In the new! improved! Ask The Headhunter newsletter, a new “forum” section presents challenges that readers are facing — and asks subscribers to chime in with their ideas.

I’m getting so many e-mails about the forum that there’s no way to get all the good ideas into the next edition of the newsletter. So I’m going to try highlighting some of the submissions here on the blog. (Maybe next up is a discussion forum?) I’ll try to do this once a week to support the forum feature — but the blog will continue to cover a broad range of topics as always.

So here’s the scenario submitted by a reader to the newsletter — it’s what started this topic:

Employers keep asking me in interviews why I don’t want them to contact a previous employer. The reason is that I turned my employer in to the state attorney general for selling fraudulent discount health benefits. Instead of respecting my candor in answering the question (and for doing the right thing), they run from me like crazy. So how does a whistleblower effectively answer that question?

And here are some of the thought-provoking responses from other readers. (I publish readers’ names only if they give me permission to do so.)

This guy has integrity and I would use that value to my advantage. I would simply tell the truth in the interview but in such a way as to make it sound like (and it’s probably the truth anyway) he just couldn’t stand around and do nothing. His personal value of integrity just wouldn’t allow that. This in and of itself is a great asset to employers. What this is saying to an employer is that you as an employee will not allow that company to get ripped off by either inside or outside entities. Now what company does not value an employee like that?

Joel C. Whalen

There’s the direct, in-your-face approach that counts on the employer’s common sense:

Question: “May we contact your past employer?”

Response: “Mr. Employer, if you had an employee who saw your firm doing something illegal and he notified the authorities, how would he be viewed by you?. This is the case with my past employer. I took the high road with an issue of business ethics and I have no idea how they will respond to a reference check. I do have the name of a co-worker who would vouch for my skills.”

Then there’s the skirt-it-entirely approach from a career coach who explains how he would advise a client:

The solution to this problem is simple. You must never admit that you turned in your former employeer. This closes doors and a successful job search is all about opening doors (hopefully the right doors for you). What I would recommend my client do is to simply say that they can’t disclose the name of their previous employer because of a non-disclosure contract. Give as much detail as possible to show your expertise, but don’t reveal the name.  In a perfect world a potential employer would applaud you for doing the right thing, but we don’t live in a perfect world and we must take resonable steps to protect ourselves.

Say what?? I’ve never seen a non-disclosure agreement that prohibits an employee from divulging his employer’s name. That would trigger an entirely different discussion… Ah, well. The next subscriber takes a law-and-order approach that might require a lawsuit:

The writer should allow prospective employers to contact his last employer. That employer is obligated to verify position and dates of employment, and, in my opinion, would be putting themselves at risk for a lawsuit should they reference the whistle blowing incident in an attempt to sabotage his job seeking efforts.

My good buddy Bob Lewis, at, takes a systems approach. (Of course he does — Bob is a reknowned IT consultant!) Or, maybe it’s a martial arts approach… use your enemy’s weight against him:

Contact the HR director at your previous employer to confirm that as a matter of policy they will confirm your employment there and otherwise not comment at all on your performance. That’s the most common approach these days throughout corporate America. Assuming that’s the case, go ahead and give permission. The company you’re applying to will discover you were telling the truth about having worked there, and won’t hear anything good or bad because ‘that’s our policy.’ There are times HR’s risk-management responsibility can work to your advantage.

The next Ask The Headhunter subscriber looks at things the way I do. Be yourself. That attracts others you’d feel comfortable around, and repels people you’d have little respect for.

If I were him, I’d be up front and simply tell them my story. Lead in with, “God cursed me by making me honest.” It’s a story about honesty and ethics, and the telling of it validates the story further. This may sound idealistic and hokey, but he needs to remember he’s looking for something besides just a job. He’s looking for a company that values his ethics and in so doing demonstrates its ethics — and very likely that it is a place he’d like to work.

Don Harkness

How does an employer view this? Here’s an honest manager’s view, which raises the interesting possibility that not whistleblowing could get you convicted yourself:

As a hiring manager I would far prefer the truth about why I should not contact a former employer. And the truth according to this account is that the employee reported an illegal act. Not just an unethical act but an illegal one.

This person should explain the details and also add that they were not only protecting the innocent victims who were defrauded by this company, but they were also protecting themselves. If this company got turned in by someone else and an investigation revealed that this person had knowledge of this fraud and did not report it, they would then become an accomplice.

This was not a case of reporting moldy food in the refridgerator, this was fraud. This potential employee should be applauded, not shunned. I would hire this person because I don’t plan on doing anything illegal.

Now, here’s a very assertive approach that avoids disclosing the whistleblowing:

You’re welcome to contact XYZ Company. You may be familiar with them. The state attorney general indicted the company and my boss for an unscrupulous act. Here’s a copy of the newspaper report. In contrast, here are a few newspaper clippings on your company. As you can see, I’d much rather work for you and your company.

Bob Uberti

Of course, in the audience is someone who’s been there, done that. A good solution might be one that’s already worked:

I have been in a similar situation and my answer was to say that the employer was involved in legal issues. I prepared in advance by researching the information available to the public about the case and if asked, I repeated only that information. I don’t believe anyone contacted that employer, but even if they did, the employers’ integrity was in question already and not by any statement from me. 
During the interview, I stressed that integrity and ethical behavior are important aspects of my work and where I want to work. I felt that this statement described who I am and also might help me avoid another questionable employer.

Jenny Schuchert

There’s more, but I tried to select some of the more unique ones. If you have thoughts and suggestions of your own, let ’em rip! And in the meantime, sign up for the newsletter so you can play again next time! Besides — there’s stuff you’re missing in the newsletter that will never make it into this blog.


  1. How about asking a friend to call the former employer to know the answer in advance? Perhaps your lawyer might be interested in that.

  2. Here’s why I’ve always been so against that whole reference checking part of interviews. (I will admit, I’ve soften up over the years; still I retain my basic thought.)

    I’ve had so many episodes where everyone tells me a person is an absolute gem, and we just don’t click. I’ve had others where everyone tells me the person is an absolute loser, and I deal with the person and they tell me, “Thank you for believing in me when nobody else did.”

    So I really value the unique bond that can happen between 2 people despite what else happened between each of them with others. It’s as if I value their intelligence and mine. If we believe we’re compatible with each other for just the duration of the job, it doesn’t matter what any other person (employer) says. If either one of us believes we’re not made for each other, no one else will convince us otherwise. (Though I have sometimes seen someone I wrote off 20 years earlier I now like, and I may become their strongest champion.)

    That’s how I’d handle the whistleblower thing, blow by blow.

  3. ^^ the above is spam, I speak German.

    Thank you for posting this, you make one of my decisions easier.

  4. @Birgit: Thanks! You’re right! And the posts are gone now.