how to hire when you know an applicant personally

A reader writes:

I have an opening on my team, and a person I know is asking questions about it and seems like she might apply. If she applies, she will likely be deemed qualified and will be in the interview pool. I saw a post that warned against hiring a friend, but this woman isn’t someone who is a close friend or who I see very regularly socially.

On side and related notes, I’m quietly looking for a new job and hope to move to something different in the next six months, if not sooner. (I plan get us through this current transition and then let my bosses know that I’m starting to look — staff changes are a big deal because we’re a tiny company.) Also, we’re a small company so we’re actually hoping to hire someone who is a known quantity — we’re a very informal place, so knowing we like someone personally is a bonus.

So, my questions:

How do you deal with interviewing someone you know and letting them know they didn’t get a job? Is it better to discourage them from applying in the first place?

If my friend is the best candidate, and since I’m hoping to leave soon, does the “don’t hire a friend” rule maybe not apply?

Anything else I’m not thinking of but should?

It’s certainly easier to manage a not-very-close friend than a close friend … although it still can be pretty damn difficult. But if your friend is the best candidate and you’re willing to take on the (often dreadful) burden of managing a friend, you could consider it. Before you consider hiring her, though, you should ask yourself:  Will you be able to give her objective feedback? What if that feedback is tough or awkward? If she doesn’t like your management style, are you willing to deal with her complaining about you to mutual friends? Could you fire her if you needed to? Could you lay her off? Could you lay her off if you knew that her husband had recently lost his job too? Are you willing to sacrifice the friendship if doing your job well ends up resulting in that? If you answer “no” to any of these, you owe it to your organization to pass — and to your friend to let her know that you feel obligated to pass because you couldn’t manage her objectively.

And yes, I know you plan to leave soon, but plans change — jobs take longer to find than people anticipate and other factors can get in the way. It’s possible that you could end up managing her for a year or even years.

On your other question:  If she applies and doesn’t get the job, I’d just be straightforward:  “Jane, thanks so much for throwing your hat in the ring for this. Everyone here was impressed by your background and your accomplishments, but ultimately we decided it wasn’t quite the fit we’re looking for / ultimately we decided to go with a candidate with more experience in ___ / ultimately we ended up going with another candidate.”

Good luck!

{ 9 comments… read them below }

  1. human

    I think this is good advice. One thing I would add is that it’s helpful to manage expectations. The fact is, a lot of people do get jobs because they know someone on the inside. She may be thinking that knowing you will help her chances a lot. This is not an unreasonable thing to think if she’s well qualified and if you two have a positive relationship. Then if she interviews and doesn’t get the job she might be more-than-usually discouraged or upset by that.

    I was recently in a situation similar (as the applicant) and I felt the people I was dealing with handled it really well. I had a temporary job some months ago at this outfit that went really well, and when a permanent position came available, my former boss invited me to apply. So I did. I figured that was a promising sign! As well, in my industry, getting jobs because you Know Somebody is pretty much how it is done in a lot of cases. I got my first job in the field by being in the right place at the right time; every single other one I’ve gotten has been because I knew somebody on the inside. So I expected good things when they called me to schedule an interview.

    When I went in for the interview they told me that they had gotten loads of really solid applications — way more than they were expecting — and were interviewing a lot of people and it was going to be a really tough decision. So I understood up front that while I had a shot, I wasn’t going to automatically get the job just because they knew me and liked me a lot. Sure enough, I didn’t get the job. They were very kind about telling me; it was a different sort of phone call than you’d probably have with an applicant you didn’t know at all. The head of the outfit let me know about some possible opportunities they might have coming up in the future and reiterated his willingness to be a reference.

    The end result is that even though I was disappointed not to get the job, I didn’t feel jerked around by being invited to apply, having that inside connection in place, and then being rejected. My relationship with the people making the hiring decision was not damaged at all. I am just fine with how it turned out.

    1. Josh S

      Agreed.

