should I tell my manager my concerns about a previous coworker she’s interviewing?

A reader writes:

My department is currently interviewing for an open position, and I found out that one of the candidates is a former coworker of mine from the job I had prior to this one. I have not been involved in the hiring process at all; I just happened to see him/her in the hallway when he was here for his interview. My question is what, if anything, should I say to the hiring manager (who is also my manager) about this former coworker? I have concerns about this person’s ethics and character stemming from two specific incidents at my former (and his/her current) employer. I think s/he is dishonest and untrustworthy.

However, I must also admit that my personal dislike for this person may be coloring my view of the situation. Friends of mine have had differing opinions on whether I should tell my boss about the specific incidents.

Can/should I bring up these issues with my manager?

First, a note to readers: This letter-writer provided additional details about the two incidents involving her past coworker but asked me not to include them here, in order to stay anonymous. One incident was clearly, objectively an Unethical Wrong Thing (along the lines of stealing, but not stealing). The other was murkier, but something that most people would feel, at a minimum, icky about. That said, my answer would be the same even if they were both murky. Now, onward to it…

Yes, you can and you should talk to your manager.

Sometimes people think that they have to be 100% sure of their opinion in this situation and that they shouldn’t speak up at all if they can’t prove their opinion with courtroom accuracy, but that’s not the case at all. Instead, just be straightforward with your manager — about your opinion and about the fact that you might be biased.

Say something like this: “I saw that you were interviewing Jane Smith. I don’t know if you know that I worked with her at ABC Company. I had some concerns about her ethics and character at that time, stemming from some specific incidents that I can tell you about. But I also want to throw out the caveat that my personal dislike for her, caused by those incidents, might be coloring my view as well.” Then tell her about the two incidents — as briefly and objectively as you can.

In other words, give your boss all the information, not just part of it. Tell her that you might have biases. That’s helpful for her to know and doesn’t reflect badly on you. We all have biases, and disclosing them is one of the best ways to gain credibility, because so few people do it. People appreciate knowing what might be coloring your opinion, and they appreciate hearing that you recognize it.

(In fact, I’ve always found that the more I get in the habit of routinely disclosing my biases, the more colleagues will see me as a valuable and trustworthy advisor. If you’re up-front about biases, they know you’re not pushing a hidden agenda, and you convey that you understand that there might be other nuances to the situation. This is hugely credibility-enhancing.)

But do talk to your manager. A reasonable manager would want to hear this, and would appreciate not being left to make a decision in the dark.

{ 109 comments… read them below }

  1. KarenT*

    Interesting question, but it’s hard to comment or relate without knowing more about the incidents. I fully appreciate the need for privacy, but Alison can you give us an idea about magnitude? Are we talking pilfering office supplies, or embezzling? It’s hard to imagine what is stealing but not stealing.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Maybe the OP will weigh in with something more specific if she’s comfortable, but bigger than stealing office supplies and smaller than embezzling. Something you could absolutely be fired for by a reasonable manager, however.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’d add, though, that even without knowing details of the incidents, my response would be the same. Talk to the manager, give her the caveat that you might have a bias, and share your opinion.

      1. KarenT*

        Fair enough. I was just thinking if the incident was minor it may come across as petty, but of course you’ve got the details so I trust you!

  2. MarceeC*

    Please share your opinions & the basis of your opinions with your manager. One of the things I always consider when evaluating candidates is how the candidate fits with my current team. If a current team member has a strong negative opinion about a specific candidate, that would definitely factor into my decision making process. Its important that my team works well together, plus I want to know if the person hasn’t been honest and ethical in a previous role.

    1. M-C*

      I agree with that. There’s no reason to make a valued team member feel uncomfortable by bringing in someone they have reservations about. There are plenty more fish in the sea.

    2. Mike*

      I understand this point and I suppose the reality whoever is on your team is just that, on your team. But what if your team member has a negative opinion of someone you are looking to hire, but really their opinion is based in an unreasonable bias for the workplace (like a rival frat, or they dated an ex of theirs, or they used to hang out at the bars but now they don’t, and the list could go on). So in this situation maybe your team member is actually being unreasonable and petty and because you want to find someone who “fits in your team,” you’ll pass up on a great candidate.

      Honesty and ethics, that’s another store for sure.

      I’ve never had this happen by the way, and now that I write it out it seems like it would be a rare thing to happen. You would hope the answer would be that they are adults and can work through their nonprofessional problems outside of work, but after teaching kids for 5 years, I’ve seen adults who act just like 1st graders (they just use bigger words).

      1. Mike*

        I have to follow up too with, a made up example. John who works on the team sees that Jane is looking to get hired. They worked together previously and actually dated and ended up in a bad breakup. John doesn’t want to work with Jane again. Jane has a really valuable skill for the team (she specializes in lace decorating of chocolate teapots). John goes to the manager and says that Jane in the past has been lazy, doesn’t take directive, even gives some slightly exaggerated examples. You would never expect John to lie, so you take his word not knowing at all that he had a history with Jane that’s making him act like a petty little boy.

