Saying "That won't be possible" isn't really possible
March 5, 2013 8:16 AM   Subscribe

The question: Should I provide a lukewarm reference for my recently fired ex-manager to avoid awkwardness? Or should I tell him no, and if so, what is the code language to use? I can't say "Sorry, that won't be possible" for reasons outlined herein.

The story:

My manager recently left my small company by "mutual decision." I know for a fact he was fired; part of the impetus for the CEO and COO firing him was that he was a poor manager and largely incompetent at his core, non-management job skills. I think he is so un self-aware that he believes it really was a mutual decision. It's clear he does not know 1) he was a bad manager, or 2) that I and my teammate were told by the CEO and COO that they fired him in part so that we would stay.

This ex-manager is a very nice person, not malicious, a schmoozer/biz dev kind of guy, completely ineffectual as a manager, does not take initiative to keep abreast of our niche industry, isn't as skilled as my teammate and I at what he was hired for, and kind of dippy. It seems he's continually failed upward through the years. And my CEO, to smooth the firing, offered to help the ex-manager by giving him good references. The CEO does not want bad blood in our niche industry, which in our city has a lot of cross-hiring throughout the years because the pool of qualified people is pretty small.

Now the ex-manager has asked my teammate and me to give him good references as a manager. Neither of us feels he was a good manager. I've been avoiding it for several days but would like to give him an answer.

I don't feel comfortable saying "Sorry, that won't be possible" because I'll continue to see him everywhere at industry events. In the future, it's not impossible he'd be working for a theoretical company I really want to work at.

If I give a positive recommendation, I'm just helping to close off more potential management doors for me to transition into. (I'm a woman, so there's a bit of resentment on my part and assumption that part of the reason he's failed upward is because he's a man, whether that is fair or true.) I really resent the fact this person has been allowed to move through multiple management positions--each lasting less than two years--earning a higher and higher salary each time, with few core skills or management skills. As I'm typing this I'm remember his ungraciously taking credit for the work done by my teammate and me, even though that is not at all the culture in this workplace. Oh, and I'm also remembering how at my annual review he vaguely intimated some things that weren't true and then refused to provide examples--which I reported to the COO because it was now part of my employment record here. I can't say that was a part of why he was let go, but it's part and parcel of his being a shitty manager.

It doesn't seem ethical to tell him I'll give a positive recommendation and then tell the hiring company something overtly negative. I won't do it.

If I tell him no, I can't do it, how can I preserve a decent chance at non-awkwardness? If I tell him yes and then give only a lukewarm recommendation, is that terrible? Do people do that? Is there secret code language I can use to make it clear on the surface I think he's a super nice guy to have around the office, but not to expect him to be good at anything?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (39 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Just say you ran it by HR and they said you couldn't.
posted by Slinga at 8:23 AM on March 5, 2013 [10 favorites]

In the future, it's not impossible he'd be working for a theoretical company I really want to work at.

I think you need to focus on a structural obstacle here to accomplish your goal without creating bad blood.

"Manager, I believe that prospective employers would not find any reference from me credible given our respective levels of seniority and the fact that we may end up working for the same organization in the future in our city's small industry field of industry professionals. I suggest speaking with more senior people at our company and from other projects in order to obtain credible references. Best of luck with your job search."

And then let it drop. If he asks twice, begin with "As discussed..." and then restate the above in so many words.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 8:23 AM on March 5, 2013 [32 favorites]

I think you are overthinking this: give him a decent, lukewarm reference and move on. You should never assume he's taking a job you might someday want, and there are enough working men in any industry that his "failing up" is likely explicable by more than just gender.

You should give him the solid-not-stellar lukewarm reference because:

a) He likely has connections that have helped him 'fail up' and could help you later and, more importantly...
b) It's your current employer's policy that you do so, in order not to make waves in your tiny industry.

You won't be hurt and could be helped by giving the mediocre reference, and your company (at least in the opinion of your current bosses) could be hurt by your failure to do so.

