Do I tell a former co-worker why no one will hire them?
September 29, 2016 1:48 PM   Subscribe

Do I tell a former co-worker why no one will hire them?

I have a former co-worker who has been having a long period of under-employment. We work in a freelance industry, and no one will hire them. Periodically, this person e-mails me asking if I have any leads on work. This person has a history of being difficult to work with and exhibiting erratic behavior on the job. Because of this, I am not willing to vouch for them. I have always responded with something to the effect of "Sorry, but I don't know of anything at the moment.". At some point, should I level with this person and tell them some or all of the following?

1 - I cannot recommend them for a job.
2 - They are going to have a very hard time finding work until they fix some of their issues.
3 - They may have run out of options in our industry and should probably find a different line of work.

Or do I just continue putting them off politely and butt out?
posted by soy_renfield to Work & Money (31 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
I think a polite confession is going to backfire. Best to part ways.
posted by parmanparman at 1:53 PM on September 29, 2016 [13 favorites]


I wouldn't offer that kind of feedback unless directly asked for it, and even then I'd only do it if I thought there was a chance the person was truly open to feedback. In this case, I'd carry on as you are, you don't have a greater responsibility to him.
posted by msbubbaclees at 1:56 PM on September 29, 2016 [21 favorites]


People that have a "history of being difficult to work with"in general do not respond well to criticism, constructive or otherwise. If you expect your honesty to be received graciously, you might be disappointed.

I think the only reason to tell them is if you're feeling particularly charitable. If not, I'd butt out. The eventuality of running out of options and having to find a different line of work will happen whether you tell them or not, as they will either self-destruct if they find something, or not find anything at all.
posted by Everydayville at 1:57 PM on September 29, 2016 [8 favorites]


The polite response you've been giving is the only right answer here. I know it's uncomfortable every time they ask, but I think you're going to have to live with it. If they were a good friend, you could speak up -- but it's not your role to explain anything like this.
posted by wryly at 1:57 PM on September 29, 2016 [13 favorites]


I don't think so. If someone was getting a bad reputation but you felt they deserved a good one, you could tell them as part of helping them to fix it. If someone was generally a good colleague who delivered good work and whose challenges were minor and fixable and related to "trying too hard," then it would be kind to let them know that, e.g., "because you are so interested in doing things right, you've begun to get a reputation as a consultant who is a bit 'high maintenance,' so next gig, trust yourself more and be a bit more self-directed, and you'll do great!" This person sounds like they have a variety of issues, including issues that might mean that they'll react badly. And your assessment is pretty hopeless; saying "you're screwed, give up" is probably not that helpful.

If you really want him to stop asking, maybe try something like "this isn't the kind of thing I tend to hear about" or (at most) "it's been so long since we've worked together -- someone more familiar with your current work might be better to ask."
posted by salvia at 2:01 PM on September 29, 2016 [3 favorites]


Are you not competitors? By which I mean, if you knew about some work, wouldn't you be trying to do it? That does not seem like a productive strategy to find work work from this person's perspective.

Assuming, for some reason, that you know about more work than you can do yourself, it sounds like this person is just asking for names of places, not for an actual recommendation. Why not just give him some leads, and let him do with them what he will? It doesn't sound like your name will ever get linked with this person in the employer's mind.

Finally, is this person any good at what they do? If the quality of their work is high, could you give a recommendation of that while gently noting the problems with interpersonal skills?
posted by kevinbelt at 2:19 PM on September 29, 2016


Oh boy, I know someone like this! "Their" hair smells like garbage because of the house-hold hoarding issue, which developed because they procrastinate, and that procrastination slops over into workplace deadlines.
You are not an employment agent; you owe your former coworker nothing.
posted by BostonTerrier at 2:25 PM on September 29, 2016


I have seen articles that talk about the fact that being "difficult" is the primary reason talented people have trouble getting hired. IF you are in the habit of sharing articles with them and IF you trip across such an article, you could share the link/forward the article. In other words, if doing so will not come across very pointedly as "I am talking about YOU here." and then hope they get a clue.