        Ya’ll see where I’m going with my question?

      2. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yeah, it would be pretty rare. But I agree with you that you’d want to think twice in a case where it’s just about personal dislike … in part because you could pass up a fantastic candidate because a team member just doesn’t like her (for no valid reason — which is different from the OP’s case), and then that team member could leave in a month. You’d need to think long and hard about exactly how valued that staff member is, what their longevity likely is with the organization, and how much you’re willing to cater to their preferences.

        It’s still useful for the hiring manager to have the information though, and then she can decide how to use it.

        (But in your example of John and Jane, if John is willing to lie, there’s not a lot you can do to guard against that … other than really trying to hire people with integrity and get to know the integrity of your staff members so you know who has credibility and who doesn’t.)

  3. KayDay*

    Alison, would your opinion be the same if the former co-worker was simply a poor performer/unprofessional, but never did anything illegal/unethical?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yes, absolutely. If your employer is considering hiring someone about whom you have inside info, good or bad, you should speak up. If you’re worried that it’s “just your opinion” and maybe biased, you just say that. The hiring manager can sort it out.

    2. AP*

      Absolutely! At least, I would 100% want to know that. With the same caveat of “only my opinion but…”

      At the very least the manager can then do a much more thorough reference check and be sure to speak with the candidate’s manager from that particular job, even if her name isn’t provided.

      In hiring, more information is almost always better than less.

    3. Josh S*

      I think the advice holds true no matter what.

      You have experience with the interviewee. It will likely help the hiring manager make a more informed decision. Considering all the variety of unknown variables that exist when deciding who to hire, the more information the better.

      If you’ve worked with this employee in the past, YES talk to your manager about your former experience. It’s like the company gets a secret/bonus reference with no effort required.

      This goes for both negative AND positive comments, too. If you know your former co-worker to be REALLY great at doing $Task, you can (and should!) share that. And you can definitely share it along with a “You should know, I think this person was awesome. We became friends at Former Employer, but even if we weren’t, I’d still highly recommend them for doing $Task.” Especially if you have specific examples.

      Or even the middling example: “You should know, I really didn’t get along with Applicant at my previous job. It was a personality thing because of Reason. But even despite that, she was great at doing $Task.”

      Then the manager can weigh the information as fairly as possible. Maybe $Task is a skill that’s more valuable than team closeness. Maybe team chemistry is more important than having a person who is awesome at $Task. But now the manager knows and can make a decision.

    4. AdAgencyChick*

      Oh my god, of course I’d want to know! More information is always better — I would hate to hire an underperformer and then find out his/her lackluster performance is something I could have known about before hiring.

      To the OP, I 100% agree with AAM. Tell your boss what you know, along with any caveats, and let him/her decide what to do with that information. Especially given what Alison has said about the nature of the bad behavior (that it’s serious enough to warrant termination), you won’t look petty, you’ll look like just what you are, which is an employee concerned with the health of the company.

  4. Anon*

    I just had almost exactly the same situation come up a few weeks ago except the person being interviewed was a former classmate.

    Her actions don’t sound nearly as bad as the actions of the OP’s former co-worker but it bothered me enough that I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

    After coaxing from my own manager and a couple friends I brought it up emphasizing that this was in school and people change. I also brought up some of the things I did like about her.

    It was really well taken and even if they did hire her, I know they would be on the lookout to curb similar behavior. So yes – speak up!

  5. OP*

    Letter-writer here. Thanks so much to Alison for taking my question and for your thoughtful advice. I’d rather not get into the specifics of the incidents, because they could identify the former co-worker (and potentially me, by extension), but the generalities are (1) plagiarism and (2) going over the former co-worker’s boss’s head to try to get her fired.

    I think I will sleep on it over the weekend and try to think about how to broach this with my manager. My manager is very generous and transparent (a rarity in our field, it seems), so I do feel that I owe the same in return.

    1. KarenT*

      If your concern is that your manager may not welcome your input, you could start with “I saw you interviewing Jane Smith. I used to work closely with her at X company. I had some concerns about her. Let me know if you would like more information.I’m available to discuss.” That way it’s up to her whether or not you weigh in. She might even say we’ve already made an offer to someone else, making the point moot.

      1. fposte*

        I think this is an excellent suggestion, and it also makes clear that this isn’t a vendetta–if they make the decision without your input you get that and aren’t going to have a fit.

    2. Anonymous*

      I wouldn’t hesitate to let my manager know–especially given the transgressions. When I was hiring, I’d already ruled out a particular candidate, but I appreciated the 2-3 team members who approached me to voice their concerns.

    3. Anonymous*

      I can appreciate that you need your time to process how to bring this up, though I’d urge you to come forward sooner rather than later. The wheels are already turning on this decision- your boss should know not to waste time with this candidate.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Agreed — don’t wait to speak up. Both because the wheels are turning and you could run out of time, and also because you don’t want your manager to wonder why you were sitting on it so long (and will you sit on other bad news for a while out of discomfort, etc.).