Also, people aren't stupid: everyone knows what "I left by mutual agreement" means, even if this guy is set on deluding himself.
posted by Wylla at 8:24 AM on March 5, 2013 [7 favorites]

Have you spoken with your employer about this? They might have a policy on this - I know that where I work, we are allowed only to confirm dates of employment with no editorializing about performance.
posted by something something at 8:24 AM on March 5, 2013 [4 favorites]

You were reporting to this person? Tell him that you cannot provide him with references because he was not reporting to you, that he should be talking to the people he was reporting to, the ones he has reached a 'mutual decision' with.
posted by koahiatamadl at 8:25 AM on March 5, 2013 [12 favorites]

I'd tell him the truth. Tell him that you don't believe you can give a reference in good faith because you don't think that management is his strongest skill set. Give him a couple of specifics. Also find something to compliment him on. Be kind about the whole thing.
posted by dchrssyr at 8:25 AM on March 5, 2013

Speaking as a former HR person, HR manager and non-HR manager, I look askance at any recommendation from an underling. Subordinates liking a manager is way down the list of qualities I'm looking for. Feel free to tell him that you know an expert who says that a recommendation from you will be a net negative, if only because it squeezes out potentially useful ones.
posted by Etrigan at 8:27 AM on March 5, 2013 [12 favorites]

Tell him that if you'd like, you'll give any company who asks an honest assement of him. That you think he's a good guy and that he has certain challenges.

He'll stop asking you.

Don't help him fail upward better. It's bad for you, it's bad for the industry you're in. It's only good for him.

And if you promise to always tell the truth, then the fact of that truth is really on him. If he's so narcisistic to believe there is no bad story to tell, then that's doubly on him. Awkward isn't the worst thing to be when the alternative is liar.
posted by inturnaround at 8:27 AM on March 5, 2013 [4 favorites]

When is he leaving? I'd just keep putting it off until he stops asking. It's the tried and true passive aggressive way! Always an option.
posted by amanda at 8:34 AM on March 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

"To whom it may concern,

I worked with Ex Manager from 2010 to 2012. I enjoyed working with him and wish him the best.

Yours sincerely,


It sounds like you think you need to provide something in order to not burn any bridges, but you can't just lie and say he was a "great manager" (god, that sounds ridiculous, as though there are not better aspirations during our short time on planet earth).

Anyway, this is pretty neutral with a politely positive mini-flourish, so you're a) meeting his request with some grace and dignity and b) telegraphing to whoever reads your lukewarm endorsement that no, don't hire this doofus.

If he asks for something more substantial, cc him and forward his emails to your supervisor (COO?). If he phones you, tell him to email, and cc him and forward his emails to your supervisor (COO?).

You should probably let your COO know what's going on.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:36 AM on March 5, 2013 [4 favorites]

If you have to do this, just say a lot about his personality. He's gregarious, he's outgoing, he's very social, he goes out of his way to connect with everyone in the office, you can always count on him to welcome the new people, he likes to initiate outings for the team, etc. Go back to stuff like, he's punctual and reliable (the very basic things that are required for a job and things that shouldn't be remarkable enough to be noted in a recommendation.) Nothing negative, but you can get around talking about how he actually does his job this way.
posted by lemniskate at 8:36 AM on March 5, 2013 [6 favorites]

Tell him that if you'd like, you'll give any company who asks an honest assement of him. That you think he's a good guy and that he has certain challenges.

He'll stop asking you.

Don't help him fail upward better. It's bad for you, it's bad for the industry you're in. It's only good for him.

This seems like it's crossing the line. For one thing, it's not the OP's responsibility to help this fellow straighten out his life. Who the hell cares.

Second, I'm not sure what it's like where the OP is, but where I'm from employers can be sued for passing on critical assessments of former employees.

Third, time to break off contact with this guy. Mentioning you will provide an honest assessment is just prolonging this relationship. The guy has to bugger off.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:38 AM on March 5, 2013

Lemniskate has it. You can give him a happy, nice reference that says lots of positive things, none of which relate to his job. Anyone reading it will understand what you are not saying.
posted by musofire at 8:41 AM on March 5, 2013 [8 favorites]

I'd tell him the truth. Tell him that you don't believe you can give a reference in good faith because you don't think that management is his strongest skill set.

Only do this if you want him to make ruining your career a life goal.

