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.