    4. Anonymous*

      Depending on what field you are in (say journalism or something similar), plagiarism is a Bad Thing that not only ends careers, but can also put the employer in legal hot water. If you aren’t in something where plagiarism is considered to be that extreme, it is still very unethical and shows a lot about someone’s character. You aren’t talking about someone’s high school science paper; you are talking about someone who is employed by a company to be an upstanding employee who could have potentially gotten them sued. You would be doing your company a favor by bringing this to light.

      Ask yourself how you would feel if you stood by and did nothing and the person was hired and Something Bad happened. There is nothing wrong with you trying to protect a company that you care about in this instance.

  6. Chinook*

    I had something similar happen only a few weeks ago – 2 of us came from another, largish company and the boss was looking at hiring someone else we all knew (and didn’t think poorly of even though she came out of a department that caused the 3 of us to leave). She showed up for the 2nd interview and I came out to show her to the meeting and the look on her face was of pure shock combined with “did I ever do anything bad to you when you were the receptionist?” look of panic.She never did but it was fun to see that look. *evil grin*

    It must have thrown her off her game or made her think she would never get the job because I overheard comments saying how she bombed the interview (as an assistant,I hear all sorts of things). So, maybe the person seeing the OP in the hall may self destruct just from thinking that she has been outed?

    1. Ivy*

      That reaction is a little strange to me (you ex-coworkers not yours.. I totally get the evil grin feeling ;P). If you’re a genuinely nice person and treat everyone fairly, then bumping into a former coworker shouldn’t mess up your game. I mean if anything I’d have an “OMG I didn’t know you worked here! How are you?” moment. Of course not everyone is genuinely nice.

      Moral of the story: Treat everyone fairly and with respect regardless of their position and regardless if they can help you get a job in the future. We’re all people and we all live on the same boat :)

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Agreed — if anything, a good worker is going to think that it might actually help her in the hiring process to have someone on the inside who can speak to their experience working with her.

      2. Anonymous*

        In general, I agree with you. However, I’ve worked with some very nasty people and if I saw them at a company where I was interviewing, I would probably 1) have a “oh crap” look on my face and wonder what nastiness they’ll spread, and 2) remove myself from the hiring process.

        1. Long Time Admin*

          Oh, yeah. A couple of bullies (who managed for force some good people out, and were the major reason many others found new jobs and left the company) were finally let go from Good Old Brand X, and it has stopped me from applying to the companies where they work now. I don’t need that kind of garbage in my life.

          I do feel sorry for the innocent who might be their new victims now.

  7. Not So NewReader*

    Yes, definitely speak up. Over the years, I have had a similar setting happen two times. Two different jobs/managers and two different applicants.

    One manager pulled out the confidentiality card- “The hiring process is confidential.” But I could clearly see that the manager was listening to everything I said. The second time was more straight forward. The manager thanked me for letting him know and he tossed the application. In both cases, the applicant did not get hired.

    When I saw that unfold, I started realizing how my words could have weight that I never anticipated. I had tried to be careful of what I said, and after seeing this, I tried even harder to put fairness and accuracy above everything else.

  8. Jamie*

    Just goes to show why reputation is so important.

    You want to be the person that, if you’re seen leaving an interview, former co-workers trip over themselves trying to get to the hiring manager so they don’t let you get away.

    You never know when your paths will cross again.

    1. Tiff*

      Please say that again for the cheap seats. I had a friend behave badly on a job and she got blacklisted out of the industry. Non-profit, even this close to DC, is a small world and people talk. Once she ruined her rep she didn’t find work anywhere in our area, thank goodness she got married and moved away. Otherwise I don’t know what she would have done. It was crushing.

  9. Tiff*

    I find that in situations where the wording is a little treacherous to navigate, my face does a lot of the talking for me.

    Me: Hey boss, was that Tricia Treacherous I just saw in the hallway?
    Boss: Yes – you know her?
    Me: *big eyes and cringe*
    Boss: What?
    Me: I used to work with her, and the last time I saw her she was hell bent on getting her boss fired. Not to mention the *insert that other bad thing she did here*.
    Boss: o_O

    Mission: Accomplished.

    1. moss*

      I guess this is the Method school of communication. This will probably only work if your boss is watching your eyes closely.

  10. Joey*

    I think how she came to know is key. The op should only share her opinion if she has first hand knowledge of the bad stuff. Otherwise its wreckless to form an opinion. If its based on gossip I’d make sure to point out that it was just that.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think it’s okay to say “I’ve heard XYZ from people I usually consider reliable (or from people I don’t know well enough to trust, or whatever), but I don’t have any first-hand knowledge and the real story could be different.” Again, it’s all about laying all your caveats out in plain view.

