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I applied for a job and to cut a long story short the prospective employer phoned my ex workplace and discussed my reference with an office lady, (not even my reference) and then informed the office lady that I didn't get the job, well before informing me. Who knows what she said to them as we didn't get on. I would not for all the world have wanted this woman to know anything at all about my job application, as she is nothing but a gossip.

Are they allowed to do this or should prospective employers keep my reference confidential between themselves and the reference and can they disclose my job rejection to other people before even myself?

closed as off-topic by Jim G., gnat, The Wandering Dev Manager, HorusKol, IDrinkandIKnowThings Jan 28 '16 at 17:10

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    I...uh..what? What on earth was that person thinking? I've heard of crappy HR staffings contacting people they know or calling for a reference without approval but I've never heard of something this bizarre. I assume this is in the US? – Lilienthal Jan 22 '16 at 15:04
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    I think the only thing you can really do is chalk this up to a bad HR department and be grateful that you found out before accepting a job there. Even if this isn't a breach of confidentiality it's still well out of line. I'd just continue with your job hunt and make sure that when discussing references that the people you've listed really are the best people to contact. – Kialandei Jan 22 '16 at 15:13
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    What's an office lady? Does she have a job? – user42272 Jan 22 '16 at 15:28
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    Let this be a lesson to you that it pays to get along with everyone including the administrative assistants (who BTW often intensely dislike people who dismiss them as the office lady) and other people not in your field of specialty. You never know when someone might get contacted later. Sometimes there are people at old companies that the hiring official knows and he will talk to them informally about you before even setting up an interview. – HLGEM Jan 22 '16 at 15:53
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    IMHO - The office assistant/receptionist is one of the few people that you must always get on with. They are very useful to be always be in good terms with – Ed Heal Jan 22 '16 at 19:09
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The short answer - it's cheesy, but I'm not sure there's anything you can do besides get commiseration here.

I've never seen a case were the candidate or the prospective employer sign a confidentiality agreement that protects the candidates. And while it's a reasonable expectation, I can't see a case, unless they commit slander, where you have a legal right to get compensation for being harmed.

The most you can do here is avoid that particular business and tell others who trust you not to interview there.

The one thing I'll say is - I don't necessarily expect, when I interview, that the people I identify as references will be the ONLY people that are contacted when an employer is researching me. I've put my job history on my resume, and I expect that if the interviewers recognize the company and have personal connections to other people my company, that they may use their own personal connections to check my reputation. I will be clear when I interview if I'm being extremely discreet and clarify that I hope that the interviewing company will respect that - but there are no absolutes here.

I say this coming from a career history, where a certain part of my subject matter expertise is in a technology with a fairly tight community in my area. So... I do expect that if I'm talking to a fellow engineer/manager with similar expertise, that we will both have a certain number of shared connections.

Mileage varies significantly on this.

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This is very unprofessional in that the Office Lady was informed that you wouldn't get the job. But's it's not all that unusual in many places to contact people who are not the actual reference especially if they are known to the person contacting. HR might have rang and your reference was unavailable at that time, and talked to the lady answering the phone.

There's nothing illegal in what was done that I can think of. I use any personal acquaintances I have when asking about a potential hire precisely because I may get a more balanced idea of the hire than I would from the person listed as a reference. I would normally contact the reference as well though.

  • Agree completely. I too will always use my network to check up on a potential hire, not just the carefully groomed references they provided. But indeed it is absolutely unacceptable to divulge to a third party the results of your job application. imho the OP dodged a bullet not being hired by this company, it speaks to a very poor HR culture. – Carson63000 Jan 22 '16 at 22:09
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Contact a non-reference is definitely bad form.

Tell the non-reference you did not get the job is definitely inappropriate. They should not even share that even AFTER you have been informed.

Contact a non-reference is bad form. Even if you are going to do it why the office lady?

Even if you gave them the general number they should have asked to be connected with your listed reference.

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    "If you are pretty sure this gossip is going to get to your boss you may want to do some damage control" - I think OP said it was an ex-employer, so this is presumably not an issue. – Brandin Jan 22 '16 at 15:23
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    There is nothing at all unusual about contacting people you didn't specify as your reference. Administrative people often are talked to because they have a different view of the person than a manger would have and if the person they asked for wasn't there, they might have asked if she knew the person just to get that reference check done. The telling her the result is the unprofessional part. – HLGEM Jan 22 '16 at 16:02
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Two things:

  1. This is good business practice.

  2. Go far out of your way to get along with the "office lady" (better, the administrative assistant).


Regarding the first item, the person doing the background checks on you who does not contact the "office ladies" (better said: administrative assistants) regarding your work ethic, the nature of your unscrupulous behaviors, et cetera, is not doing her or his job. A good office lady administrative assistant knows all of that stuff, and more.

One of the many roles of an administrative assistant is to keep all of the wheels rolling. Keeping all of those wheels rolling requires a certain amount of quid pro quo. The person who told that "office lady" that you weren't getting the job was satisfying that quid pro quo. The "office lady" (or "office man") needs those external contacts to keep the wheels rolling. There is no breach of confidentiality here.


Regarding the second item, let this be a lesson to you. Unless your immediate boss is extremely high up the corporate food chain, getting along with the "office lady" (better: administrative assistant) is perhaps even more important than is getting along with your boss.


Side notes:

  • In the past, when I did interview prospective employees, one of the things I did was to contact that candidate's former "office ladies" to see if that candidate was a good match.

  • Consider the extreme cases of those looking for employment that requires a high level security clearance, or those looking for employment well up the food chain of a corporation. The person doing the checks on such a candidate has not done her or his job if they have not contacted the administrative assistants associated with that candidate's previous jobs. They know all the devious nonsense.

  • There's a certain amount of quid pro quo involved with making those contacts with those "office ladies". That might well include telling the "office lady" that candidate X is not going to get the job.

  • If you are high up the food chain in some organization, ensuring that you have an extremely good administrative assistant is paramount.

  • Just wow. Anything the "Office Lady" says gives you grounds to sue the company for libel. When your company is asked for a reference, all that reference will contain is the day you started and the day you left the company, because anything beyond that can lead to the company being sued for libel. – gnasher729 Jan 24 '16 at 22:31
  • @gnasher729 -- If it's a phone call or personal conversation, good luck proving that that phone call or personal conversion even existed, let alone proving what was said. As an extreme case, consider someone who is applying for a highly classified position (e.g., top secret/compartmentalized in the USA). Due diligence mandates that the government in charge must perform a complete background check,taking 6 months to a year or more, to ensure that the candidate is not a security risk. Edward Snowden is an extreme example of where those checks failed. (continued) – David Hammen Jan 24 '16 at 23:43
  • When interviewing references or a candidate for a high level clearance, a background investigator must ask those references "Who do you know who knows John (or Jane) Doe?" The references that John Doe provided are not the references one wants. The references one wants are the people who know the people who know John Doe. – David Hammen Jan 24 '16 at 23:48
  • This also applies to industry. On occasion, someone very high up the management food chain turns out to be an extremely unscrupulous individual. Spending tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars on private investigators before the fact is a tiny cost compared to spending the millions or even billions of dollars of lawsuit losses after the fact that can result when a corporation hires a crook as the CEO. – David Hammen Jan 24 '16 at 23:52

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