Are they asking you to give him a written letter of recommendation in advance? If so, 'forgetting' to give it to him until he's gone is an option, or telling him to just give your -work- number to people who request a reference.

I'd try to weasel out if he wants a letter, or just not call then back if people call about him. If you absolutely must write him a letter, use KokuRyu's.

I had a boss exactly like the one you describe, to the point that if he'd not still been with his current company I'd think it was him. Nothing on earth would get me to give him a good reference, so I feel for you.
posted by winna at 8:42 AM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

This seems like it's crossing the line. For one thing, it's not the OP's responsibility to help this fellow straighten out his life. Who the hell cares.

I wasn't at all suggesting she try to help him straighten out his life. I was saying the exact opposite. That the only thing she could really give him honestly is an honest assessment.

Second, I'm not sure what it's like where the OP is, but where I'm from employers can be sued for passing on critical assessments of former employees.

She's not an employer. She was a subordinate of this person.
posted by inturnaround at 8:46 AM on March 5, 2013

If you feel you must give an honest reference the way this is dealt with in academic circles is a cool to lukewarm reference with a 'please contact me for more details' line. Reference readers will see this as 'Please contact me. There are negatives I am not comfortable putting down on paper that I will share with you over the phone'
posted by srboisvert at 8:46 AM on March 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

Have you discussed this with your CEO? He should know that ex-boss is asking this of you, and just because he agreed to give a reference does not mean that he thinks you should.
posted by bunderful at 8:51 AM on March 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

To put a brighter face on it, if you want to move into positions he has traditionally occupied, turnover (for others, not you) is to your benefit. It sounds like you can be confident that he, at least, will be vacating positions on a regular basis. Go ahead and give him a non-committal reference. Maybe call him an "enthusiastic and pleasant colleague."
posted by rocketpup at 8:52 AM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'd be afraid to give an honest reference for fear he'd hear about it. There's some reason this man keeps failing upward, and in a small industry it is most likely connections. You don't want to give a truthful reference and find out you were talking to his brother-in-law or something.
posted by winna at 8:52 AM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

As for code, just telling people that they should find another recommender usually gets the point across.
posted by thelonius at 8:52 AM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm surprised at the suggestions that you ought to tell the guy you're going to give him a good reference and then do otherwise. Yes, this is unethical.
posted by Wordwoman at 8:54 AM on March 5, 2013

"I am so flattered that you would seek my opinion on something so important as a job reference. However, I don't feel that the time we spent together at the company was very good timing for the company, which I'm sure you completely understand. I'm not so certain that my reference would be fully beneficial to the particular opportunity that you're targeting. Call me crazy, but it's my personal policy to not to provide a reference that isn't 100% beneficial or applicable due to the nature of our small industry. Please let me know if the situation changes. I truly wish you all the best of luck and I'm sure our paths will cross again."
posted by floweredfish at 8:54 AM on March 5, 2013

Second, I'm not sure what it's like where the OP is, but where I'm from employers can be sued for passing on critical assessments of former employees.

For the record, this is only technically true anywhere, in the sense that you can sue anyone for anything. Many companies prefer not to give negative recommendations for fear of litigation that will be expensive in and of itself, even if they win. This often bleeds over into not giving positive recommendations either, because if you have a known policy of not giving negative recommendations and you refuse to give a recommendation, well, everyone knows what that means. (This has led to a differentiating in HR circles between "references" and "recommendations" -- companies will provide the former, which consists solely of "We affirm that This Person worked for us in This Job from This Date to That Date.")

Some companies will even make it a policy proscribing their employees from providing recommendations even as private persons. These policies are rarely enforced (and likely unenforceable).

