How to handle an awkward referral request
June 3, 2023 12:35 AM   Subscribe

A former colleague is interested in a job opening at the company I work for. She asked me to help introduce her to the right people. I certainly could but I don't want to. How do I extricate myself from this with the least amount of personal fallout?

There are a number of snowflake-y details that make the situation a bit fraught.

Former Colleague (FC) is a close family member of my dear friend. My friend doesn't know that I dislike FC. My reasons for disliking FC are multiple and also highly relevant to FC's potential employment at my company.

When FC and I worked together, FC was essentially let go for serious misconduct. Without giving away too many details, nobody was physically or emotionally harmed by what FC did, but it was bad enough that the company could've chosen to involve the police. She was lucky to be given the chance to resign quietly. FC doesn't know that I know.

FC was in a management role, and some of her reports also became dear friends of mine. These friends have confided in me that FC was mercurial and self-serving as a leader. The way FC treated one of my friends in particular was shocking to me, though it's not uncharacteristic given what I know her to be capable of.

So not only do I dislike FC personally, but I'd potentially be harming my own career and reputation if I recommend FC for the job. If FC were not the close family member of my dear friend, I would have dodged FC's calls. But unfortunately I see FC around on a regular basis due to my friendship with her family member. And if I don't at least appear helpful to FC, it would probably harm my friendship with FC's family member.

FC has sent me her resume and cover letter to submit on her behalf. I'm of a mind to lie to FC and tell her that I submitted the referral for her when I actually have not. But it also doesn't feel right to prevent or interfere with her application for the job, which she has every right to apply for.

What course of action do I have that would both be ethical and preserve my friendship with FC's family member?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (26 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
“I don’t like mixing friend/family relationships with professional relationships.”
posted by bendy at 12:51 AM on June 3 [13 favorites]

I'm of a mind to lie to FC and tell her that I submitted the referral for her when I actually have not.

This will not make you feel better.
posted by bendy at 12:53 AM on June 3 [7 favorites]

If “appearing” to disregard your principles is what it takes to harm your friendship then I’m not sure that’s a friendship.
posted by bendy at 12:58 AM on June 3

FC has sent me her resume and cover letter to submit on her behalf.

Did FC do that because you said you would or might submit them, or did they do it on their own? If the latter, you could return it with some notes on the content ("looks good", "you might want to emphasize X more") and then maybe something like 'because of an internal situation/politics in my current role I don't feel comfortable submitting a personal connection, but good luck with your application'.
posted by trig at 1:05 AM on June 3 [18 favorites]

I would just straight-up tell them that I'm not going to risk my own job and professional reputation by referring someone who was fired for misconduct.
posted by Jacqueline at 1:10 AM on June 3 [15 favorites]

It sounds like it would be a bad hire whether or not you recommend FC. Submit the materials (FC could/will presumably find out if you don’t and her application never goes in) but tell the hiring manager your feelings (with as specific of details as you think would be helpful, provided that doesn’t run afoul of fair hiring practices or libel laws in your location).
posted by supercres at 1:11 AM on June 3 [2 favorites]

Can you say something like "oh, I poked around a little, it sounds like everything needs to go through official channels — so you should go ahead and [submit that stuff the way any other candidate would]."
posted by Charity Garfein at 1:26 AM on June 3 [40 favorites]

I would find out who in your company is the appropriate person to whom the application should be submitted and pass that person's contact person on to FC with a message, "The attached contact info is the person to whom the application should be submitted. It is best and appropriate if you submit it yourself with a cover letter. I let them know you would be applying for the position. Good luck."

Make it appear as if you put the good word in for them when all you did was tell them that FC would be applying and you make no recommendation, good or bad. They are a relative of a dear friend.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 1:39 AM on June 3 [8 favorites]

'I am sorry, I will not be able to help you with your application at this time'
posted by slimeline at 1:59 AM on June 3 [2 favorites]

I would also advise against not submitting the application and just saying you did - FC will probably call to check if the application has been received.

In a previous job, I knew the person who had final say on hiring decisions very well. In this case, I would probably have submitted the application, and then explained the situation to her in person. Frame it as "It's your choice, so I don't want to withold any options, but in the spirit of full disclosure, I also need to register some concerns".

I also like the idea of of fending FC off by implying your recommendation might actually be counter-productive, due to byzantine office politics. She will surely understand, that you can't be any more specific about such internal affairs, she just has to trust you that it would be unwise. She might very well take that as a weak and transparent excuse, but she probably can't call you out on it, so you might at least avoid open conflict. This might not work though, if FC's relative you're friends with is usually very well informed about your work-life. Do you talk a lot about work to them?

