Can People Really Ask My Potential Boss for a Job When Giving a Reference?

Can People Really Ask My Potential Boss for a Job When Giving a Reference?

by Kerry Scott on 27 May 2009

283364346_983567df71Photo by Rick

A reader writes:

I just got a new job, and the company asked for and checked my references.  This is weird in my business since it’s a small community in a niche market and everyone knows everyone. So you just casually ask your friends what they know of a person.  But in so doing, they also told me that a couple of my references pitched THEMSELVES in some way to the person who was calling for info on me.  Not for my job, per se, but for jobs relating to my presence in the new gig. I had asked all of my references to speak on my behalf beforehand (if called upon) so I was shocked by that.

I had heard that it’s possibly illegal in some cases for a past employer to comment on anything outside of yes/no answers on factual information like “did they work there from x to y dates”. May not be true outside of being sued civilly for saying something that equated to a person not getting a job.

On the first part:  Although it can feel a little weird if you don’t see it coming, this is actually pretty common, especially in a tough job market.  Getting a job involves networking, and giving a reference is am act of networking.  I’ve had lots of people try and work the conversation to their own advantage when giving references, especially for higher-level positions.  If they’re trying to get YOUR job, well…not cool.  Not cool at all.  For other jobs though…well, why not?  As long as they’re doing no harm to you, I wouldn’t sweat it too much.  I do think it would have been nice if they’d told you they were interested in working for the same company, but some people are tacky that way.

I find it interesting that they actually checked the references you gave them, especially since you’re in an industry where asking around would likely be far more productive.  That might tell you something about their culture.  I’m also amused that they told you this happened.  That sounds a little like a guy who comes home from the bar and tells his girlfriend, “Yeah, chicks were all over me the entire night” in a misguided attempt to rattle her cage.  I don’t know what the tone of the conversation was, but it’s an interesting choice.

On the second part:  It’s not illegal for a past employer to give a bad references.  It’s true that someone can sue you for giving a bad reference, but pretty much anyone can sue you for pretty much anything.  As long as what you are saying is true and well-documented, like “We terminated him because he was tardy 67 times in one year,” you are okay*.  Truth is an absolute defense.  That said, it’s very expensive to defend yourself, so most companies only verify dates of employment, title, and salary.  That’s also why they tell supervisors not to give references; people sometimes sue the individual who gave the reference as well as the company.  It’s just not worth it to most people.

* DISCLAIMER:  I am not a lawyer.  I’m an ex-HR person.  That’s not even close to being the same thing, because lawyers make more money and don’t go around telling you not to wear flip-flops to work.  Also, only idiots take legal advice from some blog they found on the internet.  If you get sued, “The internet told me it was okay” is not a good defense.  So before you go around talking smack about someone you used to work with, talk to a real lawyer, okay?

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Ask a Manager May 27, 2009 at 6:03 pm

I have never, ever found it impossible to get a detailed reference on someone, and job seekers should be aware that this myth about how companies won’t provide references for fear of being sued is just not true. People give references. They say all kinds of things. Doesn’t matter what the company’s policy is. I’m not going to call HR for a reference anyway; I’m going to insist on talking to the manager, and I’ve never had a manager refuse to give a detailed reference.

If job seekers are relying on some mistaken belief that the company policy will prevent any details from being given out, it’s really to their detriment!

Ask a Manager’s last blog post..boss won’t socialize with staff


Kerry Sandberg Scott May 27, 2009 at 6:09 pm

That’s a good point—even if you know that the company policy is not to give references, you can’t count on that. People know people, and if you’ve been a weenie, word is going to get around.

In fact, people often think “the company” gave them a bad reference, when really, it’s a coworker, a manager in another department, a client…all sorts of people will talk smack about you.

Not being a weenie is a good strategy on pretty much every level.


Charles May 28, 2009 at 9:32 am

I know this comment is off topic; But I have to say that I really like the pictures that you find to go with each post. This one for Serena’s Beauty Shop is so funny that I would actually go there if I was in the market for a beauty shop.


