Potential Employer Wants to Contact Your Current One? Here’s What to Say

Set of paper bubble cloud talk and message that say Yes and No.
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Some questions on job applications can be worded too simply for their own good.

For example, how are you supposed to answer the question, “May we contact your current employer?” when the only options are “yes” and “no”? Your first thought might be, “No, my current company doesn’t know I’m job hunting.” But is it bad to say no? Will the human resources specialist reviewing your application think you’re hiding something?

We asked four seasoned HR professionals to weigh in.

Why Is This Question on Job Applications?

Lynda Spiegel, founder of Rising Star Resumes and a 14-year human resources pro, says companies ask the question to get a head start on the employment verification process. At some point, the company will want to do a background check, and including this question is HR’s way of getting permission. She adds that it’s much easier to ask for permission upfront versus possibly forgetting to ask deeper in the interview process.

“Nobody is going to contact your current employer just based on you sending in a resume,” she says. “That’s going to happen way down the line.”

Most companies contact the applicant’s previous organization sometime between offer acceptance and the hire’s official start date, says Laura Sehres, vice president of talent acquisition and engagement at PSCU. During verification, the new company will call the applicant’s former employer to confirm specifics such as job title, employment duration and salary.  

Saying No Isn’t a Red Flag

If you’re currently employed, it is perfectly acceptable to click no when filling out the job application, says Mikaila Turman, the director of people at Inflection. From her perspective, the reason people get stuck on this question is that candidates think there is a right and wrong answer.

“I think there’s an assumption that if I say no, then that’s going to look bad, but that’s not necessarily the case,” she says. “It’s more so to inform the HR person whether they could move forward with getting a reference from the current company or not.”

The last thing an HR recruiter wants to do, she says, is jeopardize an applicant’s job by tipping off their current employer that they have someone searching for a new opportunity.

“If you’re currently working and you don’t want your employer to know that you’re looking, you simply say no, and that’s not a red flag,” Spiegel says.

When Should You Say Yes?

Keep in mind, selecting no should not be an automatic response for those gainfully employed. If your current company knows you’re leaving, it’s safe to say yes. Lois Krause, the HR compliance leader at the consulting firm KardasLarson, LLC, says it’s not uncommon for managers to try and help those affected by impending layoffs by providing references.

“They’re usually pretty good about giving [employees] a heads-up so that they can find something,” Krause says.

When layoffs are not the driving factor, job seekers might consider selecting yes if the employee has a great relationship with their supervisor. “Maybe [the employee] talked to their manager and said, ‘This isn’t working, and I’m going to look for another role.’ Sometimes people are very honest about that,” says Sehres.  

When Applications Give You More Than Two Options

Depending on the format of the application, you might have the option to give a detailed response instead of being limited to a yes-or-no answer. When the opportunity presents itself to elaborate, Sehres encourages people to add in an extra caveat for clarification.

“I always answer it this way: ‘No’ or ‘Yes, you can contact after offer,’” she says.

Once you’re selected to advance to the initial phone or in-person interview stage, Sehres suggests talking to the recruiter to clarify any confusion on why you said no.

“My advice to someone who is truly concerned about it would be for them to head it off at the pass,” she says. “Say upfront: ‘I answered it this way. I am comfortable with you contacting my employer but only after an offer is given, just out of confidentiality.’”

Matt Reinstetle is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. He covers career advice and side gigs. If there’s a career-advice topic you want to be answered, please email him at [email protected].