But if they have not asked, volunteering such info generally does not help them and usually hurts you. It is typically nothing but downside for all parties.

However, if you wish to get rid of them, you could potentially let them know that you are unwilling to vouch for them, so they can stop bothering to ask because it is wasting their time and yours. Think carefully first whether the fallout from that is likely to be less or more pain than what is currently involved in saying "No, sorry, I have nothing for you."
posted by Michele in California at 2:27 PM on September 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


Absolutely do NOT tell this person any of those things. S/he probably knows very well that they are "difficult to work with" and has exhibited erratic behavior on the job in the past. If s/he wants or needs that kind of feedback, they can ask their former bosses or employers for some constructive criticism. You weren't asked and even if you were, you should not engage. You don't know this person's mental state and should be wary of saying anything that might cause them to fixate on you as the source of their problems. What if they convince themself that you've been saying this stuff within your industry and your "gossip" has caused them to have a bad reputation? Not worth the risk.

Fade away from this person and let them seek help for their issues from someone qualified to give it.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 2:47 PM on September 29, 2016 [8 favorites]


Telling someone difficult to work with that they are difficult is as useful as telling an anorexic that they should have a sandwich. It looks like it's addressing the problem but will not be heard that way.
posted by Obscure Reference at 3:12 PM on September 29, 2016 [8 favorites]


If roles were flipped, would you want someone to tell you why you weren't getting hired?

There's your answer.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 4:01 PM on September 29, 2016 [2 favorites]


I've been going to therapy because I used to be a very assertive person- telling people the "truth" and all, but that kept backfiring on me even when I was trying to help the person. But then I went the other extreme and became like a lot of other people out there- became all two faced and avoidant. Smiling at them telling them there wasn't any issue or feigning confusion over an issue when I knew what the real deal was- and then trying to avoid them as much as possible. There was less drama that resulted from this other extreme, but.... it still caused it's own different type of drama. Like the inner turmoil and the tap dancing I kept having to do around the person which took time and effort. Kinda like the tap dancing you're doing now. My therapist said that the best way to be is somewhere in the middle in many cases. You don't want to be reactive with them and you don't want to be avoidant either. It's best to be truthful, but polite. Not to hit them over the head with the so called "truth" but not to lie either.

According to my therapist, in my cases the best thing to do is to politely shoot the other person an email telling them the truth, but in nonconfrontational way. This gives the other person time to mull it over so they don't feel the need to 'react' right away. And then if they react poorly, it's not your fault because you can't be responsible for the way another person reacts when you were just being polite and understanding with them. It's also more fair to the other person because then the onus is on them and how they choose to react rather than on you. Because if they don't know what the issue is then they can't be expected to take any responsibility for it either- you know?

Of course I don't know this person. If you think his emotional problems are such that this guy would react by coming into your office one day with a gun then- Forget it. Just feign ignorance, tap dance as much as needed and avoid him. But if you're sure this isn't the case, then a good friend would shoot him something in writing (or leave a vm if that's more comfortable) so that they can access it without cutting you off or not giving you a chance to state your case. Then they will do either one of two things- attempt to make the changes they need OR they will just think of you as another person to be upset with and they'll cut you off. Either way, now that they know their reaction is totally on them and not on you.

If it were me I'd want to know that my hair smelled like garbage like another example stated by someone here- or that people found me hard to work with. For years I had an issue with someone I really liked and couldn't figure out way they never seemed to want to spend time with me. I found out eventually that due to some things I kept saying/doing they felt I didn't value their opinions and I felt terrible about this. I wish I had known sooner. It did make me reflect on what I could do to make things better, but only when it was too late. Many people due to abuses in childhood or other things are completely unaware as to how they come across.
posted by manderin at 4:24 PM on September 29, 2016 [10 favorites]