      1. EngineerGirl*

        From personal experience, I would side with Joey. I was actually the one accused – falsely – by someone bent on retaliating against me (I had reported them for falsifying a test report). The rumor mill went nuts. You know how it goes – repeat a lie often enough and it becomes “fact” in peoples minds. It affected my performance reviews too – I was actutally pushed down in the rankings because of the accusations. It took almost 3 years to get things straightened out. Happy ending – I got onto 2 other great programs and my career snapped back. Corporate finally investigated.

        So be very very careful. Rumors can rip a persons career apart. Make sure you know things for a fact.

  11. Malissa*

    If you were standing on the tracks and saw a train coming would you move? You’ve had experience with this particular train wreck, do you really want to chance a repeat?

  12. marie*

    I work in a very small industry where the chances of working with former coworkers again is very very high. Unfortunately, for myself, I held a job about 5 years ago that didn’t bring out the best in me – ridiculously long work hours, brining out a bad, obnoxious, side of me. I was in my late 20’s at the time.

    Fast forward to now, and I am in my early 30’s. Unfortunately, the attitude I had 5 years ago, still haunts me to this day – where I have not moved forward in interviews most likely because someone there knew who I was 5 years ago. And it really sucks. Because people can and do change. I know I have. Even though the job I had 5 years ago brought out the worst in me, I learned from it, and grew from it – both professionally and personally. I’m also older now too, and it really sucks that what happened 5 years ago still haunts me. I wish people would realize that people do grow and change.

    1. Anonymous*

      It sucks that you are still being affected by issues from the past, but did you do something as severe as plagiarism (as quoted from the OP’s post)? There’s a difference between being a bad employee in that you’re hard to get along with or are gossipy or whatever, and potentially opening your company up legally to lawsuits because of your actions. These two things are not like each other and this specific instance _should_ follow someone around because of the severity of the situation.

    2. Elizabeth West*

      I have one of these, too, and it’s unfortunately still on my resume. You might think about heading it off at the pass–often, apps will ask if you’ve ever been fired or terminated from a job, for example. I was, at that job, and I am very honest about it, and happily have a former co-worker from that job I’m still friends with and whom I can use as a reference. If you can emphasize that you have moved on and grown from the experience, it seems to temper it a bit. No one I’ve interviewed with has acted concerned about it (it was in 2003), and a few have waved their hands and gone “Pfffft” as though it didn’t matter.

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Marie, I think the challenge is that you know that you’ve grown and changed, but employers can’t be sure — all they can go on is reputation and past behavior. And their job is to use all the info they have available to make the best hire they can, rather than to give people another chance. Which does put you in a tough spot, but I think there are things you could do to improve your chances, like Elizabeth’s suggestion of showing through the way that you talk about it that you’ve learned from it and changed. Also, you might reach out to people you worked with at that past job and tell them that your actions then have always weighed on you heavily, etc., and attempt to repair the bridge a little. At a minimum, it’s going to temper the type of reputation you have, and it might even come close to fixing it.

      1. Lily*

        I recently interviewed someone who had taken legal action against his employer, the court ruled in his favor and then he quit his job anyway. I felt uncomfortable, because he didn’t have a clue what his boss and co-workers had against him. Am I right in thinking that he hasn’t even started on the path of learning from the experience?

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Can you tell us a little more? Did he quit because the atmosphere at work was uncomfortable and he didn’t understand why / was surprised by that? Or was he unsurprised but felt he couldn’t stay? More context will help!

          1. Lily*

            He said that his boss and his co-worker tried to fire him on trumped up charges. He went to court and won, but he felt very uncomfortable back at work and then quit. He had something like tenure.

            Unfortunately, I can imagine several possibilities:
            1. He is acting innocent because he is innocent. People do have bad things happen to them.
            2. He behaved badly and is completely unaware of it.
            3. He behaved badly and he is completely lying about it.
            I used to take people at face value and assume innocence but I have gotten in trouble because of both 2 and 3. In fact my experience with people in category 3 has convinced me that I cannot tell when people are lying, because I am totally impressed by their sincerity and (apparent) openness, but I also have the proof of plagiarism in front of me.

            I could have asked questions to figure out how self-aware he was or else how he deals with conflict (he did say that he was unaware of any communication problems) …

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Yeah, in a case like this, it’s so much about how the person talks about it. What’s their tone like, do they seem to have an understanding of both sides, do they seem bitter or calm, etc.

    4. OhYouKnow*

      I agree and am surprised there aren’t more comments like yours and Joey’s on this thread. I worked with a boss who was a bully to those under her but those above her thought she was Princess Diana. She antagonized several employees and built cases against them over time that led to their firing.
      That was until the biannual employee survey came out and others named her specifically and in detail as a poor manager and a tyrant. The now-former manager was removed from both the position to a much lower level role in another department.
      So those who she got fired have to clean up the mess she made for them, which based on the attitudes and actions of readers here, is going to follow them for a long time.
      That’s a shame. It’s unfair to keep people down when they can learn from their mistakes and improve, especially if their reputation was unfairly tainted to being with.

