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I'm 3 months into the interview process for a pretty prestigious research lab. It'd be a great gig. The hiring manager has told me that my peer references were great and I'm by far the most qualified applicant, but their HR requires that they speak to my current manager and get a qualitative reference about my work, not just to verify employment dates.

However, my current manager is pretty abusive, which is why I'm leaving. He's told me and others in my lab that he'll never give a good reference and he'll fire anyone who he finds out is looking for another job.

I can't afford to be fired for reasons I can't get into here. How should I go about withdrawing my application, but letting them know that it's just because of this reason, and I'd love to work there if they could change this rule?

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    Any reason you could not use your colleagues as a reference instead of the manager? – rkeet Feb 4 at 11:17
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    Do you have a manager from a prior job you could have them contact instead? It seems they're looking to get the word from the horse's mouth, and your old boss might work just fine. – Anoplexian Feb 4 at 15:30
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    (Quasi-frame challenge) Don't assume that you should withdraw your application. Put the onus for that difficult step on the other party. Explain your constraint and let the new company decide how to proceed. Consider reworking the question & title in that light. – Daniel R. Collins Feb 4 at 15:39
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    @DanielR.Collins Reworking the question now it has been answered would be a bad idea. That ship has sailed. – Mast Feb 4 at 16:07
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    This sounds like you're at a research university or working for a university lab as a Post-doc. If that's the case, normal HR rules don't apply (; they do but academia seems to ignore everything "normal.") Are you working in an academic institution? Do you have any of that in writing? – wheaties Feb 4 at 19:16
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Talk to the hiring manager of the new place. Make sure that they're aware of the sensitivity of the situation. If there is another manager at your company that they can talk to, give their name also. If you're the person that the hiring manager wants for the position, they'll find a way around this problem - you won't be the first case that they'll have come across like this.

Also be aware that if he deliberately gives you a bad reference which cannot be substantiated, you'll probably have good cause for a lawsuit. Your current company's HR department will not let that happen - so you may find that your current manager is just blowing smoke. He cannot fire you without HR involvement. Do not be blackmailed into staying at a job with an abusive manager.

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    I'm not interested in being fired then filing a lawsuit. I don't want that attached to my name and I'd still need to eat and pay rent while it's going. – OpenOfficesAreGreat Feb 4 at 2:31
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    Ask the New place hiring manager to make talking to previous manager the last thing he does. When he wants to hire you and you have agreed terms, it won't matter what your old manager says. – DJClayworth Feb 4 at 3:27
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    Speaking as a recruiter, if you are the best candidate (or even a decent candidate) then you are enormously valuable to your new company. Businesses take a huge effort to recruit and losing a decent candidate is a real blow. As long as you are open and honest, your new company should understand and come to some arrangement. – DrMcCleod Feb 4 at 10:24
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    +1. I had a similar problem. HR told me they would need a copy of my last paycheck, even though I had already discussed pay with the CEO. I politely said they do not need that, and asked her to check and get back to me. Of course, she never got back to me, and I hired on just fine. – donjuedo Feb 4 at 11:31
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    +1 for "Do not be blackmailed into staying at a job with an abusive manager." – computercarguy Feb 4 at 17:41
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You don't have to withdraw your application.
You can explain the situation as is, or just make it clear that you would not like them to contact your current employer.

Simple:

I'm sorry, I have not announced my intention to leave and it would greatly worsen my relationship with my boss if you were to contact them for a reference. If a reference from my current boss is a hard requirement, then I'm afraid I cannot proceed.

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    this. it's a very strange and uncommon thing to ask references from candidates current supervisor to start with. – shabunc Feb 4 at 13:07
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    This is by far the best and most practical answer, – alwayslearning Feb 4 at 14:52
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    When interviewing for the position I have now, they wanted a reference from current boss. I did basically this answer (minus the "then I'm afraid I cannot proceed", no need for that), and they responded with "that's fine" and we continued on. – Aaron Feb 4 at 16:18
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    @Aaron yes, a simple "So I cannot agree to that" is just fine, that puts the ball in their hands, and they need to decide whether that absolutely means the ball has to go to the trash can. – Frank Hopkins Feb 4 at 18:30
  • @Aaron It sounds like the necessity of the reference was already discussed, so at that point, I don't think it hurts to to cut to the chase at this point. But yes, if the conversation is just starting, there's no need to start throwing around ultimatums! – Mars Feb 5 at 2:47
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Don't provide a solution, just provide the constraints.

You're one step ahead, but in the wrong direction. You don't have to provide a solution to their request. Just let them know of the problem. Tell HR about your current boss and that your current employer is not aware of you seeking a job elsewhere.

Be careful to not call your current boss abusive, but rather just relay his words: that he has stated to never give a good reference and that he will fire anyone looking for another job. Emphasise that for this reason, you cannot risk him learning of you interviewing at another company. Then ask HR of your new employer on how to solve this together.

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You don't have to withdraw, but you have to be open with the hiring manager, explaining the situation like you did here. Hopefully, they will not go against your wishes.