But there are no laws anywhere against passing on critical assessments of former employees (except in the context of libel or fraud or suchlike).
posted by Etrigan at 8:55 AM on March 5, 2013 [4 favorites]

If you are close enough with your CEO that he confided in you that he fired your boss to keep you, and if your CEO is the one who promised this guy a good reference, I'd make this your CEO's problem. Go to the CEO and tell him that the ex-manager has asked you for a reference, that you don't feel comfortable providing one at all, much less providing a good one as the CEO promised. Ask the CEO how to handle it so that you can both keep your integrity and not mess things up for the company. Then, you can tell the guy whatever you and your CEO decide is the right answer. But you didn't make the agreement, so this shouldn't be your problem to deal with alone.
posted by decathecting at 9:04 AM on March 5, 2013 [26 favorites]

Say, "I don't think I'm the best person to give you a reference." In my experience, people know that that means, "I will not give you a good reference if asked."
posted by supercres at 9:28 AM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Absolutely this is a situation that you should not be put in. A reference from a former supervisee? When the supervisor was fired??? Totally inappropriate. Refer upstairs, absolutely.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 9:29 AM on March 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

I was in this position. I went to my manager and said "Would you say it's inappropriate for me to act as a reference for Mr. X?" He started hemming and hawing about how it might be appropriate, the circumstances... I kind of cut him off, and repeated my request, with new emphasis: "No, would you say it's inappropriate for me to act as a reference for Mr. X?" He got the clue, and said "it's inappropriate for you to act as a reference for Mr. X." Then, when asked for the reference, I could honestly tell him that, no, my boss said it'd be inappropriate.
posted by MrMoonPie at 9:32 AM on March 5, 2013 [21 favorites]

I don't know, I'd maybe have a 'come to Jesus' with this guy.

"Bill, you know I think you're a great guy, but you really weren't a good fit for the job you had as manager at Innotec." If he wants more, give it to him.

"You weren't up-to-date on the technology, and that put Marty and I in more than a few binds. I think you'd do great at a less technical biz dev job, but if you're going to be pursuing positions similar to the one you just left, I have to be honest here and say that I can't really give you a glowing reference."

On second thought, just tell the guy, "I wish I could Bill, but that's really not my place as your former subordinate."

Leave it at that.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:58 AM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Giving the guy a fake positive reference is just going to take a job away from somebody who actually does have legit references.

Lots of great suggestions on how to demure, I'd try to enlist the CEO's help myself and if that fails, write a glowing reference of his personality with no reference to his job skills. What I definitely would not do is let this guy steal a job from someone else via lies.
posted by zug at 10:13 AM on March 5, 2013

I'd refuse to give him a reference at all, on the grounds that it's extremely unusual for an employee to give their supervisor a reference. And if that's not enough, tell him you've asked HR, and they did not give you permission to write one --- and yeah, if you do end up deciding to write him a reference anyway, make sure you have HR's okay in writing beforehand: no need to get yourself in trouble.

Basically, don't write it, and blame 'the system'.
posted by easily confused at 10:14 AM on March 5, 2013

My supervisor wasn't even allowed to confirm my dates of employment when I signed up to take the bar exam. Some places are pretty strict about this stuff. I don't think this is a decision you should make alone or with the help of the internet. Ask your CEO/COO. Then do whatever they tell you to do.
posted by jph at 10:15 AM on March 5, 2013

Mod note: From the OP:
This is resolved. There is no policy at my company; we are small enough not to even have an HR department. I threw it to the CEO, hoping he would make such a policy on the spot to help me, or otherwise say it was a bad idea, but he's very much not the kind of person who would do this. He said "I feel your pain" and that his own recommendation would be limited to certain types of positions (e.g., not one like he had here) and roles.

So I read over all your responses--several times. Thank you. It was actually quite helpful to have a varying set of responses. It made me realize I needed to simply woman up and tell him no. As I was writing it, I thought back to another time when an ex-boss with a bad history wanted me to recommend her. And I instantly came up with my own "policy": I will not provide references to people I've reported to. To be asked to do so usually occurs, in my limited experience, because the person has few other options because of their own bad performance.

So I told ex-manager "Sorry, I don't feel comfortable giving references for people I've reported to. But I'm sure CEO will give you a good reference." (Because I know it to be true, limited circumstances not withstanding.)

I'm most comfortable that 1) I didn't lie, and 2) I'm not helping him continue to fail upward. And because I didn't make it clear in my original post, this last part is also important to me because he is senior to me only in history of titles, not in skills or years of experience.

