I’ve had several interviews with a company that is looking for a new IT manager. Everything looks pretty good, except I can’t get anyone to tell me what happened to the person I’m replacing.

They won’t tell me if he was fired or left voluntarily. In fact, they are so tight-lipped about it that I could barely figure out how long he’s been gone. Since they won’t tell me anything, I’m wondering if I would be walking into a bad situation or a bad company. Any thoughts?

Some companies have strict policies about what they say about former employees because they’re afraid they could be sued if the former employee doesn’t like what they say. If a potential employer calls, the HR department will do little more than confirm that the employee worked there and the start and end dates of employment. If called directly, the former manager and coworkers are often required to refer all callers to the HR department.

If the company you’re dealing with has a strict policy regarding former employees, it may have just taken the matter to the extreme. Usually, when you’re called back for a second or third interview, management is much more open about what happened to the former employee. On occasion, you can even get the full story on the first interview, particularly if the company was happy to see the person leave.

There are a couple of other explanations for the silence. If there was a crisis or scandal that involved this person and several others in the company, that’s not something anyone is going to discuss with a job candidate. If the person was involved in something sleazy, there might be others in the company who were also involved but are still working there. They could be wondering if management has figured out the whole scheme yet, and management could be keeping an eye on those people. Either way, people are going to be very quiet about what happened.

Bad things do happen to good companies, and all companies keep secrets of some kind. Yet, you need to know some details about what happened to the former employee. If the person left in disgrace, then you’ll have one or more serious messes to clean up if you take the job. At the very least, you’ll have a disenchanted staff on your hands.

Even if the person was fired because he was incompetent and no illegalities are involved, the messes may be so severe that no one would want the job—another reason the company is unwilling to talk about what happened. The company is afraid that if you learn the whole truth, you won’t take the job.

Do a little independent research
The simplest way to get more information is to ask point-blank. Ask your main contact why the former employee left the company. If the person refuses to answer such a bold, yet reasonable, question, you should wonder what is going on inside the company. Getting an evasive or inconclusive answer wouldn’t turn me off the company right away, but it would give me reason to do some independent research.

The independent research isn’t going to be easy, especially if there is something illegal or unsavory about what happened. You don’t need all the facts to help you make up your mind. All you need is enough reliable information to help you estimate how big a problem exists—or if you’re just dealing with an overly paranoid management culture. Even a few rumors would help, if they come from a source you feel is trustworthy.

Check out the major news feeds for any hint of a problem. You can access the news databases of the Associated Press, Reuters, and the New York Times. The Wall Street Journal might also have written something about the company. You may have to pay a small fee to search the archives, but it’s worth it to learn more about a potential employer.

Large and small regional newspapers and local business journals might have some interesting information about the company. You can call the business editor at these papers and ask them if they know anything or have heard anything about the company in general. Explain that you’re considering taking a job there and you’re doing some background research. If they can’t help you, ask them if they know anyone else you can contact.

You may find out that a few people left around the same time or that several managers were replaced within a short period of time. Sales may have dropped suddenly or auditors may have been called in to do an emergency audit. You may have to piece together the bits of information you get from these various sources. Unless it was a really big scandal that was difficult to hide, no one person will have the whole story. Even if you find someone who does, that person probably wouldn’t share it with a stranger who calls on the phone.

Learn what you can, put together as complete a picture as possible, and let your instincts guide you. If you feel as though something fishy is happening, then go with that feeling.