Kerry Sandberg Scott May 28, 2009 at 10:16 am

Thanks. I actually have a lot of fun searching Flickr for photos. There are a lot of really talented photographers out there.


Apolinaras "Apollo" Sinkevicius | May 28, 2009 at 11:10 am

From the point of view of someone who leads business operations (and HR is part of my team), I have always advised everyone to practice simple rule: give good reference, if you can’t – refuse to give one at all. Sorry HR folks, but you will have to learn how to ask the right questions to figure fit of the candidate yourselves. HR already uses tons of methods many are starting to consider unfair, I and people in my teams want no part of that. Recruiters (in-house and 3-rd party) I work(ed) with are good in human psychology and rarely need references for anything but formality.
I have plenty of lawyer friends and according to them you CAN and WILL get sued for bad reference (if someone is pissed off enough about it). You can have all the releases in the world signed by a candidate, one who gives a reference still can be sued for slander. And in this economy lawsuits of that kind are on the rise.

That all said, I love references I receive, many times they do better job selling me than I do myself. But that is a result of being dedicated like dog to everything I do.

Apolinaras “Apollo” Sinkevicius |’s last blog post..Move your company forward by being wrong… often!


kentropic May 28, 2009 at 2:41 pm

Speaking as (yet another) ex-lawyer, that disclaimer is *by far* the best one I’ve ever seen. Brilliant!


Kerry Sandberg Scott May 28, 2009 at 2:44 pm

Why thank you. Disclaimer writing is one of my hobbies. I think it comes from growing up in California, where suing people is a hobby for a fair number of people.


Dawn Kubiak May 29, 2009 at 10:18 am

Kerry – witty as ever! It is a shame that employers and their representatives do not feel that they can give honest, constructive feedback on candidates to potential employers without fear of being sued in this day. I think it makes it difficult for good employees who may not be well-networked to be hired and easy for poor performers to continue to skate along.

On the other hand, I’ve run into enough poor managers who don’t manage their employees well and their employees’ performance is much more a reflection on them than it is the person. I wouldn’t want to rely on that managers’ feedback on a candidate to base a hiring decision. And of course there are still vindictive bosses in this world who are angry when someone dares leave their company so for me references are typically the confirmation of what we are seeing and hearing during the interview process.

Recruiting really is dating between a candidate and a company and hopefully in the end it is a strong partnership between the two parties.


Ronnie Ann May 29, 2009 at 11:26 am

Gotta say I never even thought of pitching myself when giving a reference. (Although I’ve certainly made notes for future use.)

As for what references can and will tell…there are definitely ways to get at the juicy info you need. My own experience is like that of Ask a Manager. It’s a fun challenge to find the right people to talk to and ask the right questions – even with reluctant references. In one instance where my gut told me there was more to the story, after a couple of references gave me almost no information (that in itself is a big clue), I told one reluctant reference I understood the situation he’s in but we had a very tight budget and this hire was critical to the team and if there is anything we need to be aware of that MIGHT be a serious problem, please just say something very noncommittal like “Could be.” And he did. Twice. With emphasis. Of course sketchy references should have been enough of a clue, but my employer had been looking for a long time for a candidate with his unique skills and they were desperate and almost ready to take a chance anyway. Later this candidate threatened us for turning him down. Phew! While I’m a big supporter of privacy, and understand references with their own agenda can sometimes give false damaging information, the fact that it’s hard to get at such important info is a bit unsettling.

Thanks again for another interesting read!

Ronnie Ann

Ronnie Ann’s last blog post..They Re-Posted the Job. Should I Kiss It Good-Bye?


agammy May 29, 2009 at 2:29 pm

If it wasn’t such a tough job market, I would think twice from working at that company. If this is how they handle hiring new employees . . . .

agammy’s last blog post..Bringing More to a Client Session


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