do I have to give this former coworker a recommendation?

A reader writes:

Someone I used to manage recently sent me a request for an endorsement on LinkedIn. Only, I’m not sure if I should give him one.

I worked with him about two years ago at a very small company: I was a brand new manager, and this was his first proper job. Overall, his work was fine. I cut him a lot of slack because he was so new and still learning, and the company was going through some difficulties– it was a difficult environment with a boss who wasn’t handling the problems well. Towards the end of my time there, he started to slack off a bit– coming in late, calling in sick, taking “mental health days” and playing a lot of Bejewelled. Still, the work he did was good.

Once I left however, I found out from a friend who still worked there that he started badmouthing me. A lot. Every problem, concern, or failing was my fault– when approached by my replacement about why X wasn’t done, or why he’d done Y this way, he’d lay the blame firmly at my feet. He also criticized the work I had done, my management skills, even my personality as a whole. I have to say, it hurt: here was a person I had mentored, trained, and I thought I had had a good work relationship with, throwing me under the bus publicly. I’m not saying I was perfect when we worked together, but he apparently spent the entire transition period after I left badmouthing me. He even went so far as to blame the overall company problems on me. I’m not sure exactly why he felt the need to do this: whether it was just to establish himself as a perfect employee for the new management, whether it was sour grapes, or whether he was just angry I’d managed to get out of a negative work environment while he was still there, I don’t know. Whatever it was, I’m now torn.

He’s requested a LinkedIn endorsement from me. At first, I just ignored it, but now he’s sent several follow-up emails asking why I haven’t sent him something, and explaining he’s looking for a new job, and as the company was quite small and he didn’t have a lot of experience before working with me, he really needed my endorsement for his future employers. I think he’s gearing up to ask me to be a reference as well. What do I do? Based purely on my experience of him as an employee, he was fine: needed supervision and wasn’t a great self-starter or terrific at taking initiative, but his work itself was good. Can I, or should I, allow my personal feelings about how he behaved after I left to colour this? Knowing what I know about his negative behaviour, I wouldn’t want to work with him again — and if I were hiring and someone badmouthed their past managers or companies, I’d be reluctant to follow up (to me it shows a lack of accountability to lay everything at the feet of someone who is no longer there to defend themselves. It’s just too easy). I want to be professional though: is it right to make a decision based on my personal feelings for what he did? And if so, how do I handle his requests without seeming petty?

Hell no, you don’t owe you him a recommendation. And this guy has an awful lot of nerve.

First of all, even taking his badmouthing of you out of it, what you’re describing is not work that deserves a glowing recommendation — the work was good when he did it but you had to push him to do it, he spent a lot of time slacking off, and wasn’t at work reliably? That right there warrants a mediocre recommendation at best. And then add to that that he badmouthed you repeatedly after you left? No way.

As for how to convey that, I’d probably just write back with something like, “I don’t think that I’m the best person to write you a recommendation.”

If he follows up and asks why, you can (a) ignore him entirely, (b) ignore the question itself but respond with something bland like “I wish you the best in your job search,” or (c) tell him the truth: that he didn’t display much motivation to perform at a high level when you were working with him, and that you had the impression he was highly critical of you after you left.

It would be nice to do (c), because it’s good to be straightforward and honest with people, but you don’t owe this guy anything, and so if you don’t feel like having an uncomfortable conversation (and/or possibly turning him into an enemy), you’re under no obligation to do so.

And in response to your question about whether you’re letting your personal feelings color your professional judgment: I think you’re seeing those as two entirely separate domains when they’re not. If someone is a jerk or unpleasant to work with, that’s relevant and you’re allowed to factor it into your decision-making. This is different than disliking someone because they remind you of your ex-boyfriend or because you don’t like their politics — it would indeed be inappropriate to let things like that affect your judgment. But jerkiness, slackerhood, and significant public badmouthing of you? Those things matter in the professional sphere just like they do in the personal one.

{ 53 comments… read them below }

  1. Under Stand*

    Give him an honest recommendation!

