I have read several articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education about secrecy while working with a search firm during a job search. Often when a candidate is early in the search process—and even if they do not move forward to accept a new position—they fear unfavorable reactions from their current employer. This happens frequently with presidential candidates. In athletics, speculation about top candidates often begins before the search is officially launched. Yet, especially for finalists in senior-level positions such as athletic director, dean, or vice president, reluctance to provide the name of a direct supervisor can be most challenging in the hiring process.
Eventually, you must inform your supervisor of your candidacy—but before addressing this, let’s talk about providing and preparing your references.
When applying for a position, it is standard for candidates to submit a cover letter and resume, but sometimes institutions request a list of references as well. If that is the case, submit the number of names required, choosing people who will speak favorably on your behalf, and be sure to indicate their relationship to you (supervisor at your former institution, current colleague or collaborator, former student, etc.). This list need not include your current supervisor unless you want it to, but note that once you submit the names, the institution may contact those on your list even before they let you know you are being considered.
Many people will readily agree to serve as a reference on your behalf, but because good references are difficult to give, those who give good references are hard to find. Do you know what your reference will say about you? Are they able to list your accomplishments and successes? Will they appropriately comment on the areas you need to improve upon? Can they provide specific examples of occasions where you led a project from start to finish, or even failed at a project but persevered? In our years of checking references we’ve learned to ask questions that will elicit more detailed responses than, “what are the candidates top three strengths?” We want to hear about your reputation on campus, what your champions and detractors say about you, if you are the go-to person who will get things done, or if you are the master delegator. We want to hear about your supervision, your leadership, how you manage up, and if you are a change maker. The people you choose to provide a reference must know you, and you must know how they will respond to these types of questions.
Preparing Your Reference
When embarking on a search, it is important to prepare your references. Does your reference have a copy of your current resume and a description of the position that you are applying for? Have you discussed your preparedness for the position, what you want to be highlighted, what you think your strengths are for the job, and areas that will challenge you? Remind people speaking on your behalf of past interactions, experiences, and successes. Former supervisors are often more positive references because as time passes they often minimize your shortcomings. If you are actively searching, you don’t have to tell your references of every job you are applying for, but you do need to let them know your progress in a search. For example, your reference should know if a potential employer asked for references, if you’ve been invited to campus, or if you did not get the job.
Back to the Secrecy Factor
Search firms and institutions understand that searches are generally private, though not necessarily confidential, until a candidate is invited to campus. News that you have taken this step is not private since higher education is a small world of friends, colleagues, and networks of people who know one another. Thinking your supervisor does not know when you are heading to campus or are interviewing on a campus is naïve, and if you decide not to provide his/her name as a reference, you can be sure that this will make your candidacy for the position less desirable.
“Off List” References
As a candidate, you must remember that people talk to each other all the time. This person knows that person who works with this person who—fill in the blank—thinks you are terrific, believes you are not detailed enough, sees you as too in the weeds, etc. Sometimes a person may even say, “keep this confidential…” and a conversation about you ensues. These are called off list references and are conducted between trusted colleagues to inform, confirm, or dispute what has been heard. You can be the most experienced person in the applicant pool, but if you are hard to work for or with, or if you are not all that you appear to be, a trusted colleague will share that information informally. Simply, there is nothing you can do to stop people from talking.
Informing Your Supervisor
So, when do you tell your supervisor of your search? Consider factors such as your experience in the field, the level of the position you are applying for, and your relationship with your current supervisor. Many candidates have supervisors that act as mentors who encourage advancement. This allows for honest and helpful conversations about career paths. Some candidates tell their supervisors of every position they apply for, informing them each step of the way. Remember that while applying for a new job, it is important to continue to impress your current supervisor—in fact, this might be the best time to prove yourself an optimal employee.
You may have applied for a position because you were nominated for it, or you may be testing the waters to gauge your marketability but are unsure if the particular job or institution is the right fit for you. If that is the case you may decide not to tell your supervisor that you’ve applied, or had a Skype interview (remember: once you are invited to campus the conversation must take place). But what are the reasons as a candidate that you would fear telling your supervisor that you have applied for a position? Generally, there are two: the first is that you fear a bad reference and the second is fear of retaliation if your supervisor finds out. Let’s look at both possibilities.
A supervisor giving a less than positive reference is not uncommon, justified or not, but this is manageable. Think about the reasons a supervisor would choose to speak negatively about you. Did something go wrong that had significant implications? Do you just have a feeling that your supervisor might not speak positively about you because she is unhappy in her own role? Has the relationship not been good from the start? Can you articulate why and provide examples? If you are working with a search firm, have a conversation with the search consultant about this relationship before a phone interview or visit to campus. Also, if you worked for this person only one or two years, when asked who your supervisor is, submit the names of former supervisors from the same institution who will speak to your strengths. Be sure to discuss both people with the search consultant.
If you are reluctant to provide your supervisor’s name because you fear retribution, your problem is real but not insurmountable, and is best addressed well before the supervisor is contacted.