Don't be a reluctant reference

Have you ever given your permission to be used as a reference, when you knew the person wasn’t someone you would whole-heartedly recommend? Maybe you were just hoping no one would ever call you—since they often don’t. Or, perhaps you just didn’t want to tell the person the truth. Here are some letters that should give you pause…and an alternative I think you can live with:
Dear Joan:
A position recently opened in my office.  I received a call from an old coworker who is applying for the job and asked if she could use me as a reference.  I worked with her many years ago and we have kept casual contact.  When I worked with her I found she was not a team player, brought her personal problems to work, didn't take ownership, etc.  I didn't have the heart to tell her 'no' as we had been friendly acquaintances for many years.  I have no doubt she could do the job, her technical skills are adequate, but I still see these personality traits in her, even though we haven't worked with each other for many years.  I would not be working with her, so it isn't personal.
I discussed this with the hiring manager and gave her my opinion, stressing that this individual is up to the task, but she brings baggage to the table that may not be apparent in an interview. 
I have since talked to this acquaintance and find she has been out of a job for over a year and is about to lose her unemployment.  I feel terrible that I interfered and now think I should have just let things ride out.  If the hiring manager were to ask my opinion, I could have said something at that point.  However, I have given permission to use my name as a personal reference many times in the past and rarely have I been called to verify, so there is a good chance I would not have been given the opportunity to offer information. 
What is the best thing to do in a case like this?  In this economy, I wouldn't want to be shut out of an opportunity.  Did I handle this correctly or is guilt clouding the situation?  
Here is a letter from an employee on the other side of this decision:
Dear Joan,  
I have the recent experience of working overtime (often 10 and 11 hour days) for more than five months to undo the damage done by my predecessor, who billed himself as a senior software engineer, but who in reality couldn't program to save his life. A novice coder at best, who substituted snippets from Google and elsewhere, for designing and implementing an upgrade to an existing software product. It is a crucial integration tool for our customers' data handling.
Poor-performing employees can have a major impact - financial, emotional, social - on people's lives, and it is important that people understand that giving such people good references does no one any good. They need to change their ways, and coddling them, passing them on from employer to employer, just encourages their poor performance.
So, let’s examine the first situation and use it to think through the next request you get for a job reference. 
  • Was her warning to the hiring manager meant to hurt her former colleague, or be vindictive?
No. On the contrary, she was trying to protect her current employer. Even though they worked together many years ago, she could still see the same traits in her today. She was trying to nullify her agreement to be a reference, after the fact, which isn’t fair to the candidate.
  • Could she have waited for the hiring manager to call her for a reference at the end of the interviewing process?
Yes, she could have let the hiring manager go through all the steps and call for a reference at the end, but wouldn’t you want someone to save you the time and energy by giving you information sooner? And even if the reference was never asked for, the hiring manager would see the name listed as a reference—which suggests a positive testimonial.
  • Should she feel sorry for her unemployed, former colleague, now that she knows she has been out of work for so long and is about to lose benefits?
She can certainly feel empathy for someone in that position. However, perhaps if she had been a great performer, she would have been hired by now (and perhaps never been laid off in the first place). Even though the economy has been very unkind to many former employees—many of whom are good performers —does it justify implying she is someone you would enthusiastically recommend?
  • Why did she agree to be a reference?
Telling her the truth would have been difficult, but perhaps it would have been kinder in the long run. Perhaps she could have said, “I don’t feel that I saw you at your best when we worked together last. You’ll recall you were going through all kinds of personal issues, and you had some struggles with the way things were done in the team. It would probably be better to choose someone who worked with you when you were at your best.” Another response could be, “I make it a practice never to be a reference for people who want to work where I work. It’s nothing personal. I just don’t want to risk the possibility that I recommend someone and then they don’t work out and it reflects poorly on my judgment.” Another approach is, “I haven’t worked with you in many years, and so I don’t feel comfortable being a reference, since I don’t know about how you perform now.”
  • Would she have felt better if she had said nothing, had not been called by the hiring manager, and then this person was hired?
If she turned out to be a problem performer—which she feels certain would have happened—how would she feel then? What would it do to her credibility?
  • Should feeling sorry for someone’s personal situation trump their poor professional history?
No. She has earned her reputation and, unfortunately for her, she would pay the price for that in this situation. It can be difficult to separate personal from professional but it is necessary, if a business person is to make rational decisions that will be best for the organization and the people in it. Consider this—if you are one of the employees working for the hiring manager, would he or she want you to keep silent and let their boss hire someone who will likely not be a team player, not take ownership and bring her personal problems to work? All you have to do is read the second letter to have the answer.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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