If they asked if they can use you as a reference, then you have to be honest with them about that -- that you cannot give them a good reference. Otherwise, no, probably don't tell them this stuff.
posted by J. Wilson at 4:31 PM on September 29, 2016


This kind of thing is not my forte, but I do feel strongly that there are a lot of clueless people out there (not all of them, but more than usually credited) who would genuinely _love_ to have a clue why their lives aren't going well. Even if they react emotionally in the moment when they're told, they can still process the information and use it later. And if it's presented in a genuinely caring way that conveys that they are a valued and liked person -- not easy, but some people can do it -- it can be genuinely beneficial, not just to that person, but to the people they work with and deal with in the future. Also any children they have; this kind of self-knowledge comes from parents and from having a secure life.

You could take them out for tea or lunch, and have a pleasant time -- so they feel secure in the idea that you don't hate them or look down on them -- and then at some point say something like (after they've started complaining about not getting hired):

"Sometimes my manager talks about other positions she's hired for, and mentions things like interviewees' having meltdowns or not showing up being absolute disqualifiers for them. I don't know how she's hearing about them, and I haven't told anyone about anything like that related to you, but is it possible that somehow word is out about that time last winter that you broke all the Girl Scout cookies? Or the time Jessica ruined your semiannual report and then started crying when you said what you said to her?

"I don't know everything about you, of course. You seem like a nice person to me [note: just about everyone's nice sometimes], and some nice people maybe have patterns that don't look good to employers.... do you think you might have a pattern that other people are picking up on? You know yourself better than anyone, certainly better than I do, so you'd have to be the ultimate authority on that. I'm just bringing it up in case the perception of something like that might be affecting things for you."

Then, be prepared with a very compelling topic in case that doesn't go over well, or just let her take her time to think about it and respond or not. If she's going to realize that this is relevant to her, it's not going to be _during_ lunch. It's going to be when she's by herself and has time to think.
posted by amtho at 4:40 PM on September 29, 2016 [11 favorites]


Indeed, it's wise to stay silent. Why open that can of worms?

But there is value in kindness. I would choose to offer a brief, contained bit of help:

"Dear ___, You've asked me several times if I know any leads for your job search. I'm not in a position to help with leads. However, if you are looking for some personalized advice, I would have time to write you a short feedback summary. Wishing you success in your job search. "

If they respond yes, send something like this...

"Dear ____, I recall when working with you, you demonstrated success with x, y, and z. However, there were some issues that could cause some people to overlook your strengths. These issues are a and b. If I needed to work on these issues myself, I might try doing c and d.
My schedule is so busy, I don't have time to discuss this any further. I wish you the very best in your job search."
posted by valannc at 5:46 PM on September 29, 2016 [8 favorites]


How likely is this person to listen to what you say if you try to say it? Are they likely to get angry, blow it off or ignore it? If so, then don't bother. I'd just put in the least amount of effort I had to in order to deal with them ("sorry, no leads") and not push it unless he started pushing it.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:47 PM on September 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


Please just explain it to them. I'm not good in a corporate environment, and have various social issuse, and have somebody explain them to them might do them a world of good, especially if it's things they can easily fix like not ironing shirts. There are many times when I've wished for honest feedback, and even if I've reacted badly in the moment it eventually sinks in. Just explain it to them.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 6:29 PM on September 29, 2016 [3 favorites]


Just act dumb. If asked directly say: "Uh.. I dunno." Obstinate people will usually just bother and annoy you if you offer constructive criticism. If you sense a little window in their mind open up to creative feedback, you can try to help, within reason.
posted by ovvl at 6:51 PM on September 29, 2016


You could phrase it a certain way.

Something like "I've noticed your personality is strong, while many in this industry prefer to work with more laid back types. Have you considered also looking for gigs in x y z related fields where that attribute is highly valued?"
posted by cacao at 7:06 PM on September 29, 2016


Something like "I've noticed your personality is strong, while many in this industry prefer to work with more laid back types. Have you considered also looking for gigs in x y z related fields where that attribute is highly valued?"