    Mediocre employee who was unable to self start, liked to play computer games instead of working, came in late, but did decent work when you stood over his shoulder. Be forewarned however that after he is no longer working for you, he will throw you under the bus, bad mouthing you to others.

    Odds are that will stop him from bothering you with any further requests.

  2. Dave*

    Again (let me beat the linkedin drum here), one thing he’s not realizing is, a linkedin reco carries so little weight that it may as well be helium. They’re just “make you feel good” pats on the back, rather than official, professional, recommendations.

    It’s hilarious, unprofessional, and naive for him to ask you (and hound you) for this, rather than to ask if he can use you as a professional reference.

    1. Sabrina*

      I think that depends on your industry. I’ve heard some HR folks in an e-commerce/internet environment say that they wouldn’t even look at an applicant if they didn’t have a LinkedIn profile and/or recommendations.

      1. Talyssa*

        Its probably not going to be received well but I think its worthwhile (if your friend doesn’t mind being outed as your source) to tell him you’ve heard he was saying some negative things about you after you left. He obviously needs to be reminded that what you say outside of someone’s hearing isn’t necessarily going to STAY outside their hearing…. (Also I needed this reminder myself so thanks)

      2. Anonymous*

        Be careful with your trust. Any credible company isn’t going to disregard an applicant because they don’t have a LinkedIn profile. Especially any credible e-commerce/internet environment based business. Of any they should know the risks or exposing a linked network of personal information to the public. Anybody can sign up and view LinkedIn profiles. And on top of that you have this type of thing happening:

    2. Vicki*

      No. They. Are. Not.
      They _can be_ just that. A “reference” called for a job can be just that as well. They can also be honest and well-considered.

      Please don;t dis LinkedIn (or any other recommendation/review service) because of some examples. There are MANY examples and you have not read them all.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I don’t think Dave was saying that LinkedIn recommendations aren’t honest, but they don’t carry much weight to most employers.

        1. jmkenrick*

          I think that’s likely true of any reference that the candidate is going to see or hear before the employer it’s being given to, no? I imagine letters of recommendation would be looked at similarly.

          I do think LinkedIn recommendations can hold some weight in that they can help demonstrate your ability to create a professional online presence.

          1. Anonymous*

            I think you’re right jmkenrick. I bet LinkedIn recommendations can hold a lot of weight in quite a few cases, but I’m not sure demonstarting ones ability to create a professional online presence really demonstrates anything other than the ability to use a computer. Sorry to go off on a tangent but I think when it comes to security, in the ‘seemingly’ remote chances that someone creates a problem for someone else on these social network ‘services’, while they have ways to potentially track them down, there’s slim chance to none they’ll do it.

  3. Wilton Businessman*

    Don’t be passive and let it slide, confront him. This person has to learn that there are consequences for your actions (and words).

    That being said, you allowed this to happen. By letting him “slack off” (your words under your tenure) you set the tone as a weak leader. If you don’t get the best from your people, they need to be replaced.

  4. khilde*

    I have to echo what Alison and a few of the other commentors have said. One thought that came to mind was how certain are you of the bad behavior he demonstrated after you left? I believe you that your friend is a legit source….but I am starting to learn from my own life that I really, really need to trust the source who’s telling me about someone else’s behavior that I have not witnessed directly. That’s the only thing that would lead me to recommend that you bring up your concerns to him in. But then that gets into a he-said, she-said kind of a deal. And, like you, ultimately, I would be more likely to trust my friend in the issue.

    The other thought that floated through my mind is if you choose the route where you just say “sorry I can’t recommend you,” and provide no reasons why (even if they are token reasons), he might make things ugly for you with mutual contacts or be likely to badmouth you again. I don’t know if your paths still cross or have mutual work contacts. But if he did it once, he might do it again. So perhaps saying, “I don’t think I’m the best recommendation for you. Here’s why: (and you could either give the work-related reasons or bring up the other stuff you heard after you left).”

