Reference Checking: Advice for Applicants (Part II)

Should an applicant for a job in another organization tell the supervisor you are looking? Would you want another organization contacting your current supervisor for a reference? Here are some considerations for an employee with this dilemma.

The  Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) Special Report, “Reference Checking in Federal Hiring: Making the Call,” urges agencies to check references as a regular and important part of the selection process, based on consistent social science findings that the best predictor of future performance is past performance under similar circumstances. 

In this article, the focus is an issue that often creates angst for job applicants:  whether or not to allow the prospective employer to contact your current supervisor for a reference.  The selecting official may well believe that your current supervisor would be THE best source of recent information about your performance and/or conduct on the job, since she/he is theoretically in the best position to make those judgments. 

If that’s the case, why wouldn’t you, as the applicant, want your potential supervisor to contact your current one?  One explanation is that many employees apply for vacancies without letting their supervisors know that they are looking for other employment and are reluctant to have that information disclosed.  Applicants may be fearful that the supervisor would consider them to be “disloyal” and would hurt the candidate’s chances of being selected; some fear that the supervisor might go beyond that to make the employee’s work-life more difficult and reduce the chances of being promoted in the current organization. Is that fear reasonable?  In some cases,  it is.  I have known supervisors who would make an employee “pay” for having the audacity to apply elsewhere.

On the other hand, I have known far more supervisors who would go out of their way to help their employee get the job, and would sometimes even try to find a way to promote the employee to keep her/him from leaving.  As a selecting official, I was “victimized” by the latter circumstance:  When I called the applicant’s current supervisor as part of my referencing checking process and told him at the end of our conversation that I was planning to offer his employee the position, he promptly set about finding a way to get the employee promoted to the same grade in his organization. Although the candidate tentatively accepted my offer, he called back within a week to decline, indicating that his current agency had offered him a position at the same grade, in a higher-profile position, at the same location that I was offering, and he was electing to stay with the agency. I was sorry to lose a potentially great employee, but I also fully understood the desire by management in that agency to retain him and the employee’s choice to stay. 

Often, applicants will give “conditional” permission to have their current supervisor contacted for a reference.  Usually, that means either when an employee has been found to be a finalist for the subject position or when the applicant has been advised that she/he is the top candidate. 

While it would be nice to have a “one size fits all” answer to the question as to whether or not to allow the prospective employer to contact your current supervisor for a reference, it is really a case-by-case decision.  Much depends on your working relationship with your supervisor. In the best-case scenario, you would have no hesitancy about going to your supervisor and letting her/him know that you are applying for a position and that she or he may be contacted by the selecting official.  If your relationship with your supervisor is one of trust, I think it would be reasonable, even helpful, to let the supervisor know why you are applying for the position – i.e., what about it is of particular interest to you.

For example, you could be looking for a higher grade, or a different job series/career field, or have a particular interest in another agency and/or location.  In a situation like that, the supervisor is likely to either help you get selected or find alternatives in the current organization that might be acceptable to you.

If your relationship with your current supervisor is not particularly good, and/or you believe that your supervisor would react adversely to finding out that you are trying to go elsewhere, you are faced with a dilemma.  If you tell the selecting official that it is okay to contact your current supervisor, the latter might attempt to subvert your bid for the job.  If, on the other hand, you ask the selecting official not to contact your current supervisor, he/she may feel that there is not enough reliable information available about your performance and conduct to support a decision to select you. 

The MSPB report acknowledges that “A less-than-friendly relationship with a former supervisor can also be problematic. This, too, can be acknowledged and firmly described as an issue of the past.  Employers may still decide not to hire an applicant who makes this kind of disclosure.  However, the applicant’s chances are better than they would be if an attempt to deceive a potential employer is discovered through checking references.”

As in many employment (and life) situations, about the best you can do in determining whether/when you are willing to let a potential selecting official contact your current supervisor is to apply your best judgment. 

This situation provides yet another good reason for making every effort to establish and maintain a good working relationship with your supervisor.  I recognize that it is easier said than done – and I didn’t always do it successfully in my own Federal career – but it is well worth the effort.  Most supervisors are willing to meet an employee half-way, although there is always the potential for a personality clash that is seemingly irresolvable. 

The MSPB report encourages job applicants to:

“…support reference checking and play an active role in making connections between reference checkers and reference providers.”

“…be responsive to requests to provide contact information and information about employment history.” 
“Select reference providers who have observed their work and who are available to communicate their observations clearly and accurately.” (and)

“Be candid about their strengths and weaknesses during the hiring process.”

I have addressed the first three recommendations in the previous article, so I will offer here only comments on the fourth one, about which MSPB goes on to say:

“Nothing in this report will dissuade all dishonest applicants from attempting to deceive prospective employers.  This advice is for applicants who may be tempted to exaggerate elements of their work history, or conceal an unflattering episode in their workplace behavior.  Of course, a deceptive strategy might be successful despite employers’ measures to expose it.  On the other hand, being caught in a deception may cost the applicant a job that might otherwise be offered.  Even worse, the applicant may be hired for a job where failure is likely because he or she lacks the necessary competencies for success.”

Applicants with weaknesses  they might prefer to keep to themselves should “Consider the alternative – applicants can be candid with potential employers about an unflattering issue. If it is a skill deficiency, then it is best to acknowledge it and outline a plan for developing it into a strength. If it is an incident of inappropriate behavior, applicants can stress steps taken to change behavior and learn new interpersonal skills.”  This is sound advice, and could prevent a less favorable situation – a weakness identified for the first time by one of the candidate’s references. 

The “bottom line” for job applicants is to recognize that a potential employer is very likely to check at least some of their references, and to prepare for that eventuality by picking good references, with their advance consent; by providing current and accurate contact information; and by helping make any necessary connections between the selecting official and a reference.       

About the Author

Steve Oppermann completed his Federal career on March 31, 1997, after more than 26 years of service, virtually all in human resources management. He served as Regional Director of Personnel for GSA and advised and represented management in six agencies during his federal career. Steve passed away after a battle with cancer on December 22, 2013.