bombarding an employer with unsolicited recommendations can backfire

Here’s something that happened recently when I was hiring for an open position:

A candidate emailed her resume and cover letter to me. She was borderline-qualified — not a complete stretch but not obviously competitive with some of the other candidates … but that’s the not the interesting part. What’s interesting is that within an hour, I’d also received emails from four different people (all strangers to me), all raving about this candidate and telling me that I should hire her.

None of them talked about how they knew her or what made her great. Instead, they were short, vague, and simply assured me that I “couldn’t go wrong” with hiring her. None appeared to be from previous managers, and I’m not even sure if they were from previous colleagues.

One just identified her as a “good friend and confidant.”  One called her “a cool person in general.”

Never having seen an coordinated onslaught like this, I emailed a couple of them back and asked for more details about why they thought she’d be such a strong candidate. One never replied. Another replied with more superlatives that didn’t really line up with the job.

Now, I’ve written before that having a manager or former manager email a prospective employer about you can be hugely valuable — but only if they’re going to seriously rave about you, and in a way that speaks to what the employer is likely looking for.

But going for quantity over quality can really backfire. In this case, it made the candidate seem … a little off, more focused on marketing herself than on speaking to the needs of the job, and not quite thoughtful about either.

It’s a good illustration of how you need to be smart and thoughtful when you’re looking for a way to stand out in a job search. Salesmanship on its own doesn’t cut it.

{ 53 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    “Now, I’ve written before that having a manager or former manager email a prospective employer about you can be hugely valuable — but only if they’re going to seriously rave about you, and in a way that speaks to what the employer is likely looking for.”

    Does this also apply when the employer calls your old manager for a reference? My current manager loves me, but I can’t expect her to keep straight the jobs I’m applying for so that she can tailor what she says to fit what that employer is looking for. Plus, via email she tends to be a little abrupt and misspell things sometimes, so I’d hate to think that would reflect poorly on me…I can’t control what happens there. :(

    This girl is a different situation because she either got people to do this for her proactively, or (my first thought) set up some email accounts and did it herself. But if the references were real, it’s just as likely they’d be awkward when it came to recommending her later on. Some people are like that. It’s sad that they could ruin a candidate’s chances by not knowing how to be enthusiastic via email.

      1. Cece ...*

        I knew a person whose email account was deleted for sending unsolicited emails to a company they had ties to. The person finally realized people had called the email provider company to complain about spam / fake emails. Does that label a person with that company and other potential other companies as person not to hire? Is there a way to fix the persons reputation? Or, do you think the company suspect anything at all? Or, they simply annoyed and not think much about the emails and remember the name of the sender?

        I tried to warn that person.


  2. anon*

    Did you consider that it was the candidate herself with fake email addresses? She sounds nuts.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Interesting! I actually didn’t consider it, and it’s certainly a possibility, although my gut tells me these were real people, in part because the writing style was so different. But who knows!

      1. Elizabeth*

        The fact that they all arrived within the same hour is what seems weird to me. I think it’d be hard to coordinate even my closest friends that well. (Then again, I also think my closest friends are savvy enough to advise me to get people I’ve actually worked for to recommend me.) I guess the other possibility is that she sent out the request for recommendations to vastly more people than that, and those four happened to respond.

    2. Meredith*

      This was my first thought as well. And I have actually known people in the past to do this. Very strange.

    3. Anonymous*

      I definitely thought the same thing. It’s very easy to set up free email addresses nowadays. And furthermore, as someone mentioned, the recommendations came in immediately thereafter! It’s too suspicious. I think you need to just thank the person for her resume.

  3. Aniau Jade*

    I agree with anon. I would feel completely EMBARRASSED if someone did this “in my favor” or if I felt that I was bothering the employer. I mean, come on, they’re busy enough with their current employees, let alone trying to hire more. If you look like you’re nuts, and don’t follow through, don’t expect a job. That’s “standing out” in a very negative light.

