my friend is applying for my job and I don’t want to recommend her

A reader writes:

I’ll be leaving my perfect entry-level job in August to pursue a master’s degree full-time. A very close friend of mine who works in the same field is now graduating with her degree. She is looking for her first full-time position, but the availability of jobs is slim at best and, despite her education, the number of jobs for which she is qualified is even slimmer. When I told her that I had made my plans for grad school, she mentioned that she’ll definitely be applying for my position when I leave. Actually, the way she phrased it was “I guess I’ll get your job then!”

My concern is that I will certainly be involved in the hiring of my replacement and I’m worried that I’ll be awkwardly obliged to support her application or even recommend her for the job when she applies. I love my friend dearly, but she is sometimes awkward and can be immature at times and, as absolutely awful as it sounds, I don’t want to compromise the reputation I’ve worked to build at this organization by recommending someone who is perceived as unprofessional. I feel horrible because I want her to be successful, but I would rather be removed from this process.

I’m wondering if you had any advice for a way to tactfully remain separate from this process?

First, good for you for recognizing that it can impact your own reputation if you recommend someone less than stellar. And you can still want her to be successful and support her in all sorts of ways without recommending her for a job that you don’t think she’d be good at.

You have a few different ways you can handle this:

1. If you have the sort of friendship that allows this, and you don’t think it would make your friend defensive, you could be honest. You could tell her (nicely) that you don’t think she’s the right match for the job because it requires a high level of professionalism … and give her some specific examples of why that’s not her, yet.

If you do this, it’s got to be done in a non-condecending way or it will be a disaster. If you can pull this off, you could be doing her a huge favor. But it’s also possible — perhaps likely — that this will put a huge strain on your friendship, so proceed with caution.

2. You can tell your friend that it’s been ingrained in you that you shouldn’t recommend people for jobs if you haven’t actually worked with them, because you can’t credibly speak about the quality of their work.

3. You can warn your boss that your friend is applying and may name-drop you in her application, but that you have no stance on her candidacy. (Depending on how much of a disaster you think she might be, you could also go further and explain you have concerns about her candidacy.)

4. You can tell your boss the truth, good and bad, and leave it to your boss to decide how to proceed from there. For instance: “She’s really smart and a fast writer, but she’s a little naive when it comes to office norms and I honestly don’t know how she’d do.”

5. You can tell both sides you’re invoking a firewall. You tell your friend that having a close friend applying for a job that you’re involved in the selection process for gives you serious qualms about bias and potential awkwardness, and so you’re staying of the evaluation of her candidacy, to make sure there’s no awkwardness during the interview process or later if she doesn’t get the job. And you tell your boss that a friend is applying and you don’t want to bias the process or create awkwardness with the friend or make your boss feel obligated to give her special consideration, so you’re invoking a firewall between yourself and her candidacy.

Meanwhile, do other things that will help your friend in her job search without compromising your own reputation. Help her with her resume or cover letter, or talk to her about lessons you’ve learned on the job that she might find interesting (not in a condescending way, obviously), and so forth — i.e., find ways to help her without harming yourself.

What do others think?

{ 29 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    I totally agree with suggestions #2 and #5. I don’t know how good of friends you are, but a lot of my “friends” are actually “acquaintances” in which we use each other for networking purposes. If that’s the case with you two, I think it’s unreasonable for her to want you to fully recommend her. Either way, if she is your friend and you don’t want to jeopardize your reputation, I would say as little as possible. That’s what I have done in the past. I will tell people about the position, and they are welcome to use my name as far as a reference in how they learned about the opportunity and what the position/company is like, but that is as far as it goes. After that they must earn the position on their own merits. I just am the foot in the door, so to speak.

    As far as her unprofessionalism or being immature, I’m sure people would say the same about me in some cases. But my last job was at a terrible company with terrible, micromanaging leadership, and I was in a lowly, entry-level position where I was treated like a child. In some cases it became so unbearable, so, if you treat me like a child when I am a grown person, I may end up acting like a child in some situations. I consider myself a mature adult, but sometimes my level of professionalism correlates with the professionalism of the company and whether or not I’m respected as a person. All I’m saying is maybe she hasn’t found the right job, maybe she has had bad experiences in the past… unless she has traits in all aspects of her life which would indicate emotional immaturity.

  2. Wilton Businessman*

    There’s two ways to handle this; totally hands off or with kid gloves.

    The totally hands-off approach would have you giving your friends resume to your manager and saying “I know this person from school and they heard I was leaving and wanted me to pass their resume along. I’ve never worked with them, so I don’t know how they would fit in this environment.” You’ve fulfilled your obligation to your friend and you put the responsibility of vetting the candidate to your manager.

