Interview Question: "May We Contact This Employer?"

Updated July 11, 2023

Employers ask for extensive, detailed information on job applications, especially when it relates to your work experience. Many employers will ask permission to contact previous employers in the work history section of their applications. Understanding why they ask and how to answer will help you prepare for your job search.

In this article, we explain why employers ask if they can contact your previous employers, offer tips for answering and give example answers.

Related: The Essential Job Search Guide

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Why employers ask "May we contact this employer?"

Employers usually start the background check process after a successful interview and might send you a tentative job offer while they are waiting for information to get back to them. Employers ask if they can contact your previous employers for several reasons:

  • For permission to verify your employment history during the background check portion of the candidate selection process. Employers want to check your work history to confirm that you are accurately presenting your job title, how long you worked with the company, the reasons you left and how much you were paid. They ask for permission on the application to streamline the contact process and so they can ask for clarification during the interview if needed.

  • To ask about your time working with the employer. The hiring employer might ask your references for more detail regarding your character and work performance. Most times, they will speak with the human resources department or your previous supervisor. However, employers most often contact previous employers to verify you are accurately representing your experience with them, rather than get a review of your time with them.

Related: Q&A: What's Included in an Employment Background Check?

Tips for answering if your employer may be contacted

There are many reasons you might not want the employer to contact your previous employers, but you should generally permit employers to contact the companies you worked for. Here are some tips for answering whether your prior employers can be contacted:

It is common practice to say "no" to contacting your employer

Many people look for work without telling their current employers for a variety of reasons, including looking for career advancement, exploring other job opportunities or continuing to earn income while they search. Employers understand this and won't be concerned if you request that they not contact your current employer.

Reach out to previous human resources department about its employment verification policy

You can learn what your previous employer will say during an employment check by requesting their policy. Many employers are cautious about how much information they provide and you will know how to answer any questions that might arise during the background check.

Talk to your previous supervisor about what information they'll provide

If you left the company on good terms with your supervisor, you can request they provide the potential employer with minimum information about your termination.

Ask a coworker who will speak highly of you

If you aren't comfortable having the employer call the employer directly, you can list a previous coworker who is a manager or supervisor to answer any verification questions.

While you may not want your current supervisor to be contacted because you are seeking a new job, whenever possible, seek out someone from your current organization who can speak about your achievements and strengths in your current role. This may be a colleague on your team, someone in an equivalent role in a different department or a direct report. Having at least one reference from your current organization becomes increasingly important if you have been with your current organization for more than two years.

Genevieve Northup, MBA, SHRM-CP, HCI-SPTD

Be sure they know that this is for employment verification, not a reference and that they should be expecting a call.

Provide the phone number for human resources

You can give the employer a general human resources number to verify your employment if you are concerned about the answers your immediate supervisor will provide.

Explain the circumstances of your termination

You can provide a short explanation in your cover letter. This will prevent a gap in your work history and can allow you to show how you've grown.

Leave the employer off your resume

If you are concerned about a potentially negative reply, you can leave the employer off your resume if it is outside of the industry you are applying for, if you held the position for less than a year or if you worked with the company more than 10 years ago. If the employer asks you to explain the gap in employment, you can clarify that you were working outside your field.

Related: What To Do After Getting Fired

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Example answers to "May we contact this employer?"

You should be honest and professional when you are answering whether previous employers can be contacted. Here are some example answers:

  • The supervisors I worked with are no longer with the company but I would be happy to provide the letters of reference I have from that employer.

  • I would prefer it if you contacted these other companies on my resume because they had more experience working with me in different roles and responsibilities that better reflect how I would do with your company.

  • I'm not sure if the supervisor I worked under is still with the company or what their role is, but I have provided the information for the human resources department.

  • Unfortunately, the company is no longer in business and cannot be contacted. I can give you a letter of reference from my manager, though.

If you are concerned because you were fired, you should still give the employer permission to contact them. During the interview, you can explain that you were terminated and give a short description of why and how you grew from the experience.

If you were terminated in a previous role, be honest about the reason and focus on the lessons learned and improvement since that time, not on why it happened, especially if that means speaking negatively of a previous employer. For example, if you were terminated in a previous role for performance, you might say that you 'were terminated because you were unable to meet quarterly sales goals, falling short by 15% three quarters in a row.'

Avoid an explanation that centers around a recession, lack of training, or other issues beyond your control. Instead, indicate that you have since learned 'valuable skills to increase your closing rate by 30%' and are now 'in the top 2% of sales professionals in my current organization.'

Genevieve Northup, MBA, SHRM-CP, HCI-SPTD

If you were terminated for tardiness, for example, you could say:

Unfortunately, I was terminated. I allowed other priorities to affect whether I arrived on time. I am much more focused now and here are the skills from the position that will help me succeed with your company.

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