  13. Elizabeth*

    When I got promoted a little over a year ago, someone I had worked with previously in another department and who had been terminated by yet another department in our organization applied for my old position. My boss asked me my opinion.

    I told him that there was no faster way to push me out than to bring this person in. I pride myself on my ability to work with virtually anyone, and this was one of the few I knew I couldn’t deal with.

    He didn’t even respond to the application.

    We later found out why she was terminated from her previous position and that she should have been marked as ineligible for rehire because of it.

    Reputation is everything, and if you’ve got a bad one, you’re going to have problems.

  14. Anon*

    Early in my current position, I saw a familiar name from a place I had temped at for a year. This person was always on Facebook, had to run out due to “emergencies” and never finished projects on time. I explained to my coworkers that we should toss her application and why.

  15. AF*

    Thank you so much for this post and great comments. I had a similar situation with a nonprofit whose board I served on. We were hiring a
    new Exec. Director and one of the people on the hiring committee heard some very damaging information from former coworkers about a candidate (he was mean, terrible to work with, possible ethical issues). She brought it to the attention of the committee, and one of the committee members freaked out because he thought we’d be sued if the candidate learned that we didn’t hire him based on that info (which we didn’t need to share). They didn’t inform the rest of the board about these concerns, so we hired him and it was a total disaster. Within a year all staff quit and I left the board because of him and his total lack of ethics or professionalism. And he’s STILL there because of a board that is afraid of a lawsuit if they fire him. So SPEAK UP!!!!!

    1. Bridgette*

      I don’t see how he could have a case if he found out that he wasn’t hired based on that. That same information could have come from one of his references. Oh, silly people and their abject terror about getting sued over every little thing.

    2. M-C*

      Do speak up. We’d have been spared so much if someone had when we hired the guy who’d brought a loaded gun to work in order to have a shoot-out with the husband of the coworker he’d started dating.. Or how about the one who would rather sabotage work than let it appear that someone else was getting something accomplished? The one who drove out half the staff within 6 months from chronic harassment?
      There’s absolutely no point in allowing someone in if you know there’s a problem with them, even if it’s only that they snarl at everyone or chronically smell. Work is not therapy, y’all.

  16. AF*

    By the way, I only learned of the concerns later because I wasn’t on the committee. But please, for the love of God, speak up!

  17. Bridgette*

    I was in this situation like this at a large nonprofit several years ago. I temped in one of the departments for the summer and worked with a woman who, while she never did anything unethical or even semi-unethical, was not pleasant to be around. She gossiped constantly about coworkers (within earshot of the person), and let her temper blow up often. She was nice to me but I always felt like I was on eggshells around her. About a year after I left, a good friend of mine had an opening in his department and she applied. He asked me about her since he knew we worked together. I was honest about it – she worked hard but was difficult to deal with. He ended up hiring her, and it turns out she changed over that year and became a really wonderful person to be around, and a highly valued employee. So yeah, people change, and good bosses will consider all the facts and might take a chance on someone in spite of their past. But either way, it’s good to have all the variables.

    Alison is spot-on when she says admit your biases. In pretty much everything you do, if you acknowledge that you could be wrong and you don’t have all the answers, you will be regarded with so much more respect. No one likes, or believes, a know-it-all.

  18. Elizabeth West*

    I’ve only worked with one person I would say something about. She was an absolute harpy. So bad that when I started, I was actually warned about her by other employees. She was rude, abusive, and just plain evil. If her name came up at a future job of mine, I would feel obligated to say something. It’s unlikely, though, since it was a family business where she was part of the family, and will hopefully be there until she dies so I never have to work with her or see her ever again.

  19. Anonymous2*

    So along the same lines, if you knew one of your former co-workers was going to work for a company owned by someone you knew (or didn’t know for that matter, eitehr way), would it be ok to call that company and explain that this person is a bad hire due to XYZ he did at his previous company? Would a company pull a job offer after the person has already started if they learned about past indescretions/bad behavior? Would they welcome that type of information or brush it off?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      You should not do that with a company that you don’t work for. At that point, it’s not about protecting your employer from a bad hire, and is just about stopping the person from getting work — and that shouldn’t be the motivation.

      If it was a company where your friend worked, you could certainly share your information with your friend. If they’ve already hired the person, however, it’s going to be an awkward situation, and I’d really make sure it was information you felt they needed to know (embezzlement or lying, for instance, but not incompetence).

  20. OP*

    Letter-writer here again. I talked to my boss this afternoon, after reading the comments about not waiting too long. Well…I may have already waited too long, as the company has already made Former Co-worker an offer (not yet accepted). :/

    In any event, before Boss told me about the offer, I told Boss my concerns, in the way that Alison suggested above. I tried to be brief and objective and admitted my potential bias(es). Boss listened and said s/he appreciated what I had to say, and pushed back a bit (in a fair way, IMO, not combatively) against my negative characterization of the two incidents. Boss said that if Former Co-worker accepts the job, Boss will keep the incidents in mind but will give FC the benefit of the doubt and treat FC with a clean slate.