    1. Liz*

      +1 on the really really really find out for sure if what someone else says happened is really what happened. I’ve worked in the court system and you’d be amazed how often you hear some perfectly nice, well-intended person testify with confidence to a description that is just wildly inaccurate or impossible based on the photos or the timeline. People don’t have to be mean to be totally wrong or mistaken.

  5. Anonymous*

    “(and/or possibly turning him into an enemy)”

    Um, this guy was a piss-poor worker, badmouths you to your ex-coworkers, doesn’t remain in touch until he needs something, and then repeatedly harasses you to try and get it…well, with friends like that, who needs enemies?!

    And yes, I understand the idea of trying to avoid open hostilities, but in this case, if the guy has been badmouthing you, it sounds like whatever potential damage he could cause has already been done. (thankfully it sounds like there were a sizable contingent of people who realized he was full of malarky, since clearly people were reporting back to you about him)

    1. Anonymous*

      +1. I don’t really rate this person as fine.

      Although I come from a country, industry and background where blowing work off for mental health days, strolling in late and playing games instead of working is hugely frowned upon. In fact all of these are potential grounds for termination.

      Add the badmouthing and I’m happy to say “I’m not comfortable giving you a reference personally” and pointing them to HR at the company.

  6. LM*

    “Knowing what I know about his negative behaviour, I wouldn’t want to work with him again”

    There’s your answer. If you wouldn’t want to work with him again, why would anyone else? Giving him a good recommendation would be lying.

  7. Ellen M.*

    OP: You can also just write back with one word: “No.”

    He’s already badmouthing you, so what’s he gonna do?

  8. Alice*

    I like AAM’s suggestions, and option (b) if he persists, and ignore him after the first use of option (b).

    The world is too small to create any unnecessary drama with this guy. You already know he talks smack, you have no idea what he will say to who and when, and you have no control over what other people will think of you regardless of where they get their info.

    I think it would be best for you to be honest by declining the recommendation, and take the high road, he doesn’t need to know why you declined, and nothing positive will come of it. You’d just be giving him more ammo to be immature and bad-mouth you some more.

    1. Ornery PR*

      Totally agree. Most people claim they don’t want drama, but then find themselves pulled in anyway. If you truly want to avoid further drama with this situation, just say, “No, I wouldn’t be a good reference,” ignore any follow-up he my have, and leave it at that.

  9. Frances*

    This guy sounds like a piece of work. I hope we get an update from the OP about how this turns out!

  10. Dana*

    If you delete him as a ‘connection’ can he still send you those requests? I would be so tempted.

    Also, I am not jealous of the awkward situation you’re in, but this makes me feel a lot better about asking for references. I feel like a nuisance going back and asking people (later) who have already agreed, but knowing there are people like this jerk out there makes me feel fine about it.

  11. K Too*

    OP don’t feel guilty or torn. You’ve partially answered your own question.

    I do think that you should be honest and tell him that you can’t be a reference for him. If I were in your shoes, I would follow with the reasons why. Perhaps it will teach him a lesson the next time around.

    The audacity of some people truly baffles me. He talks crap about you, but later wants you to endorse him? No way, uh-uh.

  12. Bob G*

    I think you need to be honest with him and just reply as was stated above “I don’t think I’d be a good reference for you”. This isn’t creating undue drama but it is being straightforward with him. I’m not clear if you’ve actually responded to his follow up emails but I think you need to do so, otherwise he is going to continue to ask. I’m not a big fan of just ignoring things when you can simply address it straight on (calmly and professionally). If he doesn’t like your first response and continues to request then I would lay out for him all the work related reasons you don’t feel that you can recommend his work. I probably wouldn’t even go into the rumors you have heard through other sources.

  13. ChristineH*

    My first instinct was to suggest just ignoring him, hoping he’d get the hint. However, now that I think about it and read everyone’s comments, he probably should be told why you don’t wish to write a recommendation. On the one hand, I’d be worried about him denying his behavior; on the other hand, I’d want to be told–in a professional way–about any behaviors or comments that are potentially damaging to career advancements. I do recognize, however, that many people (myself included) are not comfortable with anything beyond “I’m probably not the best person to use as a recommendation/reference”.