Thanks again!
posted by mathowie (staff) at 10:16 AM on March 5, 2013 [31 favorites]

Is it okay (in general) to be promoted for failing to perform? Must you be liked by everyone? These are tangental, but not irrelevant questions.

The central question is: what's required to get you to to lie in a document you'll present over your signature?

I can see a maze of decision boxes here. The simplest one is the thief of bread analogy: would you steal a loaf of bread to feed your starving children? If so, then feeding your children is what it takes to make a thief of you. (Would you steal under lesser conditions?) The issue is the price of your integrity. Nobody can set that value for you--the decision will always be yours, regardless of how obliquely the pressure is applied.

I don't believe telling a lie always represents the moral low ground, so that's not the only point at issue here--and the ethics don't represent the practical aspect of your problem. A letter of recommendation is the same as co-signing for a loan. Your name, and the quality of your judgement, will be linked to this person, and your relationship to him will be what you say it is above your signature.

Should you write him up as you see him? That's what I would do. I would try to give an honest description, and defend my opinion without snark. He isn't required to pass this paper along to his new employers. If he takes you seriously he may engage you in an honest conversation, or he may just withdraw in a huff, and continue to waltz around in his never-neverland forever.

If you don't mind kicking the can down the road, then write him up with stuff you know isn't true, and let it go. Others in your department will understand that what you say isn't necessarily what you mean. You may be able to get off the hook by following the advice, above, of having your boss instruct you to not write a recommendation. This would relieve you of the necessity of putting your money where your mouth is, opinion-wise, regarding meritless promotions and unfair practices in the workplace.

I'm pretty sure that knowing what to do isn't your problem. Good luck with this.
posted by mule98J at 10:25 AM on March 5, 2013

Glad to see this is resolved.

I do think that if one is in a "can't say no" situation, that the boilerplate recommendation "Mr X was always punctual and well-dressed" gets the point across nicely.
posted by adamrice at 11:02 AM on March 5, 2013

He's putting you in a shitty position in ways that have been mentioned, but also because you may end up having to apply to him for jobs, if he keeps failing upward for a while. It does happen that people wind up interviewing former bosses or being asked about their performance-- and a total reversal of status is very possible in a year or so-- but for him to ask you to do this right now, with your relative status being what it is, seems almost extortionate. I would really try to get a superior to say no.

It also seems like a really dumb idea from his point of view. People are going to know he was fired and he's asking for recommendations from people who report to him? It makes it seem like he can't get normal recommendations.
posted by BibiRose at 12:09 PM on March 5, 2013

Write him a letter: I worked with Manager Guy from Fall 2009 - spring, 2013. Manager is personable and gets along well with everyone on our team. He is reliable, organized and punctual. Her has extensive experience in niche stuff. I think he'd be good in sales & marketing. etc.

Say true things. If you think he'd be good at sales or widget-inspecting, say so. Don't say untrue things. People who do hiring can see what you're doing, and may call you. Refer them back to your letter saying you think it said everything you have to say.

Don't strand a person w/ no reference, even if he's a doofus. Honesty works. I once read a question about whether Farrah Fawcett was a good actor. The answer: Ms. Fawcett-Majors is kind to animals. True, and telling. Don't be quite that blunt.
posted by theora55 at 12:41 PM on March 5, 2013

Glad it's resolved and you're happy, but for anyone in future in a similar position, Lemniskate has a good answer. You just say a bunch of positive true things. Any competent reference-checker will easily read between the lines, and anyone who can't, honestly is incapable of making a good hire anyway. You say all the positive stuff really fluidly and warmly and kindly, and if you get asked tough questions (which you should), then let your hesitations and hedging speak for itself.
posted by Susan PG at 2:10 PM on March 5, 2013

I had a horrible boss — when people asked about him, I always just said "I learned a lot from him."

Never lie when simple misdirection is enough.
posted by mon-ma-tron at 4:06 PM on March 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

That's so funny mon-ma-tron, that's exactly what I say about my last office job. "I learned so much while I was there." Which is true. Great foundation, some interesting projects, but ultimately I was very happy to go. Heh. Though I did get a glowing reference on my way out!

I think anon is a class act and did the right thing.
posted by amanda at 8:51 PM on March 5, 2013

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