Former coworker gives negative reference

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?  
Guilt is wasted energy. Look back on the situation and ask yourself a few questions. Then consider if you would answer them the way I did.
  • “Why did I warn my colleague?”
No doubt because you didn’t want your workplace weakened by an employee who demonstrated poor judgment, a lack of teamwork and ownership.
  • “Was my warning meant to hurt my former colleague, or be vindictive?”
No. On the contrary, you were trying to protect your current employer. Even though you worked together many years ago, you said you still see these traits in her today.
  • “Should you feel sorry for your unemployed, former colleague, now that you know she has been out of work for so long and is about to lose benefits?”
You 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). Certainly, you would have recommended her highly.
  • “Why did I 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 you 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 chose someone who worked with you when you were in a better place.” 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.”
  • “Would you have felt better if you had said nothing, had not been called by the hiring manager, and then she was hired?”
If she turned out to be a poor performer—which I’d put money on—how would you feel then? Can you say, “GUILTY?”
  • “Should feeling sorry for someone’s personal situation trump their poor professional history?”
No. She has earned her reputation in your eyes 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? That’s what I thought.

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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