But that's not an explanation. Without explaining it to the person, saying they have a 'strong' or 'intense' personality sounds like a compliment. Highlight specific behaviors they can change.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 7:31 PM on September 29, 2016


Criteria I use to decide if giving such feedback would be appropriate:

1. Am I in a professional supervisory role to this person? If so, give feedback.
2. Am I in a professional advisory role to this person? If so, give feedback.
3. Is this person's behavior directly impacting me in major ways? If so, give feedback.
4. Am I in a mutually supportive peer role with this person where we each regularly give each other feedback and we both find it valuable? If so, think about giving feedback, but preferably wait until asked.
5. Did this person ask for feedback? If so, think about giving feedback, but weigh whether they're likely to both take it and find it constructive.
6. Is this person a peer to whom I've never given feedback, who has not asked for feedback, and/or is unlikely to change positively in response to the feedback? Do not give feedback.
posted by lazuli at 7:56 PM on September 29, 2016 [13 favorites]


I would want to know.
posted by rhizome at 8:15 PM on September 29, 2016 [2 favorites]


When you say you don't have any leads, they know what you really mean. You're already giving the feedback.

They know their history, they know or guess you know, they know you could be sending work, they're getting similar responses from others, etc. They have plenty of information to draw conclusions.
posted by michaelh at 9:30 PM on September 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


Your criticism isn't specific, so it would be useless to the recipient.
posted by splitpeasoup at 10:53 PM on September 29, 2016


They may have run out of options in our industry and should probably find a different line of work.

I agree with those who say there's probably little chance of a good outcome from telling this person the first two things on their list. However, since this person asks for leads, and you reply that you don't have any, it might be helpful to suggest, constructively, that they expand their search. Avoid saying they may have run out of options; instead, phrase it as a positive suggestion.

"Sorry, $FORMER_CO-WORKER, I don't know of anything in our industry right now. Have you considered broadening your search to $OTHER_INDUSTY? There might be some openings there."
posted by Gelatin at 5:03 AM on September 30, 2016


Do you know of any times when someone tried to tell this person about these issues? And if so, how did they react?
posted by OurOwnMrK at 6:04 AM on September 30, 2016 [1 favorite]


When you say you don't have any leads, they know what you really mean. You're already giving the feedback.

They know their history, they know or guess you know, they know you could be sending work, they're getting similar responses from others, etc. They have plenty of information to draw conclusions.


This is not true for everyone. It might be ask vs. guess culture, it might be lack of emotional education, it might be something else, but please don't assume others "know" things.
posted by amtho at 6:50 AM on September 30, 2016 [3 favorites]


I'm assuming there's a downside to saying something if it's not needed in this case. Yes, this is very much a 'guess culture' question.
posted by michaelh at 7:58 AM on September 30, 2016


There's always a risk of a downside if one _does_ anything. Being a good person isn't just about avoiding active harm, though. Actions, and risks, are required. Whether a particular action is worth the risk, or the potential good it might do is worth the risk, is up to the actor (in this case, the poster).
posted by amtho at 9:45 AM on September 30, 2016 [2 favorites]


Periodically, this person e-mails me asking if I have any leads on work.

It's probably best to simply answer (albeit in a not-quite-forthcoming way) the question you're asked. "Sorry, but I don't know of anything at the moment.".

Only when you're asked a question like "Why do you think I didn't get that job?" do you have standing to reply with more detail.
posted by John Borrowman at 1:25 PM on September 30, 2016


I have been a freelancer and have managed a team of freelancers. There are three things you have to be to be a good freelancer:

- Have high quality work
- Be reliable (hit deadlines)
- Be pleasant to work with

You will never run out of work if you have even just TWO of those things.

Your coworker's problem is not merely that they're difficult to work with.

I'm not sure why you're considering offering them unsolicited, unpaid professional development?
posted by danny the boy at 5:13 PM on September 30, 2016 [2 favorites]


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