There are many difficult questions on job applications, but possibly few are trickier than the inevitable “May we contact this employer?” While there are plenty of reasons why a candidate may not want their supervisor to be contacted, most professionals don’t want their current employer to know that they are interviewing elsewhere. Those who have been previously laid off— an already difficult topic to address — or had a bad experience at the company may even prefer to avoid contact with particular past employers at all costs.
In the end, the choice is difficult either way: should you put “no” and look like you have something to hide, or answer “yes” and risk a poor reference or an unpleasant surprise for your current employer? It depends on whether the employer in question is from the past or present.
If you prefer that a potential supervisor not contact one of your past employers, answering “no” without some sort of explanation can certainly raise some red flags. The answer may make them suspicious that you’re wary of a poor reference and that you could be hiding something, or in an extreme case, that you may never have worked at that company at all. But what about those unfortunate situations in which past employers may still feel some resentment towards a hard-working employee who left for a new opportunity? Here’s what you shouldn’t do in either case: answering “no” without an explanation; or faking/altering your resume in any way.
If there is room on the application for a brief explanation, such as your past employer having a no-reference policy or that your manager no longer works at the company, be sure to include it. If there isn’t, try to include a short explanation in your cover letter or thank you note to the hiring manager. Whatever you do, never include misleading information on your resume. For instance, leaving a large time period blank to avoid mentioning a certain employer, may lead the hiring manager to question what you did during that time you supposedly weren’t working. Should they investigate this easily verifiable information and find out you’ve lied, it could cost you more than just the job; it can hurt your professional reputation and potentially close future doors.
If you’re worried about conflicts with a past employer causing some problems, a more preferable option would be to provide the basic Human Resources phone number rather than a personal number or the extension of your specific supervisor.
For those who simply prefer to keep their job search quiet from their current employer until they’ve secured a position, the answer is much less complex. Most recruiters and interviewers understand that job searches can be confidential and often won’t contact your current employer until they clear it with you first. So answering “no” to this question isn’t uncommon or unacceptable. In fact, if you do grant them permission, they may still double check with you beforehand as a precaution. An acceptable answer, should this be the case, is “certainly—providing I’m one of the top candidates for the position.”
Remember, defamation is illegal, and in most cases employers will adhere to the questions they are legally allowed to ask. Likewise, many organizations have their own reputation to maintain, and unprofessionally bashing a former employee is a great way to sully it. In most cases, answering “yes” will be the safest bet. But should you be wary of your past performance or of a sour past employer, make sure to tread carefully and use one of the above tips to answer this delicate question.