  4. Joey*

    Sounds like a typical reference-that is, a friend instead of someone with direct knowledge of work performance. This is why I don’t pay much attention to references that are handed to me How many people will knowingly give you a reference that will include objective critical feedback. Those are the references I want. And those are the ones that take some digging to get to.

  5. Anonymous*

    I was helping my cousin with his resume and found out all his references were girls he’d slept with…

  6. Maya Aeyde*

    The recommendations were probably from her friends or family members. Sadly, this happens often and what’s even worse is that some hiring managers/agents fall for this.

    When I worked in HR and dealt with hiring, references weren’t very important to me. I’ve always been intuitive about people and with all honesty I heavily relied on my intuition. I’m proud to say that my intuition never failed me.

    1. Mike C.*

      I wish more hiring managers were like you. I hate the fact that I have to rely on the recommendations of people who might be upset that I stopped working for them because the pay was too low or “wasn’t loyal” or something like that. I’d like to think I can leave a job I hate (since they can fire me at the drop of a hat), but I hate this idea that I have to rely on the word of others to be successful.

      1. Jamie*

        I see references as a necessary evil, but I hate having such an important element of the job search in the hands of others, too.

        My company, for example, will give dates of employment, title, and salary. That’s it – and the no reference policy is taken very seriously by everyone.

        Were I to need a reference, I would have to ask someone to break policy to give me one – and since I know what a big deal that would be I wouldn’t do that.

        Add to that – no written performance appraisals…everything is verbal. Since the longer I stay the more irrelevant my past employer references will be it’s a disconcerting situation. Kind of like working in a black hole where anything I do here can’t be verified for a new employer.

        Too bad we can’t get something like transcripts for working to take with us from job to job. I’m proud of the work I’ve done, but I hate that it’s like it never happened if I go to get another job.

        1. Mike C.*

          Oh man, I’m totally with you on the lack of appraisals! I just found the certification body for my industry so I’m hoping to use those certs in place of nonexistent reviews.

        2. Emily K*

          Try to do what you can to document your achievements. Interviewers may not need to see proof. If you can say, “I cut costs in my department by 15% from 2011 to 2012,” and have a plausible explanation for how you did that, the interviewer isn’t going to ask to see your former employer’s internal budget documents to confirm you’re not lying. The same goes for many things you can achieve in your job. Just make sure you’re keeping track of the awesome stuff you’re doing so you can tell interviewers about it later.

          Alison has also suggested saving emails from clients/vendors/customers/coworkers that praise you for doing good work. (Of course I’m sure you’d want to redact any privileged/sensitive information.)

    2. Anonymous* is pretty impressive that your intuition “never” failed you. I find it hard to believe if you’ve done a decent amount of hiring that you would never “miss” on a candidate.

      Sometimes it’s what isn’t on the list of references that is telling. If they are all from one job, 3 jobs ago, that is usually something that piques my interest.

  7. What the?*

    Whoa! What a ridiculous situation! Does this job applicant seriously think this strategy could work? It does sound fabricated, and even if it wasn’t it would appear to be a major turn off for 99.9% of hiring managers. You would almost want to send her an email not solely for the purpose of informing her she didn’t get the job but just some plain advice to not do that anymore.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Believe me, I’m constantly having to hold myself back from giving applicants unsolicited feedback. The other day, I actually did tell someone that having an objective wholly unrelated to the job she was applying for would be a deal-breaker for most employers. But usually I try to restrain myself.

      1. Anonymous*

        It’s true that in a way it’s probably not your place to give unsolicited feedback, but sometimes, a person needs to hear it from someone in the field. They may have gone to places to get help with their resumes, and they get the same old bad advice. I’m sure you did it politely.

  8. Anonymous*

    I initially thought when I read this that it is the same person with 4 different 3-mail accounts, especially if they all arrived within the hour. I doubt that she didn’t have knowledge of it because she had to somehow give away your e-mail for them to e-mail you, so she definitely knew about it. Were you planning on giving her a call if this didn’t happen?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Probably not — she wasn’t as good as some of the other candidates. I’ll admit that this did make me look at her more closely, but in more of a side-show kind of way than a good way.

