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I'm head of a search committee and will be checking references for finalists for a fixed-term position. Two finalists worked with the same non-profit and gave the names of different people who work there. When I am talking to one person at the non-profit, is it okay to ask what they think of the other person too, or should I ask their opinion of only the candidate who specified them? If it matters, I am in the United States.

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    Talk to your HR contact and see what they think (or will support).
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Jun 30, 2021 at 18:15
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    In Germany, referees are sometimes asked to write a "comparative" reference about multiple candidates. This is considered perfectly above water there. No idea for the US, though. Commented Jul 2, 2021 at 10:29
  • Is it an academic non-profit? For example, a research institute or a research hospital?
    – Nik
    Commented Jul 2, 2021 at 22:09
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    @CaptainEmacs In fact, this is the standard practice in Germany. Though the referees are then chosen by the search committee, of course.
    – user151413
    Commented Jul 3, 2021 at 11:31

4 Answers 4

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In Academia, you do not disclose who has applied for a job unless you have the candidate's permission. Since academics work in teams on long-term projects, sometimes they have to keep their job search a secret. If they do not, they may be excluded from teams.

Ask the candidate for permission before contacting any references the candidate did not provide.

It is common to even ask for permission before contacting references when the candidate provided the references in their application.

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    That makes no sense to me (working in private company in France). What is the point of giving references if the candidate can tell you NOT TO call them ? What prevents the candidates to put bullshit references then ? Commented Jul 2, 2021 at 6:26
  • @FlorianCastelain If the candidate tells you not to contact the references, presumably you do not hire them. I agree that the last sentence does not make sense, yet in my experience it is commonly true. Commented Jul 2, 2021 at 7:34
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    "In Academia, you do not disclose who has applied for a job unless you have the candidate's permission." This statement is too strong, and can be misleading to candidates. I strongly doubt that this is how things are done in practice, even in the US. In other places, sometimes candidates can not only provide a list of references to contact, but also a list that should not be contacted (for reasons that should be obvious from some of the questions asked on this site).
    – Szabolcs
    Commented Jul 2, 2021 at 7:46
  • @FlorianCastelain "What prevents the candidates to put bullshit references then?" The reputation of the reference matters. In academia, people have very public reputations, e.g. most of the work you do is public. The choice of reasonable references is not that large for any candidate.
    – Szabolcs
    Commented Jul 2, 2021 at 7:48
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    What? Considering how much people on hiring committees openly tell people, about who applied and who interviewed, I don't agree with the sentence "In Academia, you do not disclose who has applied for a job unless you have the candidate's permission." Candidates doing on-site interviews including a public talk, are also not asked for permission for their name to be used in the advertisement for the talk, even though it always is.
    – Nik
    Commented Jul 2, 2021 at 22:05
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Stick with the reference you were given

Are you going to track down ancillary references for all the candidates? You want to be as fair as possible in your faculty hiring. Getting extra references for only a few people is unfair to both the people getting extra references, and people who didn't get a chance to provide an extra reference.

If the extra reference is great, that will likely sway your opinion of the candidate. Other candidates may have plenty of great reference, but you didn't ask them. If the extra was a bad reference, that'll change your mind too - even though you didn't ask anyone else to produce another great reference, or go reference hunting for them.

Job hunting is tough - especially for academics. By asking extra references, you could end up tipping the current organization off about someone's job hunt, which could jeopardize their current job. It also might be illegal (I'm not a lawyer).

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    Good reasoning here. I especially like the second paragraph.
    – Buffy
    Commented Jun 30, 2021 at 19:42
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There may be law about this, but I would consider it improper unless you ask the candidate first for their OK. Otherwise, you are using a non-official, potentially unfair, informal, "off the record", process to help choose candidates.

You have a defined process. You should stick to it, even if not required by law.


Thinking about the law, defining and publishing one process while using another, might be construed as a kind of fraud, even if it would be difficult to charge.

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    I like your first two paragraphs but the 3rd is off-base and probably best left to law stackexchange. The OP's scenario does not fit within the definition of fraud in most jurisdictions. Fraud almost invariably involves a deliberate and dishonest action (e.g. you knowingly lied to the applicant about the recruitment process) and a deliberate intention for personal gain or to cause a loss to someone. Merely failing to follow a published process isn't sufficient. See e.g. ss 1-4 of the Fraud Act 2006 in England / Wales / N. Ireland.
    – JBentley
    Commented Jul 1, 2021 at 8:05
  • @JBentley, I was merely speculating. And the question is about US.
    – Buffy
    Commented Jul 1, 2021 at 9:55
  • The Fraud Act was just an example. The definition of fraud is broadly similar in most common law jurisdictions. It's best not to speculate on legal issues - "might be construed as a kind of fraud" is misleading because it cannot be construed as any kind of fraud. Best to leave such issues to law stack exchange, which exists for exactly that type of question.
    – JBentley
    Commented Jul 1, 2021 at 13:19
  • It may not be fraud but it likely will upset your HR professionals because you are treating some applicants differently than others.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Jul 1, 2021 at 21:26
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    @Araucaria-Nothereanymore No, what you are describing is in no way fraud because it lacks the required elements (dishonesty, intention to gain, etc.). It's important to realise that crimes have very specific elements which must be proven beyond reasonable doubt. A vague idea that the person did something which doesn't seem right doesn't mean the criteria for fraud have been met.
    – JBentley
    Commented Jul 2, 2021 at 10:32
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Unless your search process description (and the job advertisement !) explicitly state that you will solicit opinions from further, secret to the candidate, references, I would stay away from doing so.

It is a thing that makes lawyers panic about the potential of failed candidates suing the university -- at my institution (large state university in the US) I imagine such an action would be considered sufficient procedure violation by the HR department to lead to the search being stopped.

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