An employer is contacting references, beyond reference list

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Q: I was a finalist for a Director-level role for a large international non-profit organization in New England.  I provided several professional references.  The Executive Director of the non-profit called someone NOT on my list of professional references.  Instead, he contacted someone he found on LinkedIn, a former coworker from a former company.  I find this really unprofessional and underhanded. I no longer want to pursue the role at this company.  I did not want this person called because my search is confidential.  I am sure that they will provide a positive reference but I am concerned that they will not keep my search confidential.  I could see them telling everyone in the immediate work area that I am looking for a new position.  Does this typically happen with references?  Someone going beyond the list of references a candidate provides?

A: Employers are trying to minimize risk.  Frankly, a new hire who is not a good match for the role or the culture is a headache, which most organizations would like to avoid.  Hiring managers try to gain as much knowledge about the candidate as possible.  Sometimes it is through their professional network, not necessarily just the professional references you provide.  Checking references beyond what you provide is more common than you think.  If your search is confidential, you probably should have reinforced that detail.  Offering a comment like “My search is confidential at this point.  Please do not contact references or former employers without my consent.  If my search becomes public, my current role could be jeopardized.”

It is a tricky balance.  Employers are trying to learn more about you – your skills, experience, strengths, weaknesses, what type of environment you best work in and what type of management style works for you.  Further, professional references can be hard to come by.  Many employers have been counseled to only provide a former employee’s title and dates of employment.  Prospective employers want more.  In trying to find out more, sometimes they will scour LinkedIn for additional connections, who might be able to share more about you.

I would suggest the following: when you share your professional references, add a note at the bottom.  Explain that your search is confidential and contacting references outside of this list may jeopardize your current employment.  Also, it is smart to share this request verbally during the initial stages of the selection process.  Sometimes a recruiter or hiring manager will jump on LinkedIn quickly before you even are interviewed.  It may still happen though.  With today’s professional networks, it is a challenge to prevent hiring professionals from using them.

It sounds like you were annoyed after the Executive Director called your former coworker.  Take a day or two to cool down.  If you still feel irritated at the Executive Director, I would professionally explain that you intend to explore other opportunities.  However, remember it is not all that unusual in today’s world of LinkedIn and social media.

Pattie Hunt Sinacole is a human resources expert and works for First Beacon Group in Hopkinton, an HR consulting firm. She contributes weekly to Jobs and the Boston Sunday Globe Money & Careers section.

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