IT Employment

Being a reference for friends or family not always a good thing

Ever been in the position of being a reference for someone you don't necessarily feel like recommending?

I would hazard to guess that most of us have been asked by ex co-workers for job recommendations. I'm always happy to do this for someone whose skills and work ethic I respect.

But what do you do when an ex-colleague who is also a friend asks to use you as a reference, but you don't necessarily respect their skills and work ethic? This was the question asked of me by a TechRepublic member.

Let me say that I have been in that situation a number of times. I have worked with people who I really liked on a personal level but thought their work behavior or skills left something to be desired. I've never really been comfortable with lying to that person's prospective employer just because the one applying is a friend. (Partly because I think it's unethical and partly because I have visions of becoming the fodder for a made-for-TV movie where a new hire destroys a man's business and that man then embarks on a murderous quest to find all the people who gave the new hire a good recommendation.)

I know that plenty of people would go ahead and give the good recommendation because what the heck? He's not going to be working at your company, right? What do you do, then, if he is applying to your company? Do you go ahead and give a good recommendation, knowing that if he screws anything up people are going to question your judgment? Or do you say you'll give a good recommendation but then secretly tell the hiring manager that you wouldn't recommend he be hired? Perhaps you tell the friend upfront that you can't do it because, although you like him as a person, he has the organizational skills of a toddler. It's a tough situation.

When ex-employees use you as a reference without asking

This has happened to me on a number of occasions with ex-employees. I've tried the "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all" stance. One time someone called me to ask about an ex-employee because my name was on his resume as a previous manager. He also happened to be one of the most difficult-to-manage people I have encountered in my entire management career. So the conversation went something like:

"Yes, John Doe is applying for a job here at XYZ, and we understand he used to work for you?"

"Yes, he did."

"Can you tell us a little something about his time there?"

"He worked for me from 1995-1996."

"Would you say he was a good employee?"

"Would you look at the time!"

And on and on like that with the person trying to get some kind of useable information from me and me not giving any. (This was before it was routine for companies to simply state they would not offer any information but dates of service information because of lawsuits.)

So let's take an informal poll here to get a snapshot of the average experience of recommending friends and relatives.

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

14 comments
spyderxterra
spyderxterra

karma, you don't help your employees they won't make you happy neither, cause deep inside, you know you're not being a good leader.

mdsalim_hi
mdsalim_hi

I think it?s easy to avoid all these by just having professional relationship with colleagues at work rather than getting into friendship.

Osiyo53
Osiyo53

This sort of problem has arisen several times in my experience. And has put me in a tough spot more than once. One of the problems is that I won't lie. I'm perfectly willing to sing the praises a friend or relative deserves. But have had the situation where a friend asked me to sign my name to a written recommendation he wrote up. Which included some lines I could not agree with. I had to do some fast thinking and fast talking to get out of that. Essentially I came up with a bunch of BS about how his writing style could use improvement, etc etc and got him to agree to let me do a complete rewrite. In the process of which I dropped those lines out or any mention of the subjects those lines referred to. In another situation I agreed to be a reference for another friend. And actually got called by a prospective employer about that fellow. Things went along well. My friend had much to commend. But then the prospective employer asked just the sort of question I'd hoped wouldn't be asked. Damn ! This friend was a good worker, and well above average in technical knowledge and skills. But in this case had applied for a supervisory, low level management job. Egads, I liked the fellow a lot, he was one of the good guys who is a pleasure to know. But I couldn't picture him in charge of a bunch of Boy Scouts. What the heck could I do? Had to tell the guy asking that if he wanted a working technician, I couldn't recommend anyone better. But as to the other questions, I had to pull the old Navy standby answer ... NOB. Short for Not Observed. Meaning I'd not observed anything to recommend him in that area. As I told the guy, that's as much as I would say about that subject. He hesitated, then said, "Okay, I get your drift. You're saying he'd be worth my time and money as a TECHNICIAN. Gotcha. Thanks." FWIW, the friend got a job with that employer, just not the one he wanted. He was some upset and later asked me if I'd recommended him for the supervisory position. I had to tell him the truth, that I had not and could not in good conscience. But had given him a very strong recommendation as a technician. The guy was some miffed with me for quite some time. Months. But eventually got over it. In 2 cases, I've had a son and a nephew ask me to "put in a good word for them" with someone I knew who had jobs available of the sorts they might qualify for. I did. Each time they screwed the pooch and got canned. I was pretty much livid with anger afterward. Its not as if the guys who'd hired em were close friends of mine. But they were business associates, guys I did business with. The jobs in question were prime jobs for an 18 to 22 year old kid, with no particular job skills, to snag. One was a warehouse job, the other a manual laborer/helper job. But both paid significantly above average. The employers being the type who paid well, very well as a matter of fact. But also the types who took no nonsense or excuses, and demanded your best efforts. Son and the nephew started out okay, all fired up and thrilled with the size of the expected paycheck. Did well for a couple months but then started showing up late, goofing off when no one was looking, etc. Got more interested in the spending of those fat paychecks ... then in earning them. Started partying a bit too often and too much. Got new cars and new girlfriends, and started dressing in upscale fashion. Got canned, of course. I'd have fired em. But Geez, it was embarrassing. They'd been hired from amidst a LOT of applicants as a favor to me. Neither of the employers, business associates, held it against me. Each said it plain, "Well, I gave him a try. But he just didn't keep at it and earn his paycheck. You know how it is. I pay well, but I expect superior performance in return. Sorry I had to fire the kid." I assured each that they were justified and expressed my thanks that they'd gave the son and nephew a chance. Then I read both the son and the nephew the riot act. I was really miffed. Essentially told both they couldn't kiss my a** well enough to get me to do that kind of favor for them again. And asked em what kind of idiots they were? The best they could hope for given their current skills and experience was normally a job in the 8 to 12 buck an hour range. The jobs I'd gotten them into paid $18 to $20, to start. Would provide the training needed, you just had to be a warm and willing body. And they could've been making 24 to 26 an hour in a year. Chuckle, I still get angry over that whenever I think about it. Of course, both whined about it when they had to return the cars they could no longer afford. And when the new girlfriends decided neither was as interesting as they used to be when they had more cash. Etc. That is, they whined to others, not to me. Tried once and I told em to go find someone who gave a da*n, because I sure didn't.

