How to handle being a job reference for someone not sure I'd recommend?
February 16, 2013 4:49 PM   Subscribe

Briefly worked with someone in a galaxy far, far away. They want me to recommend them. I'm not convinced this person is the droid the job is looking for.

I was contacted out of the blue by someone I worked with a couple of years ago and told that s/he has used me as a reference in their application to a rather prestigious organization. We have not been in touch at all since we worked together, and we did not work together very long--less than a year. I don't remember much about this person other than there were a few basic issues (think on the level of punctuality), but given the intervening years, it's quite possible that these things are no longer an issue. I really don't feel comfortable speaking to the core competencies that this organization will probably ask about because I haven't seen this person's work in the meantime.

Had this person asked, I would have found a gentle way to suggest they ask someone else. What to do now? I don't know what job they're applying for specifically and I couldn't find job postings on the org website or via Google. This person doesn't have a LinkedIn profile for me to do a little subtle recognizance on what they've been up to since we worked together, either. If I'm very lucky, the org won't contact me, but I need a game plan. I work in this field, and it's not a huge one. I don't want to give a false recommendation lest it come back to bite me down the line.

So what to do? Do I respond with a vague note to this person and then be equally vague if/when the org contacts me? Do I ask for a portfolio of recent work & a resume (which feels a little presumptuous) so I can make a more substantive reference? Maybe there's a middle ground? Hope me, hive mind!
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (25 answers total)
Why not do the same thing as you would have originally done? Send them a note that suggests they ask someone else, you don't feel comfortable acting as a recommendation. It'll be best for both you and them.
posted by quodlibet at 4:53 PM on February 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

Using you as a reference without your permission is pretty dodgy. When/if $PRESTIGIOUS_ORGANIZATION calls, decline to give a reference.
posted by scruss at 4:58 PM on February 16, 2013 [13 favorites]

Tell the person something like you appreciate the honor, but do not wish to be anyone's reference.... basically turn them down nicely if you can or harshly if you have to!, but do NOT be a reference for someone who is effectively a near-total stranger at this point.

*You haven't been in touch for several years --- you are not likely to be acceptable to a prospective employer as a current work OR personal reference.
*You say you worked 'with' this person; unless you were their supervisor, that too makes you an unacceptable work reference.
*Even if you WERE this person's supervisor, and it was, say, within the last few months, their naming you as a reference without clearing it with you first is indeed presumptuous, if not a bit rude, and does not require you to do it.
posted by easily confused at 5:14 PM on February 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

This person has put you in a difficult position against your will. If this organization calls, I would just tell them the truth, that you don't really have any useful info to give them; I don't see any need to complicate things any more than that. If you feel like you want to help out the applicant, I would do what quodlibet suggested above; I wouldn't feel obligated, though.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 5:15 PM on February 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

The most upstanding thing to do is to drop a note to the person and say "X org contacted me for a reference, I wish you the best but I only give those for people who've worked for me directly and recently, so you should provide them with a different one."

You don't owe them this, but it would be kinder than the alternative, which is to just decline to give the reference if you are called, citing this reason.

I do think it would be odd to start poking around about them or asking them for dossiers.
posted by fingersandtoes at 5:16 PM on February 16, 2013 [6 favorites]

Do you think the careless way in which this person notified you he used you as a reference without permission indicates that it is likely that the "basic issues" are no longer present?
posted by grouse at 5:16 PM on February 16, 2013 [9 favorites]

I would consider telling the person that putting someone down as a reference without first asking them if doing so is OK is not OK, and that they should seriously consider not doing that to anybody else in the future.
posted by Flunkie at 5:23 PM on February 16, 2013

If contacted as a reference, just say "yes, I worked with them, but I didn't work directly with them / for very long with them. I wish I had more to say."
posted by zippy at 5:25 PM on February 16, 2013 [15 favorites]

Had this person asked, I would have found a gentle way to suggest they ask someone else. What to do now?

Find a gentle way to suggest they ask someone else.
posted by John Cohen at 6:56 PM on February 16, 2013

Really, unless you are willing to lie for them, it will be better for them & their job prospects if you decline, even now. If I were the employer, and I called you, and you said "I can't really say much", I would take that as a negative recommendation.
posted by mr vino at 6:59 PM on February 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've been that person who presumptively put someone down as a reference thinking it was fine, only to find out (through backchannels, they never said anything to me) that my former colleague/supervisor was decidedly NOT helping my cause. I wish they had said something to me, because I feel badly that I put them in that position.

Drop your former colleague a note that said something along the lines of "I'm sorry, I'm really not comfortable speaking on your behalf to prospective employers. Please find someone else from our former company to list on your applications." And if the organization contacted me, I simply wouldn't take the call, or wouldn't respond to the email (because I'm avoidant like that.)
posted by ApathyGirl at 7:06 PM on February 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

While you're absolutely within your rights to decline, you can also ask this person for a brief update on their professional life, particularly ways they feel they've grown since the time you knew them.

