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I am in the late stages of the interview process, and was asked by the prospective employer to fill out an application. Above the employment history section was this notice:

WORK EXPERIENCE-Please detail your entire work history. Begin with your current or most recent employer. ... Omission of prior employment may be considered falsification of information. ... PLEASE NOTE: (Company) reserves the right to contact all current and former employers for reference information.

Under each item there are two choices:

Contact my current references:

  1. At any time
  2. Only if I am a finalist candidate

This implies that the prospective employer is intending to contact the current employer before the job is offered or accepted. This leaves me very taken aback; for obvious reasons, this could put me in an untenable position with the current employer. Why would any prospective employer request this, or what possible justification could there be? I've never heard of such a thing before.

How should one proceed when confronted with this situation?

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When I apply and go to an interview I make it explicitly clear that I do not want the prospective employer to contact my present one. If I encounter this on an application form, I simply strike it out and make a note to let the recruiter know. Example: "I'm excited about this new potential opportunity, but at this point I'm not comfortable with you contacting my current employer and I would respectfully ask you not to do this. Please let me know if that's a problem so I can find an alternative way to address your need."

So far that has worked well and I've never encountered any push back. Most companies I've worked for have a "no reference" policy anyway. They may confirm employment dates and job titles but anything above this may expose them to legal risks so they have an explicit policy to not give out any real references.

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    "They may confirm employment dates and job titles but anything above this may expose them to legal risks so they have an explicit policy to not give out any real references. " While this is true, I know an HR guy that told me there's an understanding that if you don't have anything good to say and will only confirm dates, they read between the lines and take that as a negative reference. – Andy Apr 17 '15 at 13:53
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    @Andy: This is true. That is why when I am asked to be a reference, I always tell them "Our company has a no-references policy." So officially, I can only confirm dates and titles. HOWEVER - If you'd like to consider me as a personal reference, and want to ask me, personally, about them, I'd be happy to discuss. Only once have I been called as a reference for someone I would not have recommended. On that occasion, I did not make such an offer. – Wesley Long Mar 29 '18 at 3:43
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Most companies are sensitive to the fact that your current employer is unaware you are looking. At least with cell phone and email, communication between potential employers and applicants is easy to do under the radar.

NOTE: (Company) reserves the right to contact all current and former employers for reference information.

That is standard language. They don't have to contact prior companies, but if they want to they can. Once they go beyond your current employer they will likely only get a confirmation that you worked there during those dates and that your title is approximately correct. They will not rate you as an employee, nor will they confirm projects and tasks.

Big companies will just pull your basic info from a database. Once you go back a couple of years it is unlikely that they can track down managers or coworkers anyway.

Contact my current references:

  1. At any time
  2. Only if I am a finalist candidate

Tell them only to contact your current employer if you are a finalist. And write on the application that you have not told your current management. A typical question in then interview process is why are you leaving your current job, and why did you leave previous jobs.

Why would any prospective employer request this, or what possible justification could there be?

They want to confirm that your are representing yourself accurately. Again they may not get much from your current employer beyond dates of employment and job title. Many will not want to discuss details because they don't want to be sued.

When they use the term "finialist" they mean they will offer you a job if the references checkout. You may or may not want to accept based on the offer details, but they are ready to hire you.

How should one proceed when confronted with this situation?

Check the box to have them contact your current employer if you are "finalist". For most or all of the previews ones check "at any time".

If you are switching, your company will eventually find out. Start thinking about what you will tell them.

EDIT: The question was asked by the OP in the comments: Is it considered unethical to look for another job without letting the current employer know? Or is there the sense that one should not try to hide the fact from the current employer?

It is not unethical to look without telling your boss. In the United States most people can quit at anytime. They don't have a contract, so they have no obligations. You don't have to tell until you want to tell. You can get an offer one day and tell the boss as soon as you sign the offer. Most give 2 weeks notice, but there is no requirement.

Should you hide the fact you are looking?

Perception is everything. Some people are concerned that if their employer knows they are looking they will get fired. Some employers think that if anybody was insane enough to look anywhere else they deserve to be fired. Thankfully both of these examples are in the minority.

You don't tell too early because you never know how long the process will take. It can take weeks or months from application submission to start date, even if you are the perfect candidate.

Once you tell them you are looking they will start to treat you differently. They will not include you in their long term plans. They will not send you to a training class, because you will be gone soon. Forget about them wanting to put you on the cool new project. Most will not fire you though. Some will help you in your search. The smart ones will start looking for a replacement.

