field, and none of your references are less than five years old.

  51. FormerLawyer*

    I just went through this situation. I was interviewing with a government department though, in a different jurisdiction than where I currently worked. I was incredibly concerned about the reference check – my previous boss had just been given notice his contract would not be renewed, and he and I had a strained relationship to say the very least. There had been threats of union grievances, and although I wasn’t the reason the boss’s contract wasn’t renewed, the issues we had were part of a pattern of behavior that led to it all.

    Suffice it to say – this reference was NOT going to be a good one. I was having panic attacks thinking about even asking him for the reference. Explained it all to the prospective job’s HR department – no dice. They assured me that it was all perfunctory, and the form was basically 10 questions of “rate the employee’s skills at ____ from 1-5.” The question they were most concerned about was “Would you rehire this employee?” As it turns out, the guy thought I was a troublemaker, and he gave me a *glowing* review so that I’d leave and “make it easier on the next guy.”

    The way I phrased the reference request was “I’ve been presented with an unexpected career opportunity that I feel the need to explore further. This move would offer me the opportunity to develop [skill A, skill B], which, as you know, are in my long term career goals. While this was unexpected, and is certainly not set in stone, the department is requesting a reference from my current supervisor. If you are unable to provide me with a recommendation, please let me know. I’ve greatly appreciated the time I’ve spent here, and I do not take this decision lightly. ”

    I had also prepped my immediate supervisor with what’s going on – thankfully he knew I was super unhappy and wasn’t surprised at all. IS laid the groundwork with the big boss, so by the time I sent the above email, the big boss knew it was coming and sent out the form reference within five minutes.

    My situation was pretty specific to me, so this approach may not work for everyone. The only reason I didn’t walk from that job was that it was a REALLY good opportunity, one I knew I’d take if I was offered (even though I presented it to the boss as not a sure thing). It hit all the things I had listed I wanted in a career move, and it turns out to have been the best decision I could have made.

    It’s a ridiculous policy, and I’ve let HR know this now that I’m working for this great department. However, gov’t being what it is, they’re unlikely to change it. They’re an in-demand agency, and don’t have a problem getting applicants for open positions, so they don’t see the need to change it. Hopefully they see the light soon!

  52. C.*

    The private university I work for does exactly this. It’s not such a big deal when you’re internal and moving around, but coming from the outside? It’s extremely jarring. Fortunately, I had a great relationship with my previous manager and—even if I didn’t receive an offer from the university—I knew my job wouldn’t be in jeopardy, but it was still nerve-wracking and left a very sour taste in my mouth. I don’t regret making the move, but that distaste still lingers for sure.

  53. llamalemon*

    I’ve had one position require a recommendation from my current supervisor (who didn’t know I was job searching) before making an offer. That turned out to be an enormous red flag for my future supervisor, not the future organization. Her demeanor seriously strained my relationship with my then-current supervisor, which had been wonderful up to that point. Knowing what I know now about that future supervisor, I wouldn’t be surprised if she was intentionally trying to force me into accepting her offer by endangering my current job. Not saying this is normal or professional behavior–nothing about that manager was professional–but trust your gut, and be very careful if you’re still on the fence about leaving your current position.

  54. Worky Von Workison*

    I would take this as a red-flag. It seems to be a very unprofessional request and I don’t think any company that actually thinks it through would consider it a good idea. It really depends on where you are based and what the laws are, but where I live such a request carries huge civil liabilities and can open you up to retaliation or even unemployment. What’s more, most companies here are only willing to “confirm employment” with a reference checker, because there is some legal recourse to people who are given bad reviews and HR wants to prevent angry managers from creating that liability.

    I most certainly would not want to join a company that requires this.

  55. CubeFarmer*

    Twenty three years ago I interviewed for a job where my to-be manager wanted to talk to my current manager. I said no. I still got the job, but it always stuck with me how weird it was, and glad to finally have some firm confirmation that it’s not normal.

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