Finally, however, you might want to consider if this is really a conflict you need to avoid. I get the impulse, my first instincts also usually tend in that direction - life is full of conflicts that can't be avoided, and I'd rather save my energy for those. In this case however, the confrontation might go better than you seem to expect, because you're just holding the better cards here. It's going to be an unpleasant conversation, but it's likely to end very quickly once you drop "fired for misconduct". So far, FC seems to think that this was successfully covered up. If she's got half a brain for strategy, she'll probably figure that it might be better to not make you feel defensive, if she wants that so stay this way. It's very much against her own interests to make a big public deal about any of this.

Alas, a person who gets herself fired for misconduct, might not be terribly strategic. Or she might be just strategic enough to avoid open hostility, and start airing her resentments behind your back. Then again, if she's the type to be petty, vindictive, lacking self-awareness, and accountability, that might happen anyway. If she doesn't get the job, she might suspect you of sabotage, no matter what you actually did. If that's your estimation of her character, that actually gives you a certain kind of freedom: in the long run, conflict will be unavoidable, so you might as well choose the actions that best reflect your values and how you want to see yourself.
posted by sohalt at 2:03 AM on June 3 [7 favorites]

“Due to confidential reasons, I’m not able to do this.” Let family member wonder about what the reasons are. You’ll never be able to discuss them, because, shock, horror, they’re confidential. Just repeat that if you get pressed on it, it’s confidential.

When family member is told this and relays it to FC, FC will for sure know what this means. Hopefully they’ll just be mortified you know their sordid history and back the heck off pushing you in case you actually let the cat out of the bag. They know you know and that’s enough. Expect to never get asked again.
posted by Jubey at 4:10 AM on June 3 [8 favorites]

Assuming the company has a functional HR dept and FC has not removed the previous experience from her CV there is very little chance she will actually be offered this job. Which just makes me wonder if FC knows this is futile and is just digging to see how much you know about her getting fired, she may not even want the job. Keep that knowledge to yourself and advise her the best route is to apply via the HR dept.
posted by Lanark at 4:24 AM on June 3 [2 favorites]

Could you talk to FC directly, in person over coffee or a walk? “I want to help you with this, at the same time I have some ethical concerns here. From what I understand, part of the reason you departed old job is because xyz; can you tell me more about that?”

And then:
“I’m sorry, I’m not sure I’m the best person to submit this for you. I don’t feel that I would be in a good place to give you a strong recommendation here and you deserve to have a reference from somebody who can give you 100%.”
posted by donut_princess at 5:44 AM on June 3 [1 favorite]

"Sorry, this is frowned upon at my company, to avoid the appearance of nepotism."
posted by unknowncommand at 5:59 AM on June 3 [11 favorites]

I would lean on the “needs to go through official channels” angle Charity Garfein suggested. Even in a totally different situation where you did want to help someone get a job, it would be perfectly reasonable for a company to have a policy of not allowing job applications to be informally submitted by other employees.

Then you can say “let me know once you’ve submitted it and I’ll see if I can keep an eye on its progress, although I don’t have a lot of transparency into that process” or whatever other demurrals seem appropriate.
posted by staggernation at 6:01 AM on June 3 [6 favorites]

Why not simply explain the situation to the hiring manager? Something like "So, a former colleague of mine is applying for a job here and I wanted to let you know about my concerns."
posted by matkline at 7:25 AM on June 3 [7 favorites]

you don’t owe this person anything so you are well within your rights to say “sorry I can’t but I can send you the LinkedIn profile of the hiring manager.” that way you’re offering them SOMETHING to soften the no.
posted by missjenny at 8:03 AM on June 3

Submit the application, or don’t, whatever, but by all means tell the hiring manager your experience to make sure she doesn’t get the job. She doesn’t need to know why she didn’t get it. If she asks, you can just tell her they had a lot of applicants and it was a tough decision etc. I would also absolutely say that you didn’t have a say in this, whether that’s true or not. If you need to tell a white lie, you can. You owe this person nothing.
posted by Amy93 at 8:26 AM on June 3 [7 favorites]

Ugh. I've been in a similar situation. If your friend is a good one, you should be able to have a direct conversation with them and let them know that you will not be referring their family member, without it breaking the friendship (I wouldn't be surprised if your friend is aware of some of the FC's flaws). Don't give details about the work situation, but you can say that you had issues with the FC and aren't comfortable referring them and that is as far as you'll go with discussing it.

Then, let the FC know that you won't be referring them. That is all you need to say and put on repeat. Ask them not to mention you as a reference and that they will need to submit their resume through regular channels.

If HR contacts you about a reference, just decline to give one and don't discuss further. Then back away from the entire situation and don't engage anymore.
posted by agatha_magatha at 8:45 AM on June 3 [1 favorite]

Turn the application and such over to the personnel department and say, "This person is, or will be applying for a job with our company. They are the sister of one of my best friends who gave me the documents to give to you. She wouldn't take no for an answer, which leads me to think she will keep applying. However I worked with this person previously... Given what I know about them I would NOT recommend them. Do you keep resumés on file? If you do, you might want to keep this one, with a note that I have very serious concerns, just in case she applies through other channels..." Then apologize for troubling them at the personnel department.