  9. Anonymous*

    This makes me laugh, but it is a little strange.

    I have a close friend who insists on sending interview thank-you letters as cards. Not just any card though. We are talking expensive time-of-year appropriate Hallmark cards with bling on the envelopes and flourishy writing everywhere. She showed me one, it was in October, and so of course it was a bit Halloween card with stickers all over the thing. I tried to gently explain that not only was this not necessary it was also a little over the top. Her response: it pays to stand out.

    Stand out, sure, but only in a good way.

    1. Jennifer*

      I have a friend who writes her thank you notes by hand on recycled paper she makes from old paperwork (from her field). I’ve never been able to decide if this is interesting or kitschy.

      Although, her answer to “What are your hobbies?” is that she makes paper recycled from old paperwork…so maybe it’s more relevant?

      1. Anonymous*

        This can be done stylishly. I guess it depends on how she makes them and how they look when she’s done.

        (I’m a card maker.)

    2. Dawn*

      If I saw something like that come across my desk I would think it’s childish. Then I would start imaging how cluttered her house must be with popsicle stick crafts, how many cats she has, does she dress them for special occasions, does she knit sweaters with their fur, etc. I don’t mean to offend any cat people (I am one myself), but seeing things like that tend to lead my train of thought in that direction.

      1. Dawn*

        Sorry, this is supposed to go with the Halloween card comment, not the recycled paper. I replied in the wrong place.

  10. Jamie*

    Speaking of unsolicited emails – I just sent one myself.

    I just received a resume for a position we’re not looking to fill – by someone who appears to have sent it in response to an ad by a company with a similar name to ours.

    There was a typo in his otherwise good resume which was pretty funny – but since I’m fairly sure humor isn’t what he was going for I pointed it out so he can correct it before it reaches the actual target.

    I really meant to be helpful – so I hope he takes it that way. I did, however, refrain from giving advice on how to write a better cover letter.

    Maybe I should have just sent him a link to this blog?

    1. KellyK*

      That was really thoughtful of you. If it were me, I’d be mortified that I not only sent the resume to the wrong company but had a major typo, but I’d be really grateful that you pointed it out.

      1. Anonymous*

        I’m embarrassed to admit I once sent an email to a person named L and instead wrote “Dear {another L name}”. For some reason I missed this when I checked the email over for errors.

        I didn’t realise what I’d done until the person forwarded it back to me with no comments, just a blank email. Whilst I appreciated the kick for getting it wrong I did think it was slightly a nasty way to do it.

  11. Long Time Admin*

    I’m betting this candidate is young, and she and her friends don’t have a clue about business. “She’s a really cool person” might be a great reference for setting up a blind date, but not much else.

    We get lots of young people in my company, and when they find out that they have to come in EVERY DAY and DO WORK, they pitch a hissy fit like you wouldn’t believe.

  12. a.b.*

    I LOVE and respect my friends, but they’re friends and not co-workers. Granted, some are smart enough to talk about things an employer would care about, but it would make me look inexperienced. I really hope the candidate knew this was happening, because I think the alternative is worse.

  13. Anonymous*

    what about quotes/feedback from fellow colleagues and/or management in your cover letter? For example, xxx has imprved substantially since you took this role. Your energy and work ethic is great. A sentence like that interspersed in a cover letter to support your application. I have received lots of great, positive unsolicited feedback which I would like to use to stand out. Okay or leave it out?

    1. Interviewer*

      Here’s the thing: if you put quotes in your cover letter, I would sorely tempted to use those people as your references. So you better have names in the cover letter, and you better have them on your reference list. Done well, I can see this working like a charm. Done poorly, it will look like those quotes from movie reviews that get ripped out of context and slapped on a poster at the theater.

  14. Mike C.*

    One thing I will admit is that on my list of references, I do have a personal friend. This friend was a constant lab partner of mine through college and I do work in the sciences, so I think it works.

