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P, a postdoc applicant, lists 3 referees (A, B and C) on her strong application.

  • A knows P's work best and gives a mixed (guarded) assessment.
  • B knows P's work moderately well and gives a great assessment.
  • C knows P's work least and gives a great assessment.
  • S and T, a recent supervisor and a recent employer, are not listed as referees.

Can the recruiter contact S and T for further feedback? On the one hand, they are not listed as referees, but on the other hand, the applicant has not requested not to contact these people.

  • Are any of A, B, or C the thesis advisor? If not, and S was the actual advisor, you would expect me to question you closely about your chosen references. But, I likely would not contact S in that case, but I also would not hire you. – Jon Custer Jul 5 '18 at 20:42
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At least in US academic culture, the fact that P is applying for a given position, or is applying for jobs at all, should be considered confidential. As such, if you're the recruiter, you should not contact S or T or anyone else regarding P's candidacy, unless you first get permission from P. (Obviously, you have implicit permission to contact A, B, C, since they were listed on the application.)

Asking S or T for a general assessment of P's abilities, without saying that they're applying for a job, is a gray area. I would advise against it, since people will tend to infer that your reason for asking is because P is a job candidate.

If you're the candidate, on the other hand, you should be prepared for the possibility that the employer might contact S or T anyway, even though they're not supposed to.

Expectations might be different in different cultures.

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    I've always had the impression that confidentiality is expected when the person in question holds a permanent position, such as a faculty position. But I don't think this is so widely accepted when the candidate holds a temporary position like a postdoc. – David Ketcheson Jul 5 '18 at 18:35
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    I agree with @David. Even for applicants who hold faculty positions, I think this is a matter of etiquette more than of ethics. The candidate can have a reasonable expectation that sensible people in the department where he/she is applying would not gossip about his/her application to people outside the department, but would also need to accept that not everyone is sensible, and that when a group of 40-50 people know about your application, there is a non-negligible chance that the "secret" will leak. So, contacting unlisted refs is poor form, but not unheard of, nor unethical IMO. – Dan Romik Jul 5 '18 at 19:46
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This may be guided/regulated by legal or institutional norms in some places, so it is hard to give a firm answer here. However, in general, you should probably assume that your professional life is an open book and that those seeking to hire you will seek out information wherever they can find it.

I don't think that there is any implied contract that only those people supplied by the candidate may be fairly used. For an extreme case, if you have been notoriously named as a murderer on the front page of the the paper of record, the institution will likely use that. Certainly when you apply for important government positions, extensive searches may be done.

On the other hand, the hiring institution will likely want "just enough" information to make a decision, though that can vary depending on the importance of the position.

But be prepared to answer any questions about your background no matter where they might have arisen.

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