Tech & Work

Beware what you say about ex-coworkers

Nothing you say is ever "off the record." If you can't think of anything nice to say about a former coworker, here's what you should do instead.

Here’s a pop quiz in professional ethics. You get a call from someone who says, “Hey, didn’t so-and-so used to work with you?” You say, “Yeah, why?”

The caller says, “Well, he applied for a job over here, and I just wondered what you thought of his (or her) IT skills.”

Let’s assume the job seeker never asked you to be a reference for him (or her). Therefore, the inquiry about your former coworker is purely and strictly informal. Should you answer the question?

The correct answer should be obvious to IT professionals with half a brain and any semblance of a conscience. Unfortunately, a lot of IT people jump at the chance to “stick it” to a former coworker. Don’t be one of them.
Each Tuesday, Jeff Davis tells it like he sees it from the trenches of the IT battle. Get his report delivered straight to your e-mail front door. Subscribe to Jeff's View from Ground Zero TechMail, and you'll get a bonus of Jeff's picks for the best Web stuff—exclusively for our TechMail subscribers.
The story begins with a lie
Several months ago, a close friend of mine lost his job as a network engineer. The company’s new IT manager hired in several new engineers (cronies from a previous job), and my friend was essentially demoted to the help desk, after having served the company as a one-man IT department for over a year.

There were no documented “performance issues” in my friend’s human resources folder. He just didn’t get along well with the new IT manager, and he was “allowed to resign.”

My friend started sending out résumés, and I was one of his references. Unfortunately, he wasn’t getting any nibbles. Then came the big surprise. I got a call from a mutual friend, another IT person in town, and here’s what he said. (We’ll use “Joe” to refer to the friend looking for a job.)

“Hey, don’t you know Joe?” he asked me.

“Sure, I’ve known him a long time. He’s a great engineer.”

“Well, he applied for a job over here, and since I know one of the guys he used to work with, I called to ask what he thought of ol’ Joe. And you’ll never believe what he said.”

“So tell me, already!”

“He said they used to have to go to the bars and drag Joe back to work after he drank his lunch.”

I said, “Who in the world would say a thing like that?” And he told me who said it.

I said, “Was that person on Joe’s list of references?”

“Well, no.”

You could have knocked me over with a feather. I defended Joe, saying that I knew for a fact he never drank on duty, but the damage was done. My friend’s company wasn’t going to touch Joe’s application, based on hearsay and lies!
According to, slander is defined as: “Oral communication of false statements injurious to a person's reputation. A false and malicious statement or report about someone.“
What goes around will come around, eventually
With a little digging, I discovered that all of Joe’s former coworkers (in the IT department) were talking badly about him every chance they had. Now, folks, I realize people will always call their friends to check up on someone “informally,” and there’s nothing we can do to stop the “good ol’ boy” network from doing its thing.

But these unethical, unprofessional IT people were doing their best to sabotage Joe’s career. They exaggerated. They lied. Their remarks cost Joe several interviews.

And they would still be bad-mouthing Joe if the IT manager hadn’t heard through the IT grapevine that Joe was considering suing his former company and coworkers for slander. Only then, under the threat of litigation, did the boneheads stop giving informal references about Joe.

Joe ultimately didn’t bring any legal action, because the process would have been too difficult and costly. However, he never will forgive or forget his former IT teammates for their spineless, weak-minded behaviors.

The moral of the story
My friends, use common sense and good judgment. Unless someone personally asks you to be a reference, don’t give one! Don’t answer any questions—even informal questions from your friends in IT—about a former coworker’s job performance.

Of course, there’s probably one exception to that rule. If you have something wonderful and glowing to say about your former coworker, you’re probably not putting yourself or your company at any risk by sharing positive comments.

But if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything. Instead, refer the questions to your human resources department.
If a prospective employer turned you down because of something one of your former coworkers said about you, we want to hear your story. Please post a comment below or follow this link to write to Jeff.

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox