How To Answer “May We Contact This Employer?” (With Examples)

By Heidi Cope - Jan. 25, 2021

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When you see the question, “May we contact this employer?” on a job application, you may feel a bit apprehensive about how to best answer the question.

Perhaps you are still working at the job and do not want your employer to know you are actively seeking other employment. Maybe your previous employer fired you, and you fear they will ruin your chances at a new job. Or your previous employer no longer works at the company, or the company no longer exists.

What if you say “no” to the question, “May we contact this employer,” and how can you best navigate the situation if you are not on the best of terms with your old company?

It’s also one of the most common interview questions, so you’d better be ready to answer it in real-time as well.

We’ll cover what to remember when you answer this question, valid reasons for saying “no,” and provide sample answers to see what our tips look like in action.

Things to Remember When You See the Question, “May We Contact This Employer?”

  • Say “yes,” unless there is a real good reason not to.

  • Check with your past employer before putting them down as your reference.

  • A “no” might be counted as a first round disqualifier for some companies.

  • If you do say no, make sure there are current contacts that the hiring committee can contact.

  • Just because you say yes to the above question, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to contact the employer.

So why do hiring managers and recruiters ask if they can contact your previous employers? Along with reviewing resumes and cover letters, hiring managers want to hire a job-seeker that feels confident in the quality of their employment history.

They want to confirm your qualifications and accomplishments – that’s part of it. The other part is checking how long you worked there, what your salary was like, and why you left (if you quit or were terminated).

You really want a new job — maybe you have been out of work for a long time now or perhaps you really dislike your current one.

Either way, it can be nerve-wracking to give permission to a hiring manager to contact your old employers, if you do not know how exactly they will recommend you as an employee.

So naturally, seeing the box “may we contact this employer” next to every previous job description can be very daunting.

What is the best way to navigate this potential minefield? Read on for our guide to answering “may we contact this employer?”

How to Answer “May We Contact This Employer”

You would probably agree that deciding upon references for previous employment can be very stressful, especially if you did not have the best work experiences at those companies.

However, it is important to keep in mind that checking the box labeled, “may we contact this employer?” does not mean the company you are applying for will actually contact them; it is merely asking for your permission to do so.

In fact, many companies do not contact references until they are seriously considering hiring you for the job, so at first glance, seeing many boxes checked “no” could actually do you more harm than good.

It is perfectly acceptable to say no for one employer, but you have to make sure that there are recent references that they can contact and acceptable reasons for saying no.

So in general? Say yes.

May We Contact This Employer”: Why or Why Not?

When companies are asking for your permission to contact employers, they want to see transparency in you as an employee. No employee is perfect, so it is natural to have some hesitations about previous jobs.

There are many reasons why you may feel uncomfortable allowing hiring departments to contact previous employers.

If you were fired from a job, you are probably very nervous about HR departments contacting your previous employer.

First, you can call ahead to your previous job’s HR department and ask what will happen should they be contacted.

It is important to remember that defamation is illegal when employers are called to speak about employees, so legally, your old boss cannot trash talk you to a recruiter.

If you are still concerned, think about other people at the company who you reported to as an employee. Do you feel that any of them would give you a good reference? If so, you can list them down on your application for reference.

Overall though, the sentiment is still the same. Do everything in your power to check the yes box on the application. It will raise red flags if you have many boxes checked no, especially if it is for a job you held for a significant amount of time.

Tips for Answering “May We Contact This Employer?”

While you ideally want to allow the hiring manager permission to contact former employers, follow these tips if you’d rather not:

  • It’s fine to say no for your current employer. It’s common practice to say no for your current employer. Hiring managers know that people look for new job opportunities while they have a job, and they aren’t trying to get you in trouble by letting your boss know about it.

  • Contact your former employer’s HR department first. If you can find out what exactly your former employer’s policy is with regards to employment checks, you’ll feel a lot more comfortable saying yes (or more sure than ever about saying no). Additionally, HR might give a more neutral review than your direct supervisor.