If I were you, my game plan would be to call or email this person to say basically, I didn't know you well when we were coworkers, and I wish you'd asked before listing me as a reference, but if you want to talk to me about your time at our mutual employer and what you've done since, I can answer a reference call from Prestigious Organization. And then, based on that conversation, answer the recruiter's questions honestly. (But that's me, and I have a soft spot for clueless people. It's not wrong or mean to just say you can't be their reference.)
posted by Meg_Murry at 7:34 PM on February 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

I can't help but put myself in this other persons shoes.

They probably really want this job, they had nobody else to ask or had already asked them and they said no, they knew it was the wrong thing to do to just put your name but they did it out of desperation; or something along those lines.

I would wait, you might not hear anything. If they do call then just be honest, say things that are positive about the person but state that you worked together a while back and not altogether closely but as far as you remember they were a team player, friendly, approachable etc.

After the call (or no call in a few weeks) email/text/call the person back and say that you did or did not give the reference but you're not sure if it worked (or would work) in their favour because it was such a long time ago and you don't have many recent examples to give. Maybe it would be best to find someone more recent.

I guess as a recent job hunter I know if my dream job came up and I was grasping at straws to find a referee I would be eternally grateful for even a vague reference. You might find yourself in this situation, you never know.
posted by Youremyworld at 8:00 PM on February 16, 2013 [12 favorites]

Yeah, I'm kind of leaning toward Youremyworld's thoughts on this. I can't imagine that anything would come back to bite you in the ass unless you were dishonestly effusive or, conversely, were overly negative. If punctuality is the blackest mark against them, maybe you can overlook that and stay neutrally positive. This guy or girl may have been grasping at straws and your name came to mind. Maybe they feel that you are the most well-rounded person to give a little feedback on their time in your company. Clearly, time has dulled your memory and it's okay to say so. If you really want to do right by them you should ask them to remind you of the work they did at your co and some of their accomplishments. When I ask for a recommendation or reference from someone, I do that. Most of my bosses had several reports and I don't expect them to remember all my personal triumphs.
posted by amanda at 8:15 PM on February 16, 2013

If you can't comment on their recent work then I think it's fair to say politely, "I'm not sure I could write you a good recommendation for this position given the limited time we worked together and not having experience with your recent work history." Try to emphasize that you're not the best person to be attached to the application, rather than going into details of why you don't want to write the rec.

See how they respond to that. If they still want you to write a recommendation, if they really think you're their number one choice, make sure your caveat is put in the body of the letter so you don't feel like you're being dishonest. E.g., "X worked with me on Y project from May 2005 through June 2006. My experience was that X was A, B, and C." As long as you don't lie, I can't see why this would ever reflect on you poorly. If anything, it might just not be a very strong recommendation, given the time that has elapsed, but that's up for the hiring committee to decide.
posted by deathpanels at 10:52 PM on February 16, 2013

Eh, I feel like if you provide the reference pretty much as you already laid out - 'I worked with this person a number of years ago, and there were some minor performance issues including punctuality' and adding the bit about 'Unfortunately I'm not in a position to comment on whether those issues have improved as we worked together quite a while ago' - the person on the other end of the line will get the picture. That, coupled with contacting the ex-colleague to say that it's not professional to put your name forward without checking first, is how I would tackle this slightly awkward situation.

Declining to give a reference just feels like giving a bad reference, IMHO.
posted by pink_gorilla at 12:53 AM on February 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you weren't the person's boss, the company seeking a reference isn't going to expect you to go in-depth about the person's work accomplishments, career highlights, personal attributes, etc. They just want to make sure the guy has a few friends & former co-workers who are willing to vouch for him as an ok person so they can be reasonably sure he doesn't have some big glaring flaw that has put people so far off that he can't find anyone who will say some positive stuff about him on the phone for 5 minutes.

If the person wasn't awful to work with, there is nothing wrong with saying a few generic nice things about him to a prospective employer. What with this lousy job climate, do you really want to be responsible for costing someone their shot at a good job because you remember they used to be late a lot when you worked with them years ago? If they've already put your name down as a reference, requesting that they withdraw it is almost certainly going to cost them the job. The employer is going to see it as a huge red flag, and this doesn't sound like the kind of situation in which a red flag is warranted. Declining to give a reference will have the same effect.

If they weren't the kind of awful, pain-in-the-ass or worse co-worker you'd feel guilty letting some other company hire, it would be a decent thing to do to say something like Youremyworld suggested above.

Then let the person know afterwards that you are not comfortable providing a reference for them in the future and to please not use you any more.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 1:34 AM on February 17, 2013 [4 favorites]

I would shrug my shoulders and do it. Think about it -- the context will already be apparent to the potential employer. If the candidate is unestablished in their career, then the potential employer already knows the person's references will be weak. If the candidate is supposed to be established in their career, then why would they use a name from the past? So obviously such a person is floundering a bit.

If you were their supervisor, then providing references and answering questions about someone is part of your burden for the next 2-5 years (depending on their tenure) after they leave your team. Employers are hurting so badly for warm bodies these days that even a middling reference is sufficient. Although the employee was not a superstar, it doesn't hurt your reputation to acknowledge the contributions someone made to the team.

