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Answering: "May We Contact This Employer?"
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Laura Berlinsky-Schine
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“May we contact this employer?”

It’s a question you’re likely to get in an interview or on a job application. Concerned about how to answer or whether it’s ever acceptable to say “no”? Learn the best way to approach it. 

When you’d get asked this question

Employers will usually ask to verify your employment history later in the interview process. They want to ensure that you are presenting yourself accurately and that the information you have provided them is true before offering you employment.

You may be asked “may we contact this employer” early in the hiring process, sometimes even on the initial application, but it’s unlikely that the prospective employer will actually follow through until you’re a serious candidate and being considered for employment.

How-to answers

Current employers

It’s perfectly understandable to be concerned about your current employer finding out that you’re on the job hunt. If you explain that you are engaged in a stealth job search, meaning one you’re keeping private from your current employer, many prospective employers will accept it as valid reasoning. 

It’s also acceptable to provide the contact information for a human resources professional at your company in place of your manager. An HR representative can verify the circumstances and state of your employment without providing any other information, and you won’t have to worry about your boss knowing that you’re looking for a new job

Previous employers

Responding “no” to the question in the case of previous employers is a little more tricky, since it may suggest that you have something to hide. A prospective employer could assume that you didn’t leave on good terms or there was something unsatisfactory about your performance.

You should offer a legitimate reason. Some perfectly acceptable justifications are:

• Your manager no longer works at the company.

• The company is no longer in business.

If the period of time at which you worked at the company was relatively brief, you might just omit it entirely from your work history to avoid this problem. However, long gaps in employment may also appear suspicious to a prospective employer, so it’s best not to use this tactic if you were employed at the company for longer than a few months.

Instead, you might also take the above approach of providing the contact information for an HR representative. Defamation is illegal, and many employers are concerned about lawsuits and will be careful to avoid disclosing anything other than standard information such as the dates of your employment, salary history and other objective facts.

How to answer if you were fired

If you were fired, you may understandably be wary of answering this question for fear of having your previous employer badmouth you. However, it’s important to keep the defamation laws in mind and remember that many prior employers will avoid sharing too much information for fear of risking a violation.

Steps you can take to prevent a poor employment verification check from harming your chances of getting a new job include:

• Putting down an alternative reference.

If you someone in a supervisory capacity at the company who thinks highly of you, ask her if you can include her as a reference instead of your direct manager. Make sure she’s aware that you are listing her before you do so.

• Investigating the company’s policies regarding providing employment history.

Ask a member of the HR department about what kind of information the company will provide regarding your employment history. Some businesses have a policy that they won’t provide any such information at all to avoid defamation. If that’s the case, you’re in the clear. Others might simply provide your dates of employment.

• Providing an HR representative’s contact information.

Once you’ve confirmed that the company won’t provide information about your termination, you can include a basic HR email address or phone number to ensure that the recruiter or hiring manager will only offer factual information about your employment.

• Talking to your previous manager.

If you choose this option, you’ll need to handle it with kid gloves. It won’t work for everyone. You know your manager, and it’s up to you to decide whether approaching her about the situation will be a good or bad decision. If you do, explain the situation and ask her to offer no information beyond your history of employment with the company. You should carefully evaluate how this might play out before you do.

When can you say no?

As discussed above, it’s perfectly acceptable to say “no” to “may we contact this employer?” if you’re engaged in a stealth job search. You can also say “no” and offer a valid explanation, such as that the company no longer exists or your manager no longer works there. (In the latter instance, the company will most likely keep records of your employment, so you should attempt to offer an alternative method of confirming your employment.) If you know your previous employer has a policy of not providing this information, you can say so.

Tips for answering this question

• Contact your employer in advance.

It’s always a good idea to give the employer a head’s up before they are contacted. This will help ensure that they can get your information in order.

• Remember that employment verification isn’t the same as a reference.

You can choose anyone you want to serve as a reference, so don’t assume you have to include any one previous employer. An employment check or verification is simply confirming that you have been truthful about your employment history. 

• Be prepared.

Chances are good that you’re going to get this question, so be prepared with your answer (and the contact information) in advance.

FAQs

• Do they really call previous employers?

You can’t assume a prospective employer won’t call your previous or current employers if you give them permission to do so. Many do thorough checks, while some may only perform one or two. 

• How do you find out what a previous employer is saying about you?

If you’re worried about what an employer will say, the best course of action is to ask. Before you start the interview process, contact all employers and references you intend to list. If you have any concerns, verify what information they’ll provide beforehand.

• Do I have to give my last employer as a reference?

It’s a good idea to give your last employer as a reference because it might make a prospective employer suspicious if you don’t. However, you don’t have to provide her as a reference. If you’re concerned about what she might say, consider asking another manager, preferably one with whom you worked closely, instead.

• Can an employer fire you if you are looking for another job?

Unfortunately, if you’re an at-will employee, an employer can fire you for looking for another job. However, an employer cannot fire you if it violates a contract you have in place.

• How many references do employers check?

The number of references an employer checks varies. Many will ask for more than they check. Typically, they will check 2-3.

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