I gave a good reference for my moody assistant — is it now biting me in the ass?

It’s been reference week over here. Let’s add one more. A reader writes:

My former assistant called to tell me she had put me down as a reference. We had a rocky relationship (she was moody) at our previous company (which went bankrupt) but she was always competent, efficient and thorough, so I had to put aside personal feelings and talk to her capabilities. I also felt sorry for her because she only had 1 interview in the 10 months since she was laid off, so I didn’t want to sabotage her chances by getting personal. I was very complimentary about her skills and when the HR person asked if I would hire her again, I hesitantly said, “Yes.”

It turns out my old assistant got the job, was there 2 months and left or was fired because she was asking for directions on how to do the job and the response they gave her was, “You have 17 years of experience. You should already know how to do it.” I think she might have even sworn or was incredibly unprofessional in her exit. (I got this secondhand because she never even called me to thank me for the reference nor to tell me she got the job.) That was back in March 2010.

My question: I applied for a job at the same company 2 months ago and have never heard back. Do you think this reference ordeal was a factor and if so, how do I overcome it?

Maybe, maybe not. It’s really common to apply for a job and never hear back, so it’s hard to conclude that it’s because of the reference you gave.

That said, this kind of thing is exactly why I urge people not to give positive references for people they don’t genuinely think would be a good hire. If you give a positive reference to someone problematic (without at least some caveats), it will reflect on you and your judgment.

You should never give someone a positive reference just because you feel sorry for them. If you’re sympathetic to their situation, there are all kinds of other ways you can help: send them job leads, give feedback on their resume and cover letter, point them to helpful resources, and so forth. But don’t risk your own reputation by giving a reference that you don’t really feel is true.

You say that in this case you felt you had to limit yourself to speaking only about her capabilities. But references aren’t just about capabilities — they’re also about what a person is like to work with and how they operate in the workplace. It would have been perfectly appropriate for you to have given a more balanced reference — talking about what she did well, but also acknowledging that her moodiness was a challenge. And you definitely shouldn’t have said you’d hire her again if you really wouldn’t. (Even if you didn’t want to say “no” outright, saying “I’m not sure” or “I’d have to think about” would convey something more accurate than “yes.”)

I know that this is hard. We all (okay, most of us) want to help people, especially when it comes to something as fundamental as finding work. But when it comes to your career, your reputation is hugely important, and you need to safeguard it. If you can’t honestly give someone a strong reference but you want to help them, find other ways to help. (In fact, one way to help is to give them candid and direct feedback while they’re still working for you, long before they’re seeking a reference. That can help them become a better employee, and thus be more marketable the next time they’re seeking a job … and it has the added advantage of also giving them insight into what kind of assessment you’d be likely to give a reference-checker.)

{ 11 comments… read them below }

  1. Matt*

    How did the OP say “yes” that they would hire the assistant again? She said that she answered “yes” hesitantly. To me, that would come across over the telephone. And if the interviewer did not pick up on it then that would show a lack of detail on the part of the interviewer.

    I do agree, however that you should not give references for someone who you would not want to work with again. But there are ways to answer that someone was competent while still getting the point across that the person would be a wrong fit for anything other than a psychiatrist’s office. And since you did not say “danger, danger, run away” then they cannot try to come after you for damaging their reputation.

  2. Anonymous*

    You’re reading way too much into it. Yes doesn’t mean no or maybe or anything other than yes. Kind of like when a girl tells you no.

    1. Matt*

      Wrong. You can tell a lot by the voice and tone of how someone answers questions about an applicant. That is one of the key reasons that you talk to them rather than accepting a reference letter. It is not always what is said, it is sometimes how it is said.

      I know, I have been on the giving end of this kind of call as well as the receiving. We all knew the game. You can say “He is a great worker” and it come across positive. You can say “He is a Greaaaat worker” and it comes across as “run forest run”.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I agree that you can tell a lot by tone of voice in this context, but I don’t think we can tell from the OP’s letter if she SOUNDED hesitant when she said “yes” or if she felt hesitant about saying “yes” but said it anyway. Each would play out a bit differently.

  3. Anonymous*

    I think you’re reading too much into the not hearing back about the role. Yes, it’s possible that the HR person remembers you gave this girl a shining reference and they were a total punk, but it’s unlikely. The market is tough. There are a lot of individuals looking for work right now.

    That said, if this woman’s departure was a war story (all HR folks have had a few of those in their careers), it’s likely that they do recall the good reference you gave them. We hired someone who totally and completely was not who we thought she was. In retrospect, I wondered what the hell her references were thinking (she was hypersensitive and moody, along with showing poor judgement from time to time). There’s no way they didn’t know this. But did I go through the effort of looking up who gave her the references? No. My time is more valuable than that. Now if someone was trying to get a job here and mentioned knowing her, that would be a huge red light.

    I’d move on and learn from this. If this person asks you to give them a reference again, I’d politely decline or mention that given how things panned out at X, you’re prefer not to be used.. If you don’t have the courage to decline, be honest the next time around.

  4. Ev*

    I wonder if I am behind the times or just unaware about “thank you” letters to references? Is this a usual thing to do?

    If you are still ‘friends’ with the boss I might casually mention that I did get a role recently and if they said “oh yeah, we had a reference request for that.” I might say thanks then. If I’m not in contact with the people anymore (and in my industries – accounts/legal – you generally aren’t as far as I know) then should I be writing to them saying “I just got job X, thank you for providing a reference (if you did)”?

    Most of the time I don’t even get to find out if they called the references or not (the only time I did was when someone was badmouthing me and the recruiter asked for another view knowing the reference was likely biased as they already knew me).

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think if you know that someone gave a reference for you, it’s nice to send them a quick note thanking them and especially to let them know if you got the job. (And in general, anyone who you’re using as a reference is someone who you want to stay in touch with about your career moves anyway, for networking purposes and future reference-giving, so you’d definitely want to let them know you have a new job.)

    2. class factotum*

      I write a quick note any time I use my references, even if I didn’t get the job. They are doing me a favor and I should be grateful enough to spend three minutes letting them know what happened.

    3. Anonymous*

      I put down two names as references before speaking with them about the job (but in my defense, the two said would give me good, positive references when I needed them). I called them right after my interview to let them know I put their names down and then upon hearing I got the job, I sent them both quick emails. I want to keep in touch with these two people, if for nothing else then they are great to be in my professional network.

  5. OP*

    OP, here (I asked the bad reference question). When I answered “Yes” in regard to the rehire question, I did hesitate because I was caught off guard. The hesitation conveyed “No” but “Yes” came out and maybe a keener reference checker would have caught it but it was my fault for answering “Yes” in the first place.
    When I spoke to a mutual acquaintance, he said my assistant acknowledged that I had given her a good reference so I used REALLY poor judgment by putting myself out there for someone like that. Lesson learned and if I’m asked again, I will look up AAM’s tips for references beforehand. Thanks for everyone’s input. It was really helpful to get so many perspectives.
    (Ps what does “OP” stand for?)

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