I once applied to a job (in the US) where the search committee unexpectedly contacted one of my colleagues to ask about my job performance. This individual was not one of my references.

I had never heard of this practice before, and now that I'm considering applying elsewhere (outside of the US), I'm wondering if this is something that I can expect from search committees in Europe.

My question is similar to How do I keep my tenure track job search confidential?, but there's one main addition I'm seeking: how do I ask for confidentiality in the cover letter without sounding as if my colleagues would give them bad news? I worry that asking for confidentiality might give the impression that I'm trying to hide something about my job performance. On the contrary, I know my colleagues would say great things about me; I'm just not ready to let everyone know that I'm applying for jobs outside of the US.

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    See the AAUP's 1993 policy document "The Ethics of Faculty Recruitment and Appointment": Institutions should respect the confidentiality of candidates for faculty positions. The institution may contact references, including persons who are not identified by the candidate, but it should exercise discretion when doing so. An institution should not make public the names of candidates without having given the candidate the opportunity to withdraw from the search. (AAUP policies obviously apply only within the United States.)
    – JeffE
    Jan 7, 2019 at 19:53
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    @Mazura -- this has nothing to do with the First Amendment. The First Amendment limits what the government can do. It does not restrict what individuals can do. Jan 8, 2019 at 13:39
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    @Mazura There is no general law in any civilized country that prevents person A from phoning person B and asking them a question about person C. (Of course A might be subject to a court order preventing them from contacting B, etc, but that is beside the point.) Equally, there is no law compelling person B to answer the question - but most people are inclined to try to be "helpful" not "obstructive" about such things.
    – alephzero
    Jan 8, 2019 at 13:54
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    @user4052054 How do you exercise discretion though? — For the three years I was search committee chair, the other committee members and I evaluated confidential applicants by reading their papers (gasp!), looking up citation patterns, looking up grant histories, and so on. Without exception, confidential applicants were well beyond the newbie-assistant-professor stage, so their research records had to stand on their own merits. If the committee felt additional references were required, we asked the candidate for permission first.
    – JeffE
    Jan 8, 2019 at 19:29
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    @alephzero There are certainly questions that are functionally illegal to ask in the US, in the context of an employment reference. For example: "Is he married?" or "Is she a veteran?" or "What church does he attend?" or (at least in my state) "Is she gay?"
    – JeffE
    Jan 8, 2019 at 19:41

4 Answers 4


I used the following language, and I think it had the desired effect.

Because I am hoping to keep this search confidential, I request that you contact my references rather than my current colleagues at this time. If I were to become a finalist, I would of course expect and invite you to speak to my current department.

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    The way you phrase it, you're putting the idea of contacting undesirable acquaintances into their heads...
    – einpoklum
    Jan 8, 2019 at 18:20
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    @einpoklum sure, but it would be bad faith on their part if they did that having explicitly been asked not to. It could (understandably) lead to the candidate dropping out of the race voluntarily.
    – 0xdd
    Jan 8, 2019 at 20:40
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    @Jules: It doesn't help OP if it happens in bad faith...
    – einpoklum
    Jan 8, 2019 at 21:06
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    I'm not arguing that it would help the OP, just the opposite -- but it's in the committee's best interests not to act in bad faith.
    – 0xdd
    Jan 8, 2019 at 21:41

I have seen cover letters like that, here honesty is key. Remember that people on the committee would like to have the best candidate get the job, and that sometimes requires some "poaching".

To paraphrase a good sentence I have previously seen used to that effect: "I am currently employed at institution X. I am happy with my employment here, but ready to seek new challenges at institution Y. As my employment at institution X is still ongoing, I would appreciate your discretion when inquiring references. Should you need references from my current colleagues at X, please contact me in advance."

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    I would appreciate your discretion — This might be sufficient, but in this instance it's better to be direct than to be polite. "Please do not contact anyone at my current institution at this time." (See Dawn's answer.)
    – JeffE
    Jan 7, 2019 at 19:36
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    It's a matter of culture, I guess. Where I am from such very direct language could rub members of a search committee the wrong way.
    – nabla
    Jan 7, 2019 at 19:38
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    Would you rather risk rubbing the search committee members the wrong way, or risk the search committee exposing your application?
    – JeffE
    Jan 7, 2019 at 19:43
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    That depends a LOT on details of the concrete situation that I have no idea about.
    – nabla
    Jan 7, 2019 at 19:53
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    +1 for "please contact me in advance". You may not stop it happening, but at least you may have a chance to have a private word with one colleague, or direct them to someone you can ask to keep it confidential.
    – Dragonel
    Jan 8, 2019 at 18:40

I don't think there is a way to guarantee it, but I also think the practice is pretty rare. It might occur when someone at the new place knows someone where you currently are, of course.

You also can't expect them to never ask but can request that any contact not come immediately because you don't want to prejudice your current administration against you thinking you are about to leave.

I suspect that it is pretty common to be in your situation, so people receiving the request wouldn't see it as unusual.

If people have the impression that you are happy where you are but exploring possibilities elsewhere and that you'd like things to stay confidential for a while, I think most people would accept that and rely initially on the materials you send them. Later in the process they might want to talk to your current boss, of course.

But you can't actually guarantee that it will stay quiet.

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    I'm not so sure it's rare. As you say, it might occur when someone at the new place knows someone at your present place, but academia is a small world and that is a very common occurrence. I know that during my job search, people on the search committee did chat with their friends at my original place (fortunately they said nice things), and from what I've seen and heard it's not unusual for that to happen. The verbiage Dawn gives in her answer seems like a nice, polite request.
    – iayork
    Jan 7, 2019 at 19:11

I would just write that you are applying in confidence as there are other searches in progress or the like. (If they still blow it off, what can you do. Other than cross them of your list of course.) Unfortunately academics tend to be less professional than industry about things like this. And of course your position is weaker if you are applying out of the blind versus being approached by them, already have tenure, etc.

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