Dear Lifehacker, An old coworker gave my contact info to a company he's interviewing with. While we were good friends at work, the truth is that he was a horrible employee. He came in late and left early, never finished his work, and everyone else had to clean up after him. He's nice, but if I were hiring someone, I would avoid him like the plague. How should I respond when they call for a reference? Sincerely, Honest Worker
Dear Honest Worker,
The short answer to your question is that you shouldn't be a referee for anyone unless you feel 100 per cent comfortable with it. You don't want to be put in a position where your credibility is sullied by someone else's behaviour. Even if you think it will come back around to you, it's just not a good idea to lie.
However, there is something to be said for helping a friend get a job. Doing a good deed for even someone you're passing friends with can help them stay on their feet, or earn you a reference in return. Also, you may be able to serve as a referee without testifying to your old colleague's character. Here are some options.
Set the Record Straight with Your Old Coworker
The first thing you should do no matter what is talk to your old coworker and make it clear what you're OK and not OK saying. If you're not comfortable being a referee, say so. Then, stick to your guns. If a recruiter calls you anyway, say that you're not in a position to offer a reference for that person. Regardless of how it may or may not help someone else, you shouldn't do something you're uncomfortable with, and your coworker should respect that. If not, well, that's another reason you wouldn't want to be a reference for that person.
If you are OK being a referee, but you're worried about what you'll be asked, take a different approach. Let your coworker know you're comfortable talking about the fact that they're a nice person and easy to get along with, but you're not in a position to talk about the projects they worked on, or that even if you were, you're not sure you would have anything great to say.
The more honest you can be, the better. It's tough to tell someone "Listen, I can tell them you're fun to work with, but I can't vouch for your work", but it's necessary. Being honest now will make sure you're not in a position where you have to lie or say something negative later. It also gives them a chance to find someone else. Of course, most people actually ask their references before they hand their names over, so that's a problem on its own, but it's never too late to clear the air.
Provide Employment Verification and Nothing Else
Depending on where you live and who you work for, you may only be able to provide specific employment information anyway. Check with your company's HR department to see what their policy is. In many places, the only things you'll be allowed to offer up are dates of employment, verification that the person actually worked there during those times and whether the person is eligible to be re-hired (a nice way to ask if they've been fired).
Your company may prohibit you from speaking informally about the type of person they were, the circumstances under which they left and so on without a written release from the old employee. This rarely never stops the recruiter or the HR rep on the other end of the line from trying to probe a little bit and see what you're willing to give up. You can stick to your guns and say you're not permitted to give out any more details, or you could slip in a good word or two if you wanted. Just don't use it as a chance to passive-aggressively bash your old coworker. You have a safe out that doesn't hurt anyone — take it.
Take the Passive (But Positive) Approach
If you're not interested in ruffling feathers, take the easy way out: Say good things, and either omit or lie about bad things. Ethically, this is tricky. You have to decide whether you want to help this person you already know get a job (where they may be just as much of a drain on their future employer as they are now, but at least they'd be out of your hair) or help the other company (a collection of individuals you don't know) avoid hiring someone you wouldn't hire if given the choice.
It's always an option to acknowledge what you know, say good things when you can, and feign ignorance on everything else or anything that could be less than flattering. On the plus side, you're not airing anyone's dirty laundry, you're not technically lying, and you are helping your coworker out in the most comfortable way possible. Of course, you may not be doing the other company any favours, but it's not like your reference is the only data point they're using to decide whether to extend your old coworker a job offer. It's not your job to make sure your coworker gets the job, but it's not your job to make sure they don't either.
The stakes would be higher if you were offering a reference for someone you used to work with who wants a job where you work today — if your slacker ex-colleague wants a job where you are today, I'd advise you be honest with them. Say you're not comfortable being a referee, and ask to not put you on the spot like that. You don't want to put your current career in danger just to cover for someone else.
Alternatively, you could just be upfront and honest. Answer any questions you may be asked (meaning, don't offer up information unless you're specifically asked for it), and let the hiring manager you're speaking with know that your coworker was a good fit and that they got along with others. If asked, be honest about their performance and projects too. Granted, you can qualify that with the fact that none of it was bad enough to get them fired or disciplined, but that you're just being honest about what you know. Your opinions may differ from others, and as this old post at Ask a Manager points out, as someone who's actually called references before, it's refreshing when someone is honest about a candidates strengths and weaknesses, instead of pretending every person they're a reference for is a perfect little snowflake:
Frankly, as someone who has to check references myself, I'm grateful when I encounter the rare reference willing to be candid about weaknesses. After all, reference checking (and the whole hiring process, for that matter) is all about finding out if the candidate and the job are a good match. If they're not a good match and it's not uncovered until it's too late, the company will be stuck with a poor performer and the employee will be stuck struggling in a job and maybe even losing it down the road.
However, if you do choose to provide a reference for a poor performer, stick to objective facts you can prove. (Despite corporate paranoia about defamation cases, employers are permitted to provide negative references as long as they're truthful — but you must be able to prove what you said was indeed true.)
When I was in a position to hire people, I used to call referees, and the calls were usually the same — in some cases I got nothing more than employment verification, and in other cases I got a good, honest conversation. Of course, you don't want to choose a reference who's going to make you look bad, but it was nice to talk to someone every now and again who was willing to level with me as well.
Whatever You Choose, Cover Your Arse
Whether you choose to speak openly and freely or you choose your words carefully, you should make sure you can back up the things you say with proof, or that the conversation is truly informal. In a perfect world, we'd all be able to be honest without fear of repercussions, but you don't have to look far to find defamation lawsuits over something someone said to a potential employer. You don't want to be on the receiving end of a lawsuit because your former coworker thinks you cost them the job because they think you said something defamatory.
This guide from NOLO on giving references for former employees addresses the topic, and why it's so important to cover your arse and never say anything you can't prove — especially if you're a former manager. They suggest you say as little as possible and stick to things you can actually prove or are happy to claim — not things that could be contentious or that you can't prove, even if you strongly believe them. Even if you're being honest, it's more important to be factual than to sprinkle your reference with glowing (or harshly damning) language. Say too much — whether it's good or bad — and you run the risk of putting your own career and credibility at risk.
We hope we've given you a couple of options you can choose from, Honest Worker. At the end of the day, your best bet is to be honest with your former coworker from the get-go and let them know what you're willing to say on their behalf and what you're not willing to say. If you can clear the air early, it will save you from having to ride the fence later on, trying to choose your words carefully to someone you didn't want to talk to in the first place. Still, a good deed is a good deed, and maybe you want to lend a helping hand, even if only to get rid of the guy. It's up to you — just make sure you don't stick your neck out too far in the process.
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