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So I was doing some interviews with my boss for a Software Engineering position, and my boss asked the candidate "If we select you as the candidate we wish to move forward with, are you able to provide a reference from your current manager?".

The other programmer in the room and I thought this was a very strange request, neither of us had ever been asked that in an interview, and we both said we'd be unwilling to do that in an interview. My boss on the other hand, said they had always been asked for that, and would never hire a candidate without a reference from their current manager. However, my boss has never interviewed as a software developer.

My question: Is that a normal requirement in interviews? Is it normal for software developers? Or is it only a standard question for management positions?

Note: My boss did reconsider as the other programmer and I strongly recommended against asking any other candidates this question. I'm just curious if this was normal or not.

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    "If we select you as the candidate we wish to move forward with" would imply after an offer has been made and accepted wouldn't it? Or did he mean before that? – Martin Smith Jan 29 '17 at 8:36
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    Sometimes a company makes a (conditional) offer but subject to reference checks, i.e., "We have decided that we want to hire you: will you accept? If you accept then it's decided, except if something bad comes up when we check your references." That formal background check (probably by HR, or outsourced) is more likely to be a police/criminal reference check, plus verifying academic credentials, and verifying employment history (i.e. ensuring that the résumé is truthful). And they don't check reference until after after a (conditional) employment offer has been extended and accepted. – ChrisW Jan 29 '17 at 12:07
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    Did you boss come from a big organization with more internal transfers rather than external hires? That is the only situation where this might make sense. For example, I imagine the military works like this. – emory Jan 29 '17 at 12:43
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    @emory - It's not a good idea even for the military. Many if not most higher officers won't want to lose their most effective subordinates while they might seek to unload the less competent ones by giving them say, a glowing recommendation. My little brother worked once for a Federal defense lab - he was literally his superior's promotion ticket and his superior rebuffed any attempt of his at transfer. My little brother eventually left government service and went on to bigger things. But not before his superior got the promotion he was angling for :) – Vietnhi Phuvan Jan 29 '17 at 20:44
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    "No, my job search is not public knowledge at my current workplace, I'm sure you can appreciate my need for discretion." – DLS3141 Jan 30 '17 at 14:34

11 Answers 11

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From my experience, I have never been asked to provide a reference from my current manager while still working for them. If a prospective employer asked me to do so, I'd decline working for that employer - I am not suicidal.

The other aspect is that on occasion, my current manager IS the reason I am looking for another job. In this case, I'll provide references from anyone at the firm but this manager.

I am leery of prospective employers who come up with insane requirements such as me having to provide reference from my current employer's management. This destroys the confidentiality of my job search, by the way. I don't care to be exposed to retaliation by my current employer if I can help it.

So far as I am concerned, there are plenty of reasonable prospective employers around. I don't have to deal with prospective employers such as yours.

  • Well we did change my boss' mind, so that's good, but I posted this because I was curious if this was the norm or not. – Brandon Wamboldt Jan 29 '17 at 3:05
  • I'll give you one example: if you work for a major Wall Street firm and you get caught either looking for another job with a competitor or going through the motions of looking for another job with a competitor, you are fired regardless of rank. Which is why most job searches on Wall Street are done through recruiters. – Vietnhi Phuvan Jan 29 '17 at 3:12
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    There are "outplacement" situations where someone was released due to business changes rather than any real issues, and in those cases a recommendation from the immediate past manager may be available. In general, though, I agree that this seems an odd request. – keshlam Jan 29 '17 at 3:23
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    My previous supervisor gave me a great reference weeks prior to my resignation, and knew about my plans for basically years. – jmoreno Jan 31 '17 at 10:40
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    The question sounds like a probe to see if you're leaving your present job on good terms or bad terms. – Malachi Jan 31 '17 at 22:52
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No this is not normal at all. Simple logic dictates that this is an unreasonable request because most working people who are job hunting do not want their current employer to even know they are job hunting, let alone contact their prospective employers in any way.

Chalk this up to experience, you now know something about your boss. He doesn't think things through properly and he'll cover up his mistakes with something he just made up on the spot.