david_c_humphries
david_c_humphries

This has always been a dilemma for me. In many states the law states that as a previous employer you are only allowed to state their job position and the time they worked at the company. This is not the case if you are used as a personal reference. There are some people I would recommend in a heart beat. However there are many people who have terrible customer support and work ethics. They are nice people but I would not recommend them.

Wild Card
Wild Card

I recommended a friend of mine to apply to where I worked. So, of course he used me as a reference. His interviewer just happened to be one of the bosses that couldn't stand me. Something about my attitude and not listening, I think. Anyway, because my name was included, he didn't get the job. Shortly thereafter, I left under mysterious circumstances. I am glad he didn't get the job there. It was one of those places that sucks the soul right out. No one smiles. Everyone is bitter all the time. I figure in the long run, I did him a favor.

blitzwing76
blitzwing76

I had a similar situation where I worked with a good frend. He got layed off and asked me for a reference. I clearly did not like his apathetic and conflict averse work ethic so I politely told him that I did not want to provide a reference, but no hard feelings. Turns out he took it very personally and it killed our friendship which has hurt me for 5 years now. In hindsight, I would of told him I would give a reference and then hope the hiring manager wouldn't ask about his weaknesses.

kjohnson
kjohnson

I think the system of references is quite ridiculous: I've been in a situation where the intending employer had received two references about me which contradicted each other about the nature of my experience. Clearly he would have been better off asking me about my experience and maybe giving me a couple of problems in my purported area of expertise to see whether I could solve them. When anyone asks me for a reference I always ask them to write their own reference and send it to me. I then correct the grammar and spelling mistakes, sign it and post it to the potential employer. I also send a copy of the reference to the person who requested it: I would think it unethical to keep it secret from the person who is the subject of it.

Ken.Klatt
Ken.Klatt

Using family or friends as job references only suggests that a candidate doesn't have any real professional references. Moreover, everything they say will most likely be taken with a grain of salt by a potential employer.

Kam Guerra
Kam Guerra

It's worked out well for industry and our government for several hundred years.

JackOfAllTech
JackOfAllTech

If they truly are a friend, you should be able to, gently, tell them no and why. I once had a very dear friend ask me to be a reference for his son. I love that man like a brother but the kid is a spoiled brat that picked on my sons. I told him I couldn't do it, explained why, and he understood.

dr_dev_das
dr_dev_das

The best way to avoid giving a reference is to let your colleague, friend, or relative know that you are not comfortable in providing a reference and provide a diplomatic reason why. This works because you still retain the relationship and can continue to network with them.

makkh
makkh

For my past 4 jobs, 3 out of 4 superior / boss offered to be my reference and I really appreciate it. So far I've never been reference for any one yet, but I will not reject it if the person worth a helping hand. Still it lies on his/her attitude whether to get the offer.

davidt
davidt

Giving a glowing reference for my ex-wife to a company I used to work for - under a boss I despised.

rspzeke
rspzeke

I guess it just depends what type of friend your colleague or relative is, but i'm not sure about still retaining friendships and continuing to network with them. There has to be some sort of change between you and that person.