Job Reference Catastrophes (And How to Avoid Them)

by | March 10, 2009

A few years ago a former coworker-turned-acquaintance asked me if I'd act as a job reference. She's certainly smart and works really hard, but I couldn't, in good conscience, recommend her to any potential employer. In my mind she was dead weight. She constantly complained about everyone and everything, and was particularly clueless when it came to office protocol. When given a less than plum assignment, she'd scrunch up her face and release a sigh that could be heard three offices down, right in front of her boss. I dreaded every collaborative project we were assigned together.

But for the life of me I couldn't turn her down. We were friends now and had even become close, probably because we no longer worked together. So when the dreaded phone call came, I figured I would just focus on her good qualities, such as her impeccable attention to detail (but only on preferred projects, of course), her punctuality (she hated to work past 5:00 p.m.) and her knack for fixing broken hardware and office machinery (something we all appreciated!). Lies of omission, I figured, couldn't be all that bad. Right?

Wrong. According to Vault's recruiting expert, Eileen Levitt, I should have simply told my friend that I didn't feel comfortable giving her a recommendation. And in the long run, I probably did both the employer and my friend a disservice.

If you're both still working at the same company, one way out is to tell your friend that company policy forbids you from giving her a reference (of course, check the company handbook first) and that you really don't want to get in trouble. Another way out, says Dawn Rosenberg McKay, the career planning guide for about.com, is to tell your friend you don't feel your opinion will carry enough weight.

Or if considerable time has passed and you're already at a new job, you can say you don't remember much about the time you worked together. A little white lie, true, but saves you bundle of grief in the long run.

"It's tricky" says Vault's Levitt, also president of The HR Team, a human resources consulting firm, "because you can lose a friend, but you can also be sued."

~Sued? Absolutely. Although the laws regarding job references vary by state, they are serious enough to scare some people away from telling the truth about previous employees or colleagues. In reality though, people don't get sued as much as the laws like to scare you into thinking. "In hiring thousands of people, I have yet to see a lawsuit as it relates to references," says Levitt, "but I've read about them."

To avoid lawsuits, Levitt recommends that you just be truthful. And avoid heresy. If you think the person has a few flaws but overall is a worthy employee, you can say, "despite certain difficulties, I would recommend this person," says Levitt. If you can't give a positive recommendation, you should just decline.

"I think people are so careful now about giving a bad reference," says about.com's McKay. "I think what people are most comfortable doing these days is saying, 'they showed up for work, they didn't have extensive absences, they did what was expected.'"

Bad career move

One gaffe that many recent graduates make is giving an inappropriate reference, like a family member, says Levitt.

"I love it when you call up and it's the guy's aunt or something," says Levitt. "One guy gave us his fiancee, so I called him and said, 'you know what, this is very nice, but this is not a professional reference. I don't think this person is impartial.' You should be tactful though because some people don't realize," she says.

Is that career move bad enough to make the candidate lose favor in the employer's eyes? "Not likely," says Levitt. "I look at how much experience the person has and if they're right out of school I kind of look the other way. But if they're older, they should know better."

5 tips to getting good references

1. Check with the person first, and ask him what he'll say if and when the company calls. If the person says he is not comfortable giving you a reference, don't try to persuade him otherwise. Respect his choice and ask someone else.

2. Avoid giving written references, says Levitt, as they often raise a red flag. "The person who wrote it usually doesn't want you to call him because there's something else behind it," she says. "I know that because I've written them when there are other things behind it."

3. If you've been at your current job for more than five years and don't want them to call your current boss, for obvious reasons, try and give a name of a colleague who can vouch for you in confidence. Or, try and find someone you worked closely with who's no longer at the company.

4. If you are worried about what a boss or colleague might say about you, one option is to hire a job reference firm, says McKay. For a fee, these companies will actually call up the reference and report back to you with what they said.

5. Of course, the best way to ensure good references, says McKay, is to leave on good terms. "It's so tempting when you finally leave somewhere to tell them what you think," she says. "But don't, because you're burning bridges."

Filed Under: Job Search


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