    Now my worry is that if FC accepts the job, Boss will think I’m not a team player, although I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. Having worked with FC in the past, I know that I have no problems interacting with him/her on a daily basis and can keep my personal feelings out of the workplace.

    So we’ll see what happens! Thanks again to Alison, and to the commentariat, for all the advice.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      OP, thanks for updating us! You did the right thing. If you end up working with the former coworker and you interact with her professional and pleasantly, your boss won’t think you’re not a team player. (Frankly, your boss is probably second-guessing that job offer right now, and hoping that the FC has changed.)

    2. Anonymous*

      With any luck, this means that while your boss is being generous with their concept of a clean slate, they aren’t going to let any of this behaviour slide. I agree with Alison- smile, be professional and courteous, but do not engage with them if you don’t need to. Their manipulative and unethical behaviour is somebody else’s problem to deal with now- though if you see something questionable, KEEP RECORDS and approach HR instead of going to your boss.

      Going forward, I think there’s a nice way to nip this in the bud- “Hey boss, I saw a former colleague here for an interview. Could I take a moment to share my experiences working with them?”

      Here’s hoping they don’t accept the offer.

      1. OP*

        You’re right–I should have spoken up as soon as I saw Former Co-worker at the company for the interview. I’m a shy and non-confrontational person by nature, and I like to take time to gather my thoughts before making a decision (perhaps too much time), so I let some time pass after the interview before speaking up.

        1. Anonymous*

          That’s totally fine! We all need to process these things in our own time. This is the first time you’ve encountered this kind of situation- it’s a no-fault situation.

          The important thing is: you made noise about it. Your supervisor is aware of the strong potential for unethical situations, and while they’ve said they’re willing to give this person a clean slate, their actions are going to be interrogated. It’ll be hard, but remember that it’s not your purview to be monitoring their behaviour for suspicious activity.

          Be gentle with yourself, and firm with the people who waste your time.

  21. sara*

    I haven’t read all the comments so pardon me if I’m repeating anything or missing anything…. but having made several mistakes at a previous job (not exactly unethical/wrong or murky but still not the best decisions) and now struggling to find a job (these two aren’t related), I’d be extremely bummed if a former coworker who disliked me for biased reasons stood in the way of me getting a job.

    Is it at all possible, this former coworker has learned her lesson and is really looking to move forward and learned from her mistakes?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I wonder what you mean by “biased reasons.” The OP has legitimate concerns about the coworker’s character and integrity, based on actual actions the coworker took. It would be irresponsible for her *not* to relay those actions to her employer, if her employer is considering hiring this person.

      1. sara*

        My response was also based on this part of the original letter:
        “However, I must also admit that my personal dislike for this person may be coloring my view of the situation.”

        I admit I may not fully understand the situation but I understood this as the coworker did certain unethical things, but the OP had a personal dislike for that coworker as well.
        I have read the rest of hte posts now, and I appreciate the stance the OP’s current boss took (of having someone with a clean slate). I guess I’m in the minority here in taht I wouldn’t like it if someone hurt my chances of getting a job but who knows…I’ve had a really bad coworker and I would never want to work wiht them again….soooooo I dunno.

        1. fposte*

          I think you’re overfocusing on the not-liking thing. The thing is, if somebody stole from your workplace or copied your work and claimed it as theirs, you probably wouldn’t like them either–we’re not talking a random dislike here. And people get rejected for vague feelings about how they *might* be all the time–it’s actually rather more fair for them to be rejected based on something they actually did.

          1. sara*

            I probably am. I don’t vehemently disagree with the majority opinion, everyone has given great input…..but I also like to think that people CAN learn from their mistakes and grow, as some of the commenters have mentioned here. I’m always learning from all my experiences and try not to repeat the mistakes, so I’m not sure if it’s naive to extend the same to others. Who knows if this candidate is contrite and has learned their lesson, but I guess only time can tell. I’d really like an update from this OP in a couple of months to see how this situation has played out.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              I think it’s less about the question of whether this person might have changed or not, and more about the question of whether the OP has information about the person that her employer would want to be aware of. And the answer to that is yes. Hiring isn’t about being fair and giving people second chances — it’s about making the best decision you can, based on the most information you can collect. The hiring manager can decide how she wants to use the info, if at all, but she’d surely want to be aware of it. It’s not really for the OP to decide “well, maybe this person changed, so I’ll stay quiet” — most managers would be really frustrated to learn that that had happened after the fact.

  22. Aunt Snow*

    My department just recently hired someone who transferred from another department in our agency, she had been there three or four years. When she joined our division, everyone said how suitable she was because she had worked at Organization X and knew that industry.

    Well, I happen to have a personal connection at Organization X really well, and mentioned this employee’s name, and they responded with guffaws on the one hand and warnings on the other hand. She had, in fact, been let go from Organziation X. However, it was over 10 years ago, so I figured, hey, she may have evolved and changed, so I chose not to mention it.

