If you’re currently employed and also currently hunting for a new job, you probably don’t want those two things to mix. It isn’t generally great for your current employer to know that you’re trying to find a new place to work. It’s not water cooler talk, and it’s certainly not something you want to discuss with your boss or supervisor.
Searching for a new job while you have a current one makes the whole job search process a bit more comfortable, unless your current job catches wind of your updated resume and attempts to jump ship. After all, you might not find a better job, and you may end up spending another blissful decade at your current company! So, how do you respond when an interviewer asks “may we contact your current employer?”
The Worst Case Scenario
On the one hand, you don’t want to seem shady or like you have something to hide. You also don’t want to seem difficult or use the word “no” at all. However, you also want to avoid the awkward situation where they contact your current employer and find out that you haven’t told anyone about your job search. They may talk to your boss on a bad day, who may be so shocked that you’re trying to leave that they end up not giving you a good recommendation.
If the company that you’re trying to work with hires someone else instead, your current employer might not love that you were poking around for new job opportunities. They might decide to give you the freedom to pursue new opportunities. Now, you’re either stuck in a terrible and awkward work environment, or worse, they decide to fire you before you have a chance to quit. Sometimes, employers respond really well to an employee searching for another job, but many times, the first move of an employer is to create a contingency plan for you leaving. Once your company knows you have one foot out the door, they may open it for you before you were ready to leave.
Do I Tell My Boss I’m Leaving?
For those of you still on the fence, the answer is “no”. Unless your boss is already aware you are leaving and you are on outstanding terms with them, don’t risk it. Unless you have a great relationship with your boss and you can trust them to help you with the job search while also protecting your current position and standing with the company–which is rare–then you shouldn’t bring it up.
The Worst Ways to Answer the “May We Contact Your Current Employer” Question
Companies with experienced hiring departments understand the negative ramifications of preemptively letting the cat out of the bad and do understand your hesitancy to do so. Like most things, the answer matters less than the delivery. There is a diplomatic way to circumnavigate the question, and a rude way. Remember that rude behavior gains negative momentum and tends to fester over time, so a single moment can crush an interview process. Here are a few examples of the wrong way to do it:
“No. You don’t need to contact them. You should have everything you need.”
“No. I don’t feel it’s appropriate for you to contact them.”
“No. I feel that’s a violation of my privacy.”
Potential employers want to contact past employers so that they have an understanding of your personality and work style. All of these answers communicate that you’re difficult to work with and might have something to hide. They aren’t good ways to answer the question. You haven’t given a reason for the “no” in any of these, beyond your own personal difficulty to work with. Avoid answering the “may we contact your current employer” in any of these ways.
The Best Ways to Answer the “May We Contact Your Current Employer” Question
In an interview, confidence is critical. You can communicate confidence even when deflecting the question.
Now that’s we addressed the wrong way to do it, let’s look at some effective ways of saying “no” while sounding like you’re saying “yes.” Stories can help explain things, and are powerful interview tools. If you tell a story about the no, you’ve explained the no. It’s called re-direction and it looks like this:
- “You know, I haven’t yet spoken to my employer regarding my job search. I hope you understand I’d feel more comfortable if we held off a bit before doing so. In the meantime, I’d be happy to provide you with references and letters of recommendation to help you get to know my work style and personality a little better.”
- “I have a great working relationship with my current employer! However as they don’t know I’m currently looking, perhaps you could speak with one of my previous employers instead?” (saying no the direct request but offering a yes to an unspoken request is a powerful negotiating strategy).
- “I’d be happy to have you contact my current employer a little further down the process. I have a wonderful relationship with my current employer and I’d hate for them to get the news of my leaving before I’ve had a chance to personally give them a letter of resignation.”
There are ways of saying no without making someone mad. All of these methods employ some common elements which make the “no” work to your advantage. Instead of alienating you from the hiring department, it makes you more human and relatable. And this humanness and relatability can actually make you more likable in a job interview. When considered this way, saying “no” to “may we contact your employer” can actually help your odds of landing the new job!
All of these responses communicate that it’s not a “never”, it’s a “not now”. This is huge, because a “never” does look a little shady and untrustworthy. Almost everyone understands the need for discretion, but not secrecy. Secrecy indicates dishonesty. Are you lying about your salary? Are you about to get fired anyway? Do you have performance issues?
In none of these responses is the word “no” present. Although you’ve told them they may not contact your employer, you’ve never actually used the word “no”. This is important from a psychological standpoint. Think of someone who has recently asked something of you. If they told you “no” the last time you asked them for something, would that subconsciously affect your decision to grant them their request?
All of these responses provide context to the “no”. Although we may think it’s common sense for a hiring department to understand exactly why we’d be hesitant to allow them to contact your current employer, not everyone understands this. Most do, but there are newer companies, or even just newer managers who lack the experience. By giving context to the “no”, you are vastly improving communication and eliminating any questions as to why you would not want them to contact your employer. With context, they don’t have to wonder why, they know exactly why because you’ve explained it to them.
So, the “may we contact your current employer” question doesn’t have to be a nerve racking moment in the conversation. Being well prepared for it makes it easier to respond to. Remember that hiring departments understand the nuances and sensitivities of job hunting. If you need help with the hiring process, especially if you’re in a current job you don’t love and need a team to back you up and recommend you to employers, try connecting with a staffing agency.