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    I still feel like I'm missing something here. Is it considered unethical to look for another job without letting the current employer know? Or is there the sense that one should not try to hide the fact from the current employer? – McGarnagle Jun 23 '12 at 17:57
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    @owen, you should never let the current employer know, that is a good way to get fired. – HLGEM Jun 23 '12 at 18:08
  • @owen I addressed you question in my edits – mhoran_psprep Jun 23 '12 at 18:48
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Contrary to your experience, I have never not seen such language on an application.

  • Checking "At any time" allows the prospective employer to conduct reference checks before applicants get to late-stage interviews; depending on how the search is conducted, the type of job, and other factors unique to the company, some hiring managers conduct checks early, and some later in the process. Think of this like a pre-screen.
  • Checking "Only if I am a finalist candidate" allows the prospective employer to conduct reference checks when the process has gotten serious with a few select candidates. Think of this like a final screen, just to ensure that nothing the hiring manager has seen that made the candidate a finalist was a fluke.

If your objection is to the fact that such broad language means that they could check references that you do not specifically list as references, but rather everyone you've ever worked for, a few things are typically true in that situation:

  • Companies don't typically call everyone in that list.
  • Many companies who do imply that they are calling everyone in the list are simply doing so to verify with HR that you worked there during the time you indicated.
  • If there's someone you really don't want the prospective employer to call, just be honest and say why -- it'll be less of a negative mark than if they call and find out some "bad things" about you that didn't come up in your interview.

If your objection is to the fact that they could call your current employer for a reference when you haven't told your current employer that you're looking for a job, then that's on you. The fact of the matter is that probably more than anything else, a prospective employer wants a reference from your most recent work, as that reflects your skills, outlook, work habits, etc now. If you have not and in no uncertain terms will not ask your current employer to act as a reference, then you will have to be up front with your prospective new employer about that. The fallout from that could be that you are no longer considered, or it could simply be a big negative mark against you from which you'd have to recover in other ways (by being extra great).

As an example, depending on the type of job, level of responsibility, and so on, if I can't talk to your most recent employer, it's very likely that I will just drop you from consideration all together. For example, if I am hiring you in a management position, and at your current company you manage n number of people and are responsible for x number of strategic initiatives, and you have told me about all of this but I can't then verify or get a different perspective on it, then I'm not going to move forward with your interview because that's not a risk I'm willing to take.

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    "As an example, depending on the type of job, level of responsibility, and so on, if I can't talk to your most recent employer, it's very likely that I will just drop you from consideration all together." That makes sense; but is it not a distinct possibility that negotiations break down, and you end up not making the hire; then the employee gets let go preemptively by the current employer because they were tipped off he/she was looking to leave? Is it your position as a prospective employer, that this kind of scenario is simply not your concern? – McGarnagle Jun 23 '12 at 17:52
  • @Owen Correct; how another company reacts to what then amounts to a lack of communication between themselves and their employees can't be my concern. If there are dramatically potentially problematic issues, and the candidate expresses those concerns, of course there's room for nuances in these situations. But generally, no, not my concern; also hints at potential baggage the new employee would bring along. – jcmeloni Jun 23 '12 at 19:27
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    "The fact of the matter is [...] a prospective employer wants a reference from your most recent work, as that reflects your skills, outlook, work habits, etc now". I'm surprised how culturally dependent this sentence is. In my 30-year career no prospective employer has ever contacted a previous one for references. That is in The Netherlands. – Jan Doggen Sep 13 '13 at 7:15
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    "If your objection is to the fact that they could call your current employer for a reference when you haven't told your current employer that you're looking for a job, then that's on you." This is the most unprofessional comment for this situation that I've ever seen. It completely ignores employment reality in the USA and perpetuates the cycle of employers having all the power and employees having none. – J.D. Walker Apr 19 '18 at 20:43
  • Adding on @J.D.Walker comment, this make me wanting to have nothing to do with your company given how unprofessional you are. And if the guy who select the employees are unprofessional, the doubt that the company is unprofessional is not without merit – Gianluca May 31 '18 at 12:29
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Verifying the accuracy of all of your statements as to your dates of employment, job title and role, including your current situation, is a standard part of a pre-employment background check which is to be done after a job offer has been made and accepted, not before. You should withdraw your application and tell them why, that it reflects poorly on their organization's character to make such a request. Almost every employment contract I have signed has included language that permits termination for cause for openly seeking a different job should the company so choose.

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I would handle this by not applying there, or withdrawing the application. A prospective employer should not be contacting your current employer unless they want to make an offer to you. Why? Because the current employer could let you go for looking for a new position. At-will employment is a thing in the USA.

The prospective employer needs to actually put an offer in writing. It can be conditional, based on the results of a reference check, but there needs to be an offer. You can't just risk losing your job without having another one. That's not at all right.

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