    The kid gloves approach is to pass the resume along, and add in your candid, but business relevant, feedback. Your manager may appreciate that you think that that candidate needs some maturity and may be prepared to coach them. Or they might not want to deal with it and pass on your friend. If you end up interviewing your friend, I would do it with a group and reveal your bias right up front.

    Intentionally sabotaging your friend’s chances because you don’t think they have what it takes doesn’t give your manager enough respect to make the proper decision. After all, your manager may be somewhat decent (or lucky) if they picked you.

    1. Talyssa*

      the hands off approach can backfire – I gave a resume to a manager once that came from a friend of a friend – not even someone I knew. Her resume looked like a good fit and I figured they would be interested, but it wasn’t someone I knew personally. Which I stated.

      Unfortunately my managers english was really weak and he could NEVER wrap his head around the fact that not only was she not a friend of mine, but I’d never even met her. And she ended up being horrible (not skills wise, but as a person). And I was horribly embarrassed by it for years even though I was just passing along a resume that looked like a good fit, for a position they were struggling to fill.

      It did teach me a lesson though. I won’t even recommend people that I do know personally now, even if I think they’d do a good job. I’d only recommend someone I’d worked with for a long time and REALLY felt confident of – on my team of 12 thats like 3 people. (This is partly because that hire was the worst EVER – she called the girlfriend of a guy at the office and said they needed to talk about him, insinuated the guy was cheating with her, more things like that but that was the worst).

  3. Mike C.*

    I was in a situation similar to this where a poker buddy of mine encouraged me to apply to her smallish workplace. At the end of the process it was between me and another candidate and the other person won out. We’re still playing poker together and are still friends, and here’s why:

    1. She was clear that she couldn’t be part of the hiring process. She would have clear conflict of interest, and it’s bad from all sides.

    2. She didn’t leave me out to dry, either. She gave me a great understanding about the culture of the company so I knew what I was dealing with.

    So for the letter writer, I have serious problems with number four, because it’s quite possible that people can and will improve themselves. Also, it’s a terrible time economically speaking, and the idea of putting your thumb on the scale against her (outside of truly serious issues) just doesn’t feel right to me.

    I would recommended a variant of number one and five. Talk about the culture of the company and the nature of the work, keying into both her strengths and weaknesses. Then say that you cannot directly be part of the decision because of the multitude conflicts of interest. That way she must stand on her own abilities and experience.

    That way you help your friend in a responsible way without tarnishing your reputation, harming your former employer, and helping your friend out. Because even if they aren’t the best candidate, friends stick together in tough times, right?

  4. Chloe*

    Unless you’ve actually worked with this person than you can’t really say she’s “unprofessional”.. How people act with their friends and how they act with co-worker is quite often completely different.

    1. Brian*

      This was my first thought when I read this post. I am pretty different in and out of work. I joke around A LOT but tone it way down at work. Some of my comments are borderline inappropriate with my friends but never at work. I respect the culture there and do my best to fit in. I still joke around but keep it clean and PC.

      Having said that, I’m not implying you should ignore your opinion of her and recommend her fully the job. I would pass along her resume and quantify it by saying something like a friend of mine from school is interested in my current job. I can confirm that she’s a nice person and a good friend but don’t know anything about her work ethic or experience. She gets a slight edge because her resume was hand-delivered by a good employee but you didn’t actually give her a reference.

      I was in this position before and followed my own advice. I also told my friend that they already have some candidates (not true) so don’t assume it’s a slam dunk. They didn’t get the job, I fibbed and told them an inside candidate I didn’t even know was interested got it (even a reference can’t beat an solid internal candidate) and we remained friends.

    2. Charles*

      This is my reaction too. If the OP hasn’t worked with her then she cannot give a “professional” reference; either good or bad .

      I’ve know folks who are VERY professional and I work well with; yet, they are also people who I do NOT want to “hang out with.” The reverse is also true – some really great friends; But I wouldn’t want to work with them.

      AAM, have you edited some of the OP’s letter out? Has the OP, in fact, worked with this person before? Otherwise she should not be giving any professional reference – just a personal one (either good or bad).

  5. Ask a Manager*

    Nope, nothing to indicate they’ve worked together before. But her reference to her friend as “someone who is perceived as unprofessional” made me think she has some reason for thinking that (either things she’s heard from others, or the friend’s own stories of how she’s handled things at work). Maybe the OP can shed more light for us?

    1. Anonymous*

      If she wants to be removed, then she needs to just that — removed. If she hasn’t worked with her friend then she definitely should not be giving a professional reference, it should be easy to explain and understand why. If she feels like she can’t give a very nice personal character reference, I think I would just not say anything at all to her boss. Providing a negative personal reference could still look bad on her because her boss may wonder why she’s friends with a person like that, and if they’re really good friends I wouldn’t say anything at all if I couldn’t say something nice so as not to strain the friendship.