      I just talked with a friend-of-a-friend who happens to be a Senior VP over the division I’d like to work for at a company I’d like to work for. I asked him a bunch of stuff about culture, etc — I honestly wanted to know if the company is a good fit more than I was hoping for any real “help my candidacy” sort of thing.

      Towards the end of the conversation, the Senior VP told me to forward my resume and let him know which position I was applying for (he had described a couple teams in the division), and said he’d make sure my resume got in front of the hiring manager. He was careful to say, “Now, I can’t promise you anything about how the process will go. But I can make sure that your application doesn’t fall through the cracks and that the manager looks at it.”

      That was more than I could have asked, really. He doesn’t know me/my work/my skills from Peter (apart from a 20 minute conversation). But I also know that when your Senior VP puts a resume on your desk, you pay attention to it.

      So — long story short. If you’re making a referral, be sure to tell the person what, exactly, it is you’re doing for them. If you’re passing along a resume, great. If you’re going to bat and vouching for them as a terrific candidate, even better. But don’t give the impression that you’re doing the latter when you’re only doing the former.

  2. Joey

    I’ve got a completely different perspective. First, I’m not even sure you can call her a friend. She sounds more like an acquaintance. And, i think youre getting way ahead of yourself. have you even seen her résumé? It sounds like you’re running through all of these scenarios without really knowing how strong of a candidate she may be. I don’t think you ever rule out anyone but family or very close friends. She sounds a little too far removed to worry about losing your objectivity. I’d go through your normal process first. The chances of this person being the best qualified are not high at this point so you may be worrying for nothing. And f it turns out that she is a rock star then I think its selfish and a bit unprofessional to turn her down. I just think you lay out expectations and tell her work is work and its not personal.

    1. Joey

      Ah, and if you have to turn her down use the same criteria as you would for anyone else who. The only difference is you happen to have more info about this person. I would treat her just like any other contact that applied for a job.

  3. Coelura

    I hired and manage a good friend. Not someone I consider a close friend, but someone that is definitely a good friend. I have discovered a couple of things:
    I tend to take a bit more time to explain things when he’s struggling.
    We clearly have separate personal and work lives. We don’t discuss personal lives at work and don’t discuss work when we’re hanging out.
    I set clear expectations from the beginning that he is an employee and would be treated just as all his peers. He does not get information sooner and he does not get preferential treatment.
    His peers know that he is a friend outside of work and I encourage them to tell me if they think I’m treating him with a bias.

    It has worked out very well. Better than I expected.

  4. books

    We are currently looking at hiring two people I know (one more of an acquaintance, another a former coworker I consider a good friend), but both would be at a similar level to me/ I would not be managing them. I was thinking yesterday about submitting a similar question… I might still.

  5. just me

    My husband works for a friend now and it is no problem at all. He had hired my husband for temp positions many times when my husband was not working ( laid off twice in 8 years) and reached out to him a couple of months ago for a full time perm position.

    Each speak their minds but work well together. My husband takes no advantage and more often than not works late if they ask and does anything asked with no question.

    They work together. Can you please stay late and deliver XYZ,…. for the 3rd time and maybe 4 weeks later, yes you can leave an hour early.

    The key is respect. Respecting the friendship and that it stops work ( for the most part ), the boss not taking advantage of my husband and my husband respecting the authority.

    On a side note.. his wife has told my husband that often, her husband has come home a in a little better mood because my husband is often the funny guy at work that puts a little humor in the work day when needed. He knows my husband corny sense of humor.

  6. Nameless

    I just hired a friend, I am senior and [that] person is entry level. I have learned that with friends you can’t get as angry when they are not getting the concepts and you can’t sit around until then figure it out. If it was non-friend I would have trained and let them figure out the rest.

  7. businesslady

    I love how this post has almost no comments, & the one after it has more than 200.

    to tie the two together…clearly you should hire your friend, because she is A Lady, & therefore will feel uneasy about approaching you for a raise! boom: instant savings for the company.

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