If you were not their supervisor, then...well, I suspect anything you say will already be sufficiently de-valued by the person hearing it. So what's the harm? Again, you are helping the candidate tick off one of the many boxes needed so they can be cleared for employment. I don't see how it can hurt your name or credibility.

Finally, if the person is early career I would send them a tip to always ASK before giving someone's name and nudge them to pick stronger references. If the person has reached mid-career, then I would assume they knew better but are in a bit of a spot.
posted by 99percentfake at 7:25 AM on February 17, 2013

I agree with Youaremyworld. It could be that this person has been out of work for a while (in this economy, that has happened to good people) or has heard so many "no's" from potential references that they've decided not to ask permission anymore. In either case, do you want to be the jerk who torpedoes someone's job opportunity?

This may be just my own personal opinion, but I think it is petty and vindictive to give the kind of bad reference that costs someone a job opportunity unless: this candidate is someone who has done something like stolen from the company or punched out a coworker or otherwise behaved in such a way that you would feel like you've wronged their future boss/company by recommending them; or you work in a tight-knit industry or very high position where word of mouth is how everyone gets hired and your word is your bond, so if you recommend "Joe" and Joe turns out to be a turd of a worker, that reflects badly on you.

One day you will likely need references yourself and you want people to be kind and overlook minor flaws or bad fits with particular jobs or bosses.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 8:13 AM on February 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would contact the person and say something along the lines of "listen, I wish you had contacted me before giving my name, because it has been such a long time since we worked together and I don't think I have much of substance to say. I will be able to tell them [generic things about how long you worked together, what you remembered as this person's particular strengths etc.] but if they ask me directly about punctuality [for example] I will have to tell them XYZ. If they ask for my assessment of your competencies in [whatever area], I will have to say that I am not able to comment because I never observed you doing the kind of work that would showcase those abilities."

At that point, depending on how desperate they are, they might opt to use another reference. But if they would rather take their chances, your karma would be intact if you are honest about your limited knowledge of the person, focus on whatever positives you remember, and answer any specific questions honestly. There's no need to go out of your way to bring up the bad stuff, but you should also not feel like you have to compromise your integrity by saying things that you can't back up.
posted by rpfields at 8:35 AM on February 17, 2013

Type up your sample response:

I knew (this person) slightly a few years ago (give dates), and haven't been keeping up with her career since we worked (for X-corp). She was always amiable and well-groomed. I wasn't in a position to evaluate her job skills, but I don't recall any outstanding complaints about her performance.

This is to be cast in the jargon of your trade, of course, and with citations that reflect your opinion (describe your working relationship--she was in shipping and you were in data-mining). Send her the sample copy. Tell her that this is the best you can do and remain honest. Suggest that this wouldn't be the reference you'd put on top of the stack, but you're willing to submit it if she still wants it.

As you say, you aren't up to speed on her subsequent doings (since you worked together), but it's not up to you to do that research, it's up to her prosepective employers. I see nothing wrong with giving an honest opinion in this case. I might have a problem with trying hint at any problems with her job performance, unless I had some specific issues to submit.
posted by mule98J at 10:29 AM on February 17, 2013

do you want to be the jerk who torpedoes someone's job opportunity?

Do you want to be the jerk who advantages this guy over someone else who deserves the job more and needs it just as much?
posted by grouse at 10:36 AM on February 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

I feel like good etiquette would dictate someone ask if they can use you for a reference. They didn't, you didn't agree, so you don't need to feel obligated to do so. That alone speaks to a certain amount of character.

You are not responsible for their career, they are. It's natural to want to help, but you absolutely must not do so at the cost of your own professional reputation. Be honest when they call. Let them know you're not in a position to do much beyond confirm they're probably not an axe murderer and you did work with them once. Do not lie. Do not feel pressured; the interviewer will thank you for it.
posted by jeffamaphone at 11:05 AM on February 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

You are not responsible for their career, they are. It's natural to want to help, but you absolutely must not do so at the cost of your own professional reputation. Be honest when they call. Let them know you're not in a position to do much beyond confirm they're probably not an axe murderer and you did work with them once. Do not lie. Do not feel pressured; the interviewer will thank you for it.

That. You can confirm facts. You can answer specific questions if factual. You can be kind in not giving your views/impressions unless asked for them specifically. Even then you can state that you have a policy of only confirming dates and facts. If you want to say anything else phrase it carefully. The astute listener will draw their own conclusions.
posted by koahiatamadl at 12:21 PM on February 17, 2013

I just had a thought - this won't tell you what to do now, but it might explain why this person did what they did: the idea that it is easier to ask forgiveness than permission, which is very prevalent and very encouraged in many circles (and often comes up on Ask MeFi). Your ex-coworker might have been operating on this principle and taking it to mean "Don't ever bother to ask permission, just go ahead and do X and forgiveness will be granted because you can't undo what is done." Which I don't think is what the original phrase means, but I think it's often interpreted that way.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 10:22 AM on February 18, 2013

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