    2. Henning Makholm*

      For what it’s worth, I read the “someone who is perceived as unprofessional” in its context as meaning that the OP is worried that the friend might turn out to be someone that her current bosses perceive as unprofessional. As far as I can see, she’s not predicting that this will happen, merely acknowledging that it is possible.

    3. Anonymous*

      While the OP might have heard stories from other people they mutually know, it’s all considered hearsay. I would say that she shouldn’t say anything to the boss other beyond the “I have never worked with her before.” Let those who have actually work with her do the talking.

  6. Natalie*

    Not much to add except I think if you choose #4 (frank discussion of strengths and weaknesses with the boss), you owe it to your friend to tell them that you’re doing that. If you don’t feel like your friend can handle the information and still stay your friend, than it seems like #4 isn’t a good idea.

  7. BennettPlusTwo*

    Hold on folks – are we forgetting something?

    A very important component would be to find out if the OP has ever WORKED with her friend before!!!!!!!

    Just because someone is immature and “unprofessional” in the presence of friends DOES NOT mean that is how they conduct themselves in a professional working environment.

    If the OP has NOT worked with this individual before then shame on her for even thinking about biassing a potential employers opinion. I don’t think there is any reason to notify anyone unless there is an expectation of a reccomendation!

    It is a different can of worms if the OP has worked with this person in a professional capacity.

    Very honestly, this sounds more to me like “I don’t want this person to get MY old job, tell me how to do it without sounding like a selfish jerk” instead of seeking sound advice on a potential bad hire.

  8. BennettPlusTwo*

    Sorry – didn’t realize this was already mentioned. Maybe next time I should read more than the first few comments – ha ha!

  9. Anonymous*

    If this were me (and this has been me), I would tell my boss that I have a very good friend who is interested in — and might be a great fit for — the position, but that I have never worked with them and cannot vouch for them professionally. Then, I would hand over the resume and leave it at that.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I agree that sounds reasonable, but my worry about it is that it’s very common for managers in that situation to continue to think of that candidate as “the person who came to us through Julie,” even though Julie was careful to say she couldn’t vouch for them. Because, you know, why is Julie passing along someone’s resume if she doesn’t think that the person has at least a reasonably good chance of being a match with the job? Then, if they hire the friend and the friend is a disaster, she’ll be “Julie’s friend who was a disaster.” So I think the OP is reasonable in not wanting to be involved at all.

      1. Henning Makholm*

        On further thought, isn’t the idea that the OP would *deliver* her friend’s resume a bit off in itself? Where would the cover letter go? And wouldn’t it look like the friend did not want the job very hard if she couldn’t even spare a stamp (or a click of a mouse, as appropriate) to send it herself?

        I think it would look a lot better for everyone if the OP would simply help her friend figure out whom to apply to and when. The friend could then drop a name in her cover letter (“I was very excited to learn through my friend N.N. that Paratronic will be hiring an assistant zorgleglomper soon …”). The OP would then pass on whatever input she has to give internally: “I understand that X will apply and possibly mention my name. I can confirm that she’s a decent human being (i.e. not a jerk or a doddering idiot), but as I’ve never seen a zorgle she’s glomped at, I cannot tell you how actually qualified she is.”

      2. Kasa*

        I had a similar situation, where I was leaving my entry-level position and a friend (but not a close friend) applied. In my situation, I thought said friend would be professional and mature, but just would not be a good ‘cultural’ fit, and would probably dislike the type of administrative work. I told my friend about these aspect of the work, and when he said he would still like to apply, I agreed to pass the resume along. I was the pre-screener and my manager was the “decider,” so I passed his resume along, with an honest, “this is my friend’s resume and he asked me to pass it along. He recently graduated and is looking for work. I have never worked with him and do not know him in a professional nature.” My manager told me she though it was good of me to try to help out my friend, reviewed the resume, and managed to come to the same conclusion that the friend would not be a good fit.

        This may not work in your situation if your friend is great on paper. But I think the most important thing I did was be (kindly) honest with my friend, do them a favor by passing it along, and make it clear to your manager that you are doing this for your friend but are under no circumstances providing a recommendation.

  10. Kimberlee*

    I think the suggestion that OP should remove herself from the process or not volunteer the knowledge she has is a mistake. The hiring process is fraught with unknowns. To remove information that could be relevant from that process is a mistake. I mean, that’s the whole point of references.

    Here’s what I think is a better solution: OP should be fully involved in the hiring process (as she seems to indicate she will be). Once she has seen all the resumes, interviewed the candidates, she can aid in the process of direct comparison. It could be that there are other candidates who are just clearly better than the friend in question, without even taking into account the alleged unprofessionalism. That makes the decision easy: “You were definitely in contention, but there were candidates with 5 year of experience who meshed really well with our culture.” This isn’t really a tough decision until after you’ve done the interviews and find that your friend really is in contention based on her qualifications.