    My approach, then, would be to try the generic response first, but then be truthful (and professional) if he presses further.

  14. Steve G*

    I’d give him a talk-ing to or email giving him a heads up that the stuff he says gets around. Young young people are used to HS and college and think gossip is ok, maybe this can be his learning experience.

    I’d then find out what kind of job he is looking for. Maybe some skill he demonstrated for you would help there. For example, we have an employee who sucks at everything involving customer interaction, which is the reason he is leaving. His new job is back-office. He didn’t need a recommendation (as this is his current job), but if he did, I would give him a bad recommendation if it involved heavy phone calls and emails and presos. But if it was a job that was back-office, I’d give a different recommendation.

    That’s just me,

  15. OP*

    Thanks everyone for the responses and advice! I took the advice and sent him a generic ‘I don’t feel comfortable recommending you’ email, without extrapolation: if he replies, I will explain.

    And yes, this is partially my fault. Like I said, it was the first time I’d ever managed anyone. I was learning. And the company I worked for was a very negative place– it was having financial trouble, and the owner took her stress out on the staff. I had enough of my plate just keeping us all afloat, and let a lot of his nonsense slide– I shouldn’t have, and since then I’ve been a much better manager (I think). As for his badmouthing: I did actually double check this with several people who still worked there when he did. They all confirmed it.

    It was his first ‘real’ job after university when he worked with me, and now that I’ve gotten over my quibbles, I feel much better about not recommending him. I did a bit of facebook snooping and it appears he’s trying to translate the work he did for me and the person after me into a more managerial role, with more responsibility. It makes sense: when I managed him, when I would speak to him about some of the problems he was having, he would always blame it on a lack of motivation, a lack of interest in the work he was doing, and how he didn’t feel valued or challenged by the tasks set to him. Basically he claimed he was screwing up the simple stuff because he felt it was beneath him. At the time, I thought it was all my fault as a bad manager, not motivating him. In retrospect? he was an entitled employee with delusions of grandeur.

    I’m almost hoping he does respond. . . I sort of want an excuse to lay it out bluntly for him.

  16. Anonymous*

    I think that you should simply say, “I don’t think I’d be a good reference for you”. I am not an attorney, but if you give him a bad recommendation and you do not have the documentation to support it, I think that you might be setting yourself up for legal trouble. If you do have the documentation to support it, you might be asked why you still have documentation about this employee’s performance since you no longer work at the company.

    I don’t think that you should mention the statements that your friend shared. Telling this person that your friend is saying negative things about you might make things difficult for your friend.

    Hope you’re enjoying your current position!

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      You’re allowed to give negative references as long as they’re truthful. You are not required to have documentation to support it. That said, she’d prefer not to give a reference at all, so it’s probably a moot point.

    2. Long Time Admin*

      I’ve been reading about people giving very good recommendations about former employees who didn’t deserve good reports and getting into trouble for that. I’m pretty sure potential employers would prefer to hear that someone is a trouble-maker, a lazy s.o.b., a glory-grabber, etc. so they can pass them by and get someone who will do a good job and fit in with the corporate culture.

  17. Anonymous*

    How about if you take this as an opportunity to help the guy out?

    You say this was his first job and it was only two years ago. So he’s still a little wet behind the ears; teach him something he’s not going to forget. Tell him his slacking, despite still getting the job done, is not something that deserves a recommendation – he may not know that, or he may think that no one noticed he wasn’t working that hard. Also, tell him his bad-mouthing got back to you – he’s obviolusly neive enough to think that it wouldn’t.

    He may not respond kindly, so be ready for that, or he may see your point right away and thank you.

    Either way, the truth will sink in and he will do a better job next time. One would hope.

    Help him out. You were a newbie once too, remember?

    1. Charles*

      Yep, we ALL were newbies once; but most of us did NOT bad mouth anyone, let alone the boss. I guess our parents taught us well ;)

      1. Anon.*

        Clarification – I like the answer from anonymous – not charles.
        Unecessary parent bashing, imo. Some have good parenting and and don’t reflect it through no fault of the parents!

