Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Ask CJ: do I get to ask about funny gaps in references?

From the inbox, a good question [redactions for privacy]:
If a person interviewing for a research assistant type of position has [5 to 15 years] of experience with a single employer as a technician, and followed that stint with attainment of a masters degree, is it fair to ask why none of their references are from their prior employer?   
I don't have tons of experience hiring folks, and to me it would make sense to not ask an old supervisor or colleague to be a reference after just a one to three year stint at some company, but for [5 to 15 years] with one employer, it's hard for me to see why one [of a number of] references wouldn't be with that organization.  Is it fair game to ask an interviewing candidate how they spent [a long time] with one employer but did not wind up using them as a reference?
This is an interesting question, and one that I'm not quite sure what the answer is. Seems to me that it would be perfectly reasonable for an employer to ask. That said, I would be prepared for some tap-dancing - if a person's old employer won't vouch for them, there might be something there. 

Then again, this is an interesting edge case, and I'm probably not imagining the right set of circumstances where it would be perfectly innocent to leave names off reference lists. Readers, what do you think? 


  1. There are some employers that don't allow current employees to give references beyond saying "This person worked for me from x years to x years" (some Big Pharma that I've worked for have this policy). While some current employees might be willing to give a reference anyway, many might not (especially in a climate of impending layoffs).

  2. One development from having the HR drones running the shop is that many places don't allow anybody in the company other than HR provide a reference letter. I know that's the case at my current employer. Don't know if that's what's going on here, but maybe the candidate thought having more personal references from the master's institution was more helpful than an HR form letter. I've thought about what I would do if I was looking for a job, because I don't think my HR people could provide anything of value to a hiring chemist other than "soft skills".

  3. At my old company, my managers were only allowed to confirm that I was employed at the company during a specified time period. However, my co-workers (all PhD scientists) are all valid references and would very often be called on by headhunters or other HR reps. I would imagine that a technician could get a good word from a staff scientist or non-management type.

  4. Certainly no reason an employer shouldn't be able to ask.

    I do often wonder the value of this type of reference, though. My guess, with no data to back it up, is that unless one was a huge f-up (which should preclude LT employment) a reference really won't say anything that negative. Maybe 'damning with faint praise'?

    Really points to how inefficient and subjective the hiring process is.

  5. My company is the same as the above. We don't give references, other than confirming dates of employment. The ownership wants to avoid lawsuits. It's too easy for a friend of the ex-employee to call the company, ask for a reference, and if it's bad, the ex-employee can then sue for damages, blaa blaa blaa. That's the reason we've been given for not talking to other employers.

  6. I will echo the above comments. My company has an official policy of not giving references.

  7. Although can see this being a legitimate line of questioning I can also imagine a feeling that any references should be more contemporary in nature, particularly when previous employment was as BS position but now seeking something with the fresh MS credentials. It also may well be have lost close contact with former colleagues and supervisors so not comfortable with reaching out asking for a recommendation but would if requested. I would not hold it against a candidate as know often have fallen out of touch with people I was close to but a move to different city or state quickly fade relationships especially if end up not attending same conferences or trade shows.

  8. It is perfectly fine to ask. As long as the question is relevant (yes) and doesn't expose you to possible discrimination (no) you are good.

    But as others here have expanded, there can be many valid reasons to leave them off. The company may not allow references, the candidate might not think it is relevant, they may not be in touch any more to ask if it is ok, it might have been a horrible company and they don't trust them.

    Morally I don't think you should assume the worst and should ask to assuage any potential doubt. But as the employer you are in the drivers seat.

    As a separate note I find it sad that we have developed a corporate culture that we are (often) not allowed to tell new potential employers from former (or soon to be former) colleagues that people are good hires. I understand the caution about providing references, but unfortunate.

  9. I worked for an employer for 5 years that said they didn't give references other than to verify employment. I went back and for in my head about it whether it would be better to not list a reference from this job and have a someone wonder why, or to have them call for a reference and only get that I had worked there(not to mention if they could even reach someone to talk to - another issue). I ended up leaving it off, but no one asked and it didn't seem to bother anyone.

  10. I'm at a CRO now and I know they did not check any of my references and received an offer the next day after interviewing. Of the three other interviews I've had, one was a large commercial commodities company and they checked only my grad advisor (was fresh out of grad school at the time), one pharma company wanted 5 references through a sort of yes/no or ranking from 1-5 type of online survey, and the other was a big pharma asking for two recommendation/reference letters. I have not been unemployed but have been in grad school for longer than "normal" lets say, and I was always asked why I was in grad school so long by at least one person at each interview....

    So coming full circle, I feel that it is a fair question to ask if you put that information on your resume, which everyone does these days. Have a well-prepared answer for it because you know it is coming, just like my "why were you in grad school so long" question.


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20