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    You are correct. Extending the logic further, if the current manager is struggling to unload the candidate (b/c the candidate is incompetent) s/he can give glowing reviews. If the current manager heavily depends on the candidate (b/c the candidate is competent), s/he can sabotage the new job by badmouthing the candidate. – emory Jan 29 '17 at 12:41
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    @emory you are right about the first part, but the second part would be slander (since it's clearly not true) and they'd be open to lawsuit. In fact a lot of times it's dangerous to say something bad about a candidate unless you can be prepared to prove it in court – user63798 Jan 31 '17 at 18:59
  • @user63798 This depends on the country/jurisdiction. In Denmark, where I live, the manager could say pretty much anything and get away with it. – Jørgen Fogh Feb 2 '17 at 2:01
  • @JørgenFogh same for me, I've never heard of anywhere where a manager is not allowed to tell the plain truth about an employee in terms of a reference and I've worked in a few countries. No point getting a reference if it's not allowed to say anything bad, all references would be worthless. – Kilisi Feb 2 '17 at 2:36
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    It might be argued that they are worthless anyway. ;-) – Jørgen Fogh Feb 2 '17 at 3:55
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Is that a normal requirement in interviews? Is it normal for software developers? Or is it only a standard question for management positions?

I've never asked such a question and I've never been asked such a question in almost 40 years of working and managing. So in my experience it's not at all normal.

Perhaps this is just a ham-handed way of asking the far more common question "What would your current manager say about you?"

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In my opinion, one time it might be reasonable is if you're a contractor (not an employee), or an intra-company transfer. For example I used to do contract work for IBM, a series of contracts, and I presume that each manager gave a good report of me to the next one.

It may be reasonable to let the candidate choose who to give as a reference: for example I might have better relationship with my peers than with my managers, or with my team leader rather than my manager or vice versa.

Also some (or many) companies won't give references at all (they'll confirm you worked for them and no more than that). In such a company your manager might not be allowed to give an official reference; but one of your peers might be willing to give a personal/unofficial reference.

In summary I don't think it's a standard question, and you may lose a good candidate if you insist on it.

(A lot of my work experience was in Toronto, by the way).

  • 1
    A very good point about companies who refuse to give a reference for anyone at all (+1). They do this for legal reasons, so that they cannot be sued by a subsequent employer if someone with a good reference does not work out. I wonder how the OP's manager would deal with that. – Mawg Jan 30 '17 at 12:58
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The question I have seen is "may we contact this employer" (with or without mentioning the start date). I would say that is a fairly common question. I would also say that it is fairly common for the answer to be no for the current employer. Not always, but quite frequently.

So, asking the question doesn't seem at all strange. What does seem strange is the flat refusal to hire someone if they said no. Normally the applicant is CONSIDERING leaving their current position, and there are any number of reasons why they wouldn't want the current employer to know about that until it becomes final. Ranging from potentially missing out on raises or promotions to flat out dismissal. All for a decision they haven't yet made. That's not a risk everyone is going to be prepared to take.

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    +1 In my limited experience, this is the "right" answer. It's normal for a prospective employer to ask if they can contact all employers you list on your resume, and it's normal for you to say "no" to them contacting your current employer. – Dan C Jan 30 '17 at 18:22
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In the UK, not only have I always been asked for a reference from my current employer, it is often specified on the job brief or application form - '2 references needed, one of which must be your current employer'.

However, contacting your currently employer is almost always on condition that you have been offered the role and have accepted.

I've even been asked for current employer reference details at the application stage; though, I've responded in such cases that references will be provided on acceptance of an offer. Offers in turn, will be conditional upon the provision of suitable references.

As others have noted, this 'reference' is often worthless - 'Fred worked here as an XXXXXXX, for then until now.'

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    If you've offered the job and they've accepted, what's the point of the reference? – Jim Clay Jan 31 '17 at 17:31
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    @JimClay as he said "Offers in turn, will be conditional upon the provision of suitable references.". So it's an offer and it's accepted but they call the current employer to verify that you didn't lie – user63798 Jan 31 '17 at 19:03
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    @JimClay Confirm that you are not a complete mess in your current job and you are about to get fired, and that's the reason you are looking for a new one. It's just a final check. – Ander Biguri Feb 1 '17 at 8:56
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This can vary by country and it's actually common in the UK

Generally the way it works is that the employer will ask a reference once they have the final decision to accept you in, and it is more of a "final check". Unless the letter says something terrible (such as you steal, or something on this level) they will hire the person.

Also interestingly, in the UK reference letters are often "Yes, this person works/worked here, and we have no incident with them" and are often made by HR, not your current boss. If an employer is expecting this level of reference letter, then its not unreasonable to ask it to the current employer.