As for introducing her to people who work there. "I don't know the managers well enough to introduce you."

Also, speak to your friend, "This is putting me in a difficult situation because I can't strongly recommend her, and if I were to approach people like she wants me to it would be significant overreach on my part. I sure wish I could help! But if I push to get her hired it would make difficulties for me at the job. If I thought I could get her in without annoying the management I would, but I can't." I mean, you would try to help her if she were not a bad employee, and it would seriously annoy your managers if you recommend a bad employee.

If you get pressed by your friend or her relative any farther, just stare at them with a mildly offended look, as pushing after you refuse is very rude. The expression you want to wear is if they are following you around farting. If they repeat anyway, you gotta go now.

This is warning about a broken step before it becomes a problem. It sucks to be in this position, but you have a duty to your current co-workers.
posted by Jane the Brown at 8:45 AM on June 3 [3 favorites]

At my organization, we would not accept an application that was handed to us by somebody who already worked for us, and indeed, trying to do something like that would not be beneficial to the applicant. Even if your workplace does not have any official policy to that effect, many hiring managers who have been around the block would be suspicious under these circumstances.

In your shoes, if I wanted to minimize drama on all sides, I'd tell FC that you checked into the process and she needs to submit through the regular system, but that if she lets you know when she has done so, you can follow up with the hiring manager to verify that it was received, and find out about the process (e.g. timelines for interviews etc.). You can pass that kind of factual information back and make it clear that you have no influence over the hiring process.

When I spoke to the hiring manager I would tell them that I was asked by a former colleague to check that information, but I would also say something along the lines of "I was unable to refer or endorse this person because they resigned from our former employer under difficult circumstances, and had a poor reputation as a manager. If you do decide to proceed with the application, I'd recommend drilling down on their departure from Company XYZ, and also on their management skills and relationships with subordinates." Don't go into details and do not put anything in writing.

At that point, it's up to the current place to do their due diligence. If you were having that conversation with me, the message would come through loud and clear.
posted by rpfields at 9:29 AM on June 3 [3 favorites]

Assuming the company has a functional HR dept and FC has not removed the previous experience from her CV there is very little chance she will actually be offered this job.

That is not necessarily true, particularly if the previous company had her resign rather than get fired. Many companies have a blanket policy to not do anything other than confirm work dates, even for stellar employees.
posted by Candleman at 10:43 AM on June 3 [3 favorites]

My company's referral program has us fill out a brief questionnaire about the person we're referring. I'd submit their application through the referral system and fill it out honestly, which would almost certainly spike their chances while allowing me to honestly state that I'd submitted their resume. I suspect this process works this way in part for situations like yours, where someone we don't think is a good fit asks for a referral.

But the correct course of action here really depends on how your company handles internal referrals. Do they help? How do they work? Is there some official process or would you really just be making an introduction? If you aren't sure, I'd look into this before making any commitments or plans.
posted by potrzebie at 12:17 PM on June 3 [1 favorite]

I'd submit their application through the referral system and fill it out honestly, which would almost certainly spike their chances while allowing me to honestly state that I'd submitted their resume.

An old piece of wisdom given to me my my professional writing professors is to never put something into writing you wouldn't want your worst enemy to read. I've definitely spiked people's applications before but always through word of mouth. You never know who might deliberately or inadvertently let unpleasant but honest things you said slip to that person.
posted by Candleman at 1:56 PM on June 3 [9 favorites]

Is there any rule that FC has to submit her own application? Does FC know that she absolutely can make someone submit on her behalf? Or can you just say, "Sorry, you're gonna need to submit it yourself, that's how HR works?" Because if at all possible, I'd do the latter and duck the "I am a personal advocate for this shitty candidate" aspect of it altogether. Also, don't people just submit online to HR websites these days anyway?

I'm not sure if you can use family/nepotism as an excuse since you are a former coworker of FC, not her family.

Unfortunately, you say that FC (and friend) have no idea that you know that FC got canned and for what. I hate to say it, but you may need to tactfully indicate to FC and/or friend if they push that you are not the person who can be FC's champion and helper at this goal. I'm not sure how blunt/mean/honest you're going to have to be if FC and/or friend don't take a hint, but if passive excuses don't work, you may have to use some of the suggestions made above. I lean towards Jubey's suggestion of confidentiality.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:15 PM on June 3 [1 favorite]

Tell FC that you won't be able to assist due to the circumstances under which she left your former employer. Tell Close Friend that you and FC have talked, and if she presses, tell her that you wouldn't want to discuss FC's employment situation without FC's permission, but that if FC tells you she wants you to, you'd be happy to explain everything to Close Friend. In other words, let FC know that you know she was fired for misconduct, and then make FC be the one to make an excuse to Close Friend about why you can't tell Close Friend what's going on, unless FC wants you to tell Close Friend about the misconduct.
posted by decathecting at 8:54 AM on June 7 [1 favorite]

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