You are in academia. Perhaps you have collaborators that are on the same professional level as your current boss, and they can vouch for you.

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Mine will be kind of a non-answer, but, you say this new opportunity will be a great boost to your career, and of course, you're the best judge of that, but to me, it sounds like they are, or at the very least their HR department is, highly unprofessional.

Who, in their right mind, heard about a prospecting employer getting in touch with your current one?!
What if, like is indeed your case, you've not yet given notice and expect discretion in your application?!
This is putting you at risk of losing your current job without any promise of a new one!

Saying it straight, not beating around the bush, this is pure BS!
Especially seeing that you provided them with other references, that all sang your praise.
How many references do they need before they decide that you, the already leading candidate, is "the chosen one"?!

Others have told you, if you really want to move forward with them, explain your constraints and let them solve their stupid BS requirement (where, indeed, one such solution would be to terminate your candidacy! Do have that in mind).

I suggest that, in light of their hiring practices, you think long and hard if they really are your dream job.
Maybe reach out to other employees there, former and current, to ask questions.

My experience is that HR usually is a pretty good indication of the whole company's culture and behavior, and in this case, "describe HR in 3 words?", I'd go with "Stubborn, bone-headed, irresponsible".

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Abusive employers exist, and a HR department knows that.

I imagine they may even have a well defined way to handle that.
If the alternative is canceling the application, I would certainly just be straight forward and honestly explain the situation. You can be totally relaxed with that, because it will not create any problem in itself. The outcome can be neutral, if it does not work, or very, very positive. (It will probably be positive, I think.)

There is only one small complication: You have to disclose negative information of your former employer. A new employer normally would not like that, at all. Because it implies you could do that to them (and it is not clear allegations are true), but also because it is not a good general behavioral trait.

But you are forced to do it by the situation, objectively.

You can explain that you really would not leak any negative information of your former employer, even if angry or hurt, normally (or whatever is actually true). But you came to the conclusion that the situation just forces you to disclose it. You can even discus that before disclosing anything.

The rest is straight forward. In the context, honesty is not relevant because of ethical reasons, but because it is a very positive character trait. And hard to fake.

But note that other options of acquiring a reference may be easier.

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If your current manager has told more than one person, maybe those people can be used as references and also to explain what is going on and why you are leaving. Considering what a predicament you are in, the new employer should be willing to listen to these people. I would write an email to them and say just that, you are in a predicament and you trying to find someone who can vouch for this behaviour from your current manager. Just remember the co-workers you are leaving behind are going to need you for the same thing if they leave

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Have HR in your new company contact HR in your current company, instead of contacting the manager directly.

This is generally how it should work anyway - communications about employment matters should be channelled through HR. HR at your current place then request a reference from your manager, who passes it back to HR. When I've written references for people at my work, it's always come through HR - the only time it hasn't is when I've been asked for a personal reference and I'd already left that company.

HR at your current place should have this in place as a matter of policy. As other people have said, lawsuits can be and frequently are issued over inappropriate references, and HR's primary role is to ensure the institution complies with employment law. Employees being able to release unchecked references would be a massive compliance loophole, so it's very unlikely they'd allow that to happen.

If the manager chooses to write a reference which is not factually correct, you then have a paper trail through HR to show what's going on. You may not want to raise a lawsuit, but you have evidence for gross misconduct. In most countries, this would be sufficient for your manager to be fired on the spot.

More likely, the fact that it has to go through HR will force your manager to back down. You can't expect huge praise from him, sure, but you can reasonably expect that he will confirm that you worked there and what your day-to-day responsibilities were. That's all HR in your new place needs.

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    -1 This seems to ignore multiple stated constraints of the OP's situation ("qualitative reference about my work, not just to verify employment dates", "he'll fire anyone who he finds out is looking for another job"). – Daniel R. Collins Feb 4 at 15:13
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    @DanielR.Collins I thought I'd explained that clearly enough in my answer. The point is that the manager can only do this because he has no oversight of his actions. HR provides that oversight. HR's entire reason for existence is ensuring the organisation's compliance with employment law. Yes, I know HR is not your friend. HR is the organisation's friend, and in this case the manager would be leaving the organisation open to a lawsuit. The OP may choose not to sue, but that's beside the point - HR as a matter of corporate policy will prevent that situation arising. – Graham Feb 4 at 17:50
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    I would not take that bet. – Daniel R. Collins Feb 4 at 17:56
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    @DanielR.Collins That's fine, and SE is intended to have multiple viewpoints. :) It doesn't mean I've ignored those constraints though, because the point of my answer is giving a way to mitigate those constraints. You just disagree with how effective this would be, which is your personal opinion and that's fair enough - I know I've worked in places where HR are institutionally corrupt too. But if HR aren't actively evil, this is still a valid course of action which addresses the OP's problems. – Graham Feb 4 at 18:37
  • @Graham since the manager will fire anyone he finds out is looking for a job, he's going to inevitably find out the OP is even if the reference is sourced through HR, how is HR going to stop the manager from firing OP? Surely he can anyway? – stan Feb 5 at 5:39

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