    My co-worker and I have misgivings about this person – she doesn’t seem to be pulling her weight. But I don’t see holding something 10 years ago against her. I figure she will sink or swim on her own.

  23. Query*

    What about the possibility that (at least in my jurisdiction) saying something like this could expose the teller to legal action for defamation? Especially since from the discussion above it seems clear that noone can *prove* the truth so this wouldn’t be available as a defence. I normally always agree with AAM but in this case if I was going to ruin someone’s life (because of course, if someone makes one mistake then if people keep talking about it it follows the person round for ever) I’d make darn sure I knew all the facts and could prove them.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It’s not defamation if the OP believes it in good faith to be true, just like with giving a more formal reference. This is like giving a reference, just an informal one.

      Also, keep in mind that providing information that potentially prevents someone from getting one job isn’t ruining their life.

      1. EngineerGirl*

        Not ruin, perhaps. But depending on the other things going on in that persons life, it could knock it sideways pretty hard.

        If you are sure about the facts, then yes, report. But if you are repeating gossip or things you only suspect, it is not right. Some gossips can create pretty nasty lies. Others, by repeating the lies, cause significant damage.

      2. fposte*

        And if so, how would it apply more to this candidate who didn’t get hired than all the other rejected applicants?

        1. EngineerGirl*

          The other applicants would have been rejected for real things Vs the candidate (if it was only gossip) was based on lies. Mega-difference.

          1. fposte*

            The reason for the rejection doesn’t make any difference in how much it screws up the person’s life–the effect is the same regardless.

            And those “real reasons” often are even more quixotic than personal knowledge of a co-worker. They’re answering wrong on personality test questions like “I’m different when I’m high”; they’re not going to an Ivy school, or going to an Ivy school; they’re having a hobby that suggests something unappealing to the hiring manager.

            A good hiring manager, of course, isn’t going to kick somebody out because she doesn’t like knitters, but a good hiring manager is also not going to reject somebody based solely on a random co-worker comment. In the OP’s case, the hiring manager dived in to explore further. Elizabeth West has noted that she’s had great response when explaining how she’s moved forward after a bad patch. The people who just cut somebody off because of a stray viewpoint are the people who hire based on whim and impulse, so this would not be the only leap they’d make in the decision.

    2. OP*

      I actually know a fair amount about defamation in my jurisdiction, and I’m comfortable in what I told my boss. For one of the incidents, the truth is definitely provable (and several people who were there at the time do have evidence), and for the other incident, I told Boss that I heard about it second- or third-hand, so Boss could draw his/her own conclusions. Boss also has the ability to go directly to the source(s) of the information to verify the facts.

      As for “ruin[ing] someone’s life,” I hardly think this is the case. There are plenty of employers in our field and in our geographic area who either won’t know the people involved or won’t care about the incidents. In addition, perhaps Former Co-worker should have thought of that before s/he did a bunch of shady things. :/

      1. EngineerGirl*

        If it is real and provable then it is right to bring it up. Then it is simply consequences of bad actions.

        1. fposte*

          It don’t even see how it would have to be provable, since virtually nothing short of a criminal conviction would be.

        1. Query*

          Sorry, I dind’t mean fposte lacked compassion, I mean the OP. The point is, if people thought before they did things that were wrong, in most cases they wouldn’t do them.That’s what a mistake is. Interesting that in another question on AAM at the moment, about a former prisoner seeking a job, everyone is all sympathetic and making helpful suggestions. But here, it’s fine to damage someone’s name behind their back, taking a job from them, which yes, might ruin their life. Missing one job can ruin a life, because it can be the one thing which stands between the person losing the house, or the spouse leaving, or the child support payment. I’ve worked with homeless people for years and I know that sometimes one little thing can make the difference.
          I’m not saying wrongdoers don’t deserve sanctions, but we have courts for that. Not gossip. Wow, I’ve been reading this blog for years, but I really don’t want to come here any more.

          PS I was right about defamation for my own jurisdiction, I checked.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            In most jurisdictions in the U.S. — possibly all — defamation requires that the person knew their statements were false or acted in bad faith.

            Courts don’t deal with plagiarism. Reputation is generally where you take the hit. I’m not sure why you’re objecting to the OP essentially providing a reference, one that the manager surely would have asked her for had she realized that they’d worked together previously. The reality is that, yes, if you plagiarize and otherwise conduct yourself in an unethical manner, you will probably have trouble getting a job in the future with people who were around you when it happened. I don’t see how that’s uncompassionate; it’s pretty typical of hiring, where reputation counts for a lot when someone happens to know you.

            1. sara*

              I don’t think it’s exactly uncompassionate but I do see the inconsistency and irony in the example that Query pointed out: majority of the comments (so far) are sympathetic towards the former prisoner trying to get a job, but here….not so much. Here we’re told that the ability of a person to change and learn from their mistakes is irrelevant but it’s assumed in the other post.