  • I'll grant that it can happen like this, where you have an offer "conditional on a final reference check" with your current manager, but I strongly disagree that it's common. In places where actual contracts are the norm the employee does have some protection in this scenario but it's still a very strange and really inappropriate request to make. – Lilienthal Jan 31 '17 at 9:18
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    @Lilienthal I think in the UK, seeing that most of my friends got this, from a simple admin job to a engineering PhD level job, id say that it is at leas somewhat common. Again, a lot of the references are no more than "this person worked here", thus it is more reaasonable – Ander Biguri Jan 31 '17 at 10:56
  • @Lilienthal - As per my own answer below, I'm with Ander on this. Over 30 years of job applications from shelf-stacking in a supermarket to technical and management positions, this has ALWAYS been the case. As far as I can recall, I'm talking about 100% of the time. – CJM Jan 31 '17 at 11:03
  • Is this UK-specific then? I've certainly never heard of it in mainland Europe and by all accounts it's just as rare (and frowned upon) in the US. – Lilienthal Jan 31 '17 at 11:33
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    In the UK it's not common, it's the absolute norm. Almost all jobs offers are dependent on references. However, there's normally no requirement that the reference is from any specific individual, or even the immediately preceding job. Many companies for legal reasons now just give "factual" references from HR. IE: "Candidate X was employed for position Y from dd/mm/yyyy to DD/MM/YYYY (or present if still employed) The reference request normal arrives after notice is given (With 1 month notice being pretty much the minimum, and 6 months not unheard of for senior positions) – CMaster Feb 1 '17 at 13:10
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My background is as a developer, then sysadmin and network admin, and more recently information security. I have always been asked this in every role I have applied for over the last 20-odd years. These roles have been with Ernst & Young, PwC and senior roles in various banks.

In fact for the most recent roles, the requirement is much more onerous than a simple reference: they also include leadership camps, psychometric testing and intelligence testing, as well as role play.

I have a feeling that is because I work within security and risk functions in heavily regulated industries, where vetting of the individual is key (including credit, criminal and residency checks) but as part of the checks I do when hiring, references are part of the package - and I always ask for them.

(Their value is variable, however, as in more recent years they have tended towards a summary, "yes, person X worked here from date to date, and their job title was y.")

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    The question asks, "Is it normal for software developers? Or is it only a standard question for management positions?" Were you working as a software developer? – ChrisW Jan 31 '17 at 10:20
  • In my current place of work, I would have to ask for a reference for software developers, in addition to strong background checks, yes. – Rory Alsop Jan 31 '17 at 12:00
  • So, you do recognize that your position is "high security" instead of "normal" and "not a software developer" instead of one - yet you're still surprised that different situations have different outcomes? : ) – Agent_L Feb 1 '17 at 10:05
  • Maybe my wording was unclear - I was surprised at the number of answers that said they had never seen this, and at the time, no answers saying they had seen it. I'll clarify in the post. And while some could be considered high security, some were just regulated industries. – Rory Alsop Feb 1 '17 at 10:07
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In some context, it could be a reasonable question. If during the interview you were asked why you want to leave your position, and you say "I'm on a fixed contract ending next month", or "my company will close my department end of next month", then it's quite likely that your old company knows or strongly assumes that you are job hunting and they are fine with it. And that you might get a reference before even leaving that job.

Otherwise, it would be strange to ask, and very strange to expect "yes" as an answer.

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The answer is - it depends.

At my last company applying for a different job within the same company part of the process was a notification to my current manager.

Now as to outside searches. The company would give a reference as to when/where someone worked there. This was through HR. My boss (who is still a friend) could not give a reference due to company policy. What I did was to give copies of my latest performance reviews. The company policy is they didn't want to be sued if something a manager said was taken the wrong way by another firm.

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This obviously raises a red flag to the candidate. First because it's weird and weird requests are red flags by themselves, second - as others said - that it breaks their confidentiality.

But I wanted to address this from your - the interviewer's - perspective. Whatever the former manager says is much less relevant than your rigorous assessment of candidate's skills. That is for the following reasons:

  • Positive/negative relationship between manager/boss and candidate makes the answer biased
  • You don't know how hard/easy was their former job. Even unbiased answer would still be relative towards the job difficulty.

So the answer would be absolutely useless even if you got it.

protected by Jane S Jan 31 '17 at 22:01

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