  18. Rob*

    I think the OP should just be truthful to the former employee and explain why he should not expect a recommendation. Perhaps it will be the kick in the butt that he needs moving forward (sad as it may be, he may never have been taught how to properly do things in the professional world).

    That being said, the OP didn’t do him any favors during the two years he worked for him/her. Those two years would have been perfect to work on coaching and modifying the behavior. As someone said above, the OP is just as guilty by letting the poor behavior slide…and the other employees probably resented the OP for it, be it a little or a lot.

  19. Susanna- From fair chance post*

    I wanted to share something that I read today. First of all, I am a Christain and I firmly believe people can change. Rick Warren has a twitter and on it was the saying I want to change my circumstances, God wants to change me. I firmly believe when we make mistakes, we can definitely change. This person is definitely not a lost cause.

    1. AMG*

      I agree, but you are still accountable for your actions. He can get his chance to redeem himself through other jobs.

      I believe that the litmus test for this would be an apology and an acknowledgement that his behavior was wrong if the OP told him why she couldn’t provide a good reference. Then, if she wanted to extend him some grace it would be more deserved. Assuming that she could still give one that was honest, positive, AND truthful.

      1. Nichole*

        Agreed. All the OP can do is speak for her experience with this person, which was unpleasant at best, so the kind and graceful thing to do is refuse to say anything and give him a chance to do better next time so that someone can truthfully speak in his favor. The kindest thing would be to gently tell him why, but based on his previous behavior I would worry about him using it against me later no matter how kindly it was stated, so I think the OP handled it well.

      1. Alisha*

        Yes, I agree that people can change. On the other hand, sometimes by giving their behavior – which was not yet improved when you worked with them – a positive endorsement, you can wind up hurting your own professional reputation by association. It’s likely that the OP is linked to other co-workers from the organization on LinkedIn, and potentially managers too, and praising a co-worker whose work was mediocre at best, and whose professional decorum is lacking could wind up costing the OP his or her own professional reputation.

        I empathize with the OP, as I am in a similar position myself. The only difference is that the referral requester in question was on the same level as I was in the company, and though we headed different departments, I assisted the other manager quite a bit while I was still there. When I resigned last year to accept a new offer, that manager’s deficiencies became much more clear to his teammates and to our boss. Before departing, I was asked to write a portion of his yearly review, and I offered some crucial feedback that might help him improve. My boss set up his work environment to give him many chances to improve, and he didn’t take them, which resulted in him being terminated, but not before costing the company quite a bit of revenue in the process.

        I feel sorry for this manager, as I know he has it in him to excel – his performance at previous jobs proves that. However, I’m in a tough spot too, because the job I pursued upon resigning from that one we worked at together fell through, so I absolutely must be assured of a strong reference from my old boss to keep my career moving forward. Singing the praises of a mediocre performer means I that I risk my old boss – whose reference I desperately need – questioning my professional competence, and in a tight, competitive economy, that’s not a risk I’m prepared to take.

        I hope that makes sense, Susanna. Please feel free to ask me further questions if you wish to better understand my perspective on this situation.

        1. Susanna- From fair chance post*

          Alisha, I understand your perspective. Good luck on your job searching. You sound like you have a lot to offer any company. I hope you get the most wonderful job soon.

          1. Alisha*

            Thanks, Susanna. I wish you best of luck as well. Please let us know if you land something nice!

  20. Anon.*

    What is relevant is how he was when you worked with him. The ‘badmouthing’ when you were gone is actually heresay.

    Respond or don’t respond/write or don’t write based on that only, not what you heard from anyone else.

  21. Lisa*

    I would not be a reference for him on LinkedIn at all, because it forever links your recommendation to your own profile. Say that you don’t believe in LinkedIn recommendations, but tell him that you will be a regular reference for him. Then give him your email address only not your phone number, which kills the chances of you being used for a real reference other than for companies with survey like anonymous reference systems. You be as honest as possible if anyone ever contacts you, or you can say the truth “its been a few years, but I always found his work to be well done”. No need to bother with other stuff that made him a bad worker.

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