    I format the reference list like this:

    Professional References
    Academic References
    Personal References

    with my friend in the latter category. I’m clear to explain why certain people are there (that prof oversaw my thesis, this person was my manager, she was a lab partner for multiple courses) and then the hiring manager is free to do what they will.

    Would any hiring manager actually find this useful or just assume, “friends aren’t reliable sources”?

    1. Anonymous*

      Unless your lab work was extremely important to the role, I wouldn’t call anyone that you would consider a friend.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I never call anyone who’s listed as a personal references. And if I call someone who’s supposed to be a professional reference and discover they’re actually a personal friend, I’ll generally disregard them as well. They’re just not objective, in most cases!

      1. Jamie*

        I am assuming that when people are speaking about using friends as references, they are talking about people who were friends first and have little, or tertiary, experience working with you?

        Because I do have a couple of people (former managers and one co-worker) with whom I became friendly at work on my reference list. My primary relationship is that of having worked with them – but even after we’ve moved on to different companies we still email every so often, send pictures of the kiddos in the Christmas cards, etc.

        Would that kind of relationship tend to be discounted when checking references?

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Totally fine! The question that really matters is “how do you know this person?” If the main way they know you is they’re your sister or ex-boyfriend, that’s problematic. But if they’d answer “we worked together and have stayed in touch ever since,” that’s totally reasonable!

          1. Liz in a library*

            I’m curious how set in stone this is. My sister is in the interview process for a job now. She is just out of college (so her old work is mostly retail jobs), and her current job is highly relevant to the job to which she is applying.

            Her supervisor at her current job happens to be my husband, and he has supervised her for nearly three years (it’s a small, family-run business of only three employees). For several reasons, she cannot let the owner know she is hunting–he will likely retaliate–so her brother-in-law is really the only person who can provide a reference for this job.

            Does she list him as a reference? Do they bring up the personal relationship, or just the professional one?

          2. Ask a Manager* Post author

            In that case, there’s really no way around using her husband — he’s been her manager for three years! But I’d probably disclose it ahead of time, just so they know.

  15. Jennifer*

    I don’t differentiate which reference is what: Personal, work, academic, etc. I simply state, if asked, what we worked on together, and I would ONLY include a friend as a reference if we had worked on something together. Otherwise, I feel it just makes you look unprofessional.

    For example: I have a friend who wants to collaborate on some film projects. I do not list him as a reference currently, but after we do a project together, I will. I also help my boyfriend produce his music. I list him as a reference with no indication of our relationship, other than I worked as a production assistant for him.

    I don’t think it’s wrong to use friends and family, but I feel it’s more appropriate if you’ve worked on something with them.

    In my current job search, my references are all former coworkers.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Here’s why that can be problematic: The first question I always ask a reference is “how do you know (the candidate)?” Your boyfriend/aunt/whoever is then either going to explain the relationship … or will have to be disingenuous and say “we worked on X project together,” which really isn’t an honest answer to the question. So assuming they explain the relationship, I’m going to immediately discount the reference, because the relationship is more personal than business and their ability/willingness to give an objective reference is suspect.

      (I’m also specific with candidate that I’d like to speak with managers.)

      1. Jennifer*

        That makes a lot of sense, and that is why those references go to the bottom of the list I use.

        I periodically ask trusted coworkers if I can use them as references, and I offer to do the same for them.

        I was only illustrating where I might use someone in my immediate circle.

        I DO appreciate your feedback!

      2. Jamie*

        I totally understand the need to speak to managers – but in some instances the manager might not be the best person to speak about technical qualifications and experience.

        It may seem strange, but it’s fairly common if you’re in IT in a non-IT company that the people to whom you report can’t give specifics; i.e. they can say that you did a great job managing the network – but they can’t speak to the architecture, software, protocols, etc.

        In this case is it appropriate, in addition to managers, to list consultants with whom you’ve worked long term to flesh out the techier aspects? I’m not referring to vendors, but consultants who’ve worked with you on extended projects who could speak to the scope of your expertise with certain systems?

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