  • Reach out to your former supervisor. Similar to the tip above, but especially important if you want to get around the official channels. Perhaps you were fired, but your former supervisor still likes you. In that case, it might be best to put down their contact info (after asking first). The same goes for a coworker who can speak highly of you.

  • Explain your termination elsewhere. Your resume might not be the best place, but you can bring a short explanation of why you were fired in your cover letter. Turn your weakness to an advantage by showing how proactive you are about resolving past issues.

  • Take the employer off your resume. This is a little extreme, but if your situation with your former employer is so bad that you don’t want any chance of the new (potential) employer finding out, you could just leave that company off your resume altogether.

You’ll stand out for all the wrong reasons if you don’t allow the hiring manager to contact any of your previous employers, so try to say yes to as many as you can.

Without any chance to verify your qualifications from your resume and cover letter, too many “no’s” could spell the end of your interview process (maybe before you even get a call for an interview).

Valid Reasons for Not Contacting a Previous Employer

The main acceptable reasons for the hiring committee to not be able to contact a previous employer or a current one are:

  1. If you do not want your current employer to know you are looking to leave your current position. A hiring department will find it completely acceptable to say “no” to a current employer because your job could be at stake if they find out you are seeking employment elsewhere.

  2. If the company no longer exists. Well, if the company doesn’t exist anymore, then your potential employer is not going to expect to talk to someone from that company.

  3. If your employer is at a small international company with no English-speaking contacts. However, you should still say yes, because you are still giving permission — it just might not be possible to actually contact them.

  4. Your previous employer is deceased. You can check “no” for this situation, but state that your previous employer is no longer living and give the contact information for someone at the company who can speak on their behalf.

  5. If you company has a no-reference policy. Some companies also have no-reference policies, so marking no on those positions with companies that hold those policies would also be acceptable. Just be sure to clarify that in your application.

Ready to see how this comes together?

Examples of How to Say No to “May We Contact This Employer”

So what if you have identified that you have an employer that you must say no to “may we contact this employer?” How could you best explain that in your application?

Usually, there are spaces in the application for any notes on your employment at a certain company. If you have to say no to “may we contact this employer,” make sure to add some sort of explanation to the notes section.

  1. If you currently work at the company:

    I am currently seeking employment outside the company without their knowledge. If you would like to speak with them about my role there, I will be happy to forward the information if a job is offered to me.

  2. If your employer is deceased:

    You will be unable to contact my previous employer because they are now deceased; however, you may contact Mr./Ms. XYZ to discuss my position at the company.

  3. If the company no longer exists:

    The company is unfortunately no longer in business so there will be no HR department to contact to discuss my employment there; however, you may contact Mr. XYZ, who was one of my managers, to discuss my work there.

  4. If your manager no longer works there:

    Unfortunately, my previous manager at the company no longer works there and contact information cannot be found; however, you may contact the current manager, Ms. XYZ, who knew me during my employment at the company.

  5. If the company has a no reference policy:

    Unfortunately, you will not be able to contact this employer, because they have a strict no reference policy for previous employees.

Final Thoughts

Figuring out how to best shape a recruiter or hiring department’s perception of you as an employee can be difficult, especially if you have had negative workplace experiences.

However, with planning, you can easily avoid feeling uncomfortable with hiring departments contacting previous employers about your performance as an employee.

Remember, it is best to appear transparent when applying for jobs, so be sure to spend some time digging for your old boss’s contact information before clicking the “no” box on an application.

A few extra minutes looking through contact books could win you the job.

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Heidi Cope

Heidi Cope is a former writer for the Zippia Career Advice blog. Her writing focused primarily on Zippia's suite of rankings and general career advice. After leaving Zippia, Heidi joined The Mighty as a writer and editor, among other positions. She received her BS from UNC Charlotte in German Studies.

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