    I think OP is right for being reluctant to artificially prop up her friend’s candidacy when she has legitimate concerns that, due to the decorum that candidates usually bring to interviews, other interviewers might not even see until it’s too late. So don’t. If she stands up next to other candidates, then she’ll get her just reward.

    1. Kimberlee*

      An addendum: In my suggestion, if OP finds candidates she thinks are better, she should say to the hiring manager “I do know X personally, but even still I strongly think Y is a better choice.” You’re being totally honest and not sabotaging anyone, and that knowledge is still being used (as it should be) in the hiring process.

  11. Anonymous*

    I’d suggest learning the difference between a friend (somebody you love dearly) and an acquaintance (somebody you’re not willing to help out because there *might* be a small chance that it could possibly backfire and hurt your reputation, even if there’s a bigger chance this imaginary future pain won’t happen and you’d be helping that person keep a roof over his head, food on the table, etc.)

    1. Kimberlee*

      I don’t think loving someone dearly obligates you to lie on their behalf. I know in vague terms you’re giving a very heartwarming lesson on friendship, but in practice you’re advocating nepotism over meritocracy, which really only helps people with the most friends, and those most willing to lie.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Agreeing strongly with Kimberlee here. There are all kind of ways to help people you love (some of which I suggested in the post) without misrepresenting things on their behalf.

      2. Anonymous 2*

        If the world was a meritocracy, then I’d side with you Kimberlee, but the fact of the matter is it’s not. There’s not just one person that’s the “best fit” for the job–there’s probably several people who could to the job exceedingly well–and if her friend can use a connection to secure herself a decent job when 25% of her cohort (recent college grads) are unemployed/underemployed, then she should.

        1. Ask a Manager*

          The problem with that argument here, I think, is that the OP doesn’t feel like her friend would be one strong candidate out of several strong candidates. She doesn’t think her friend would be a particularly good selection.

      3. Anonymous*

        In no way am I advocating lying or bending the truth.

        When somebody shows loyalty to some*thing* (an organization) over a friend, I question the friendship, unless the term friend is being used simply to mean somebody who is not openly hostile.

        To me, it is hard to have a friendship based on selfish motives. Putting your own intangible interests (i.e. I don’t want *my* reputation damaged by associating myself with my friend) seems to fit the definition of caring about self. There’s nothing wrong with that per se. Just seems contrary to being a good friend, let alone a dearly loved one.

        I thought I’d offer a differing opinion. Most of the time, I agree with Alison’s opinions. I don’t on this occasion, but I’m also not advocating lying or misrepresenting.

        If I had a friend that tried to torpedo my job application and I found out, I’d quickly terminate said friendship.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I think this is a topic where reasonable people can come to different conclusions. But my thinking on it is that it WOULD be lying or bending the truth to promote her candidacy if she doesn’t think she’d actually be good in the role.

  12. OP*

    Hi folks – the OP here. Thanks for all your advice and personal stories – it’s definitely helping me figure out how to deal with this situation.

    First a couple clarifications – I have worked with my friend in the past and can speak from personal experience about her attitude and behavior as being slightly unprofessional. It’s not purposefully disrespectful behavior, but I think she sometimes doesn’t know how to draw the line between “boss/coworker” and “friend”. When we worked together previously, she and I started in the same positions with the same qualifications and ended up at different levels in the organization, in large part because of our respective behaviors/attitudes toward professionalism.

    Second I am required, as part of my job, to be involved in the hiring of my replacement. If my friend is truly the most qualified candidate and has an outstanding interview and receives an offer then I will be thrilled, and would happily help her transition into my role and would continue to support her throughout her time in this job.

    The economy is hard enough and I truly want her to be successful. If I didn’t care about her feelings or want the best for her, I wouldn’t have any problem telling my boss that she’s not the best fit. What I’d rather not do is be obliged to provide a character reference (because I will feel guilty if I act against her by not giving an outstanding one) when there is a chance that she won’t live up to my reference for her.

    I’m happy for her to use my name when applying (as a source of info on the organization) and to provide info for her about the organizational culture and critiques of her resume and cover letter. But I just don’t want to be directly responsible for her being hired or not hired (either way).

    AAM – thanks for your advice, and everyone else thank you so much for your stories. I will definitely keep all this in mind as this process unfolds!

  13. Anonymous*

    Wish i read this sooner. I recommended by best friend to my work and oh BOY was i stupid for doing that. To all the readers out there.. DO NOT recommend YOUR FRIENDS!! -__- i regret and regret everyday every moment every second of my decision at work. (Good thing this is a part time job!!!) My friend seriously takes advantage of me and doesn’t do her work. I feel like i do almost all the work when i’m at work. If i can bitch slap her one day i would totally do it because of the stuff she does to me at work. Wells, LESSON LEARNED! i’m looking for another job with higher pay now anyways!

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