              1. Lily*

                I don’t think you should be putting yourself in the shoes of the plagiarizing co-worker. You have told us that you have made mistakes and learned from them. We don’t have any assurance that the plagiarizing co-worker has even figured out that she made a mistake and if she hasn’t taken responsibility for her mistake, she will very likely do it again.

                Haven’t you had to work with people who always have an excuse when something goes wrong? They couldn’t help it and it is never their fault and they continue to repeat mistakes, because they don’t take responsibility. I do hope that such people will eventually see the light, but I have given up on the idea that I can help them.

            2. Query*

              I’m not in the U.S. but Europe.
              And of course I know that plagiarism isn’t a court matter, though it can constitute fraud in some contexts. I was referencing the case of the former prisoner, and by analogy, suggesting that people have the right to have accusations put to them formally, rather than to suffer from secret talk they can never confront. References are a formal process where people put their names on record. I know ‘chat’ happens, but I think *that* is unethical.

              1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                References are actually often a very informal process where people’s names are not on the record. This is why reputation matters and it’s important to conduct yourself with integrity in your work life.

                If the unethical/plagiarizing coworker had written in here, we’d be giving her advice on how to get out of her situation (like with the former prison). But she’s not the one who wrote in; the OP here is a coworker wondering whether to share how she’s seen this person operate at work, with her employer who’s considering hiring the person. Two different situations.

              2. Lily*

                I don’t know where you are in Europe, but I do know that plagiarism is taken very lightly in some parts of Europe compared to the U.S.. If you’re caught the only penalty is to re-write whatever you plagiarized. Kinda like getting caught shoplifting and only having to pay for the goods you were trying to steal.

                1. Query*

                  I hope that when you say “you should conduct yourself with integrity”, you mean people in general, and not me. I’m not trying to justify wrongdoing, I have always been ethical.

                  Yes, Lily, that’s right! I was talking about different approaches to defamation, rather than to plagiarism though. And I do agree that even though it’s not considered in the same way here, it still suggests a certain problem so I considered it in that light.

                  As for references, I think I see the problem here. Where I am, it would be completely unethical to even *tell* someone that someone else had applied for a role, let alone ask them for their opinion about that person. This idea of an informal reference would be viewed as completelty inappropriate and would make the whole process subject to formal review. All conversations about a candidate must be recorded in written form and placed on the candidate’s file.

                  So I guess what I am saying is that my own jurisdiction’s rules have obviously made me see this very differently, and as such what I think isn’t relevant to an OP in the USA. Of course, I wasn’t to know that when I made my initial comments.

                  I do wish that my own experience and culture had been respected a little more, as just because something is done differently from how it is in the USA doesn’t mean it lacks legitimacy. I feel pretty hurt, and won’t be back.

                2. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  Yes, when I wrote, “This is why reputation matters and it’s important to conduct yourself with integrity in your work life,” I was speaking generally; I have no reason to doubt your integrity.

                  In any case, I’m sorry you feel this way. It’s true that this is a U.S.-focused blog and my advice assumes people are in the U.S. unless stated otherwise. When you made your initial comment, it wasn’t clear that you were in Europe, and I and others responded assuming you were referring to the U.S. And yes, people do tend to get heated when you tell them they lack compassion simply because they’re explaining the way this practice typically works. It sounds like things are quite different where you are, but when you’re reading a U.S. blog, you’ve got to assume that we’re talking about how things work here, unless stated otherwise.

                3. Lily*

                  Dear Query,

                  I hope you didn’t leave immediately. Privacy can be very important in parts of Europe. In some places, you can’t legally give one person’s phone number to someone else without their permission. Do you mean that privacy is very important where you are? And is it more important than helping the hiring manager collect information about the applicant?

                  However, I think managers differ even within countries. Each has got his / her personal preferences, so it must be possible to discuss the differences. The great thing about this blog is the civility and thoughtfulness of the posters, even when they disagree while international viewpoints show that different systems DO work.


                  Lily (observing that some European countries also value a level of formality which is not expected in the U.S., but I am not signing my last name!)

  24. JT*

    “things you only suspect, it is not right.”

    Nonsense. Most of us share work-related information without complete certainty all the time. We operate our lives without complete certainty. If we had to be certain of something bad about someone before passing it on, we’d be hamstrung.

    The responsible and ethical way to share something that could be important but we’re not sure about is to include how we learned the information, any caveats we have about the source, and any personal biases we may have.

    1. EngineerGirl*

      I said based on gossip, which is far more likely to be fabricated than not. Repeating pure gossip is wrong.

      1. JT*

        Not exactly, you said “gossip or things you only suspect” – note the word “or” in your sentence. I was clearly commenting on the stuff after the “or” since I included that.

        But more generally, I don’t really understand the distinction of what is gossip and what is something suspected. Would something like “I heard J was on Etsy a couple hours a day at his last job” be gossip?

        1. JT*

          I realize that my comment above may have misinterpreted what you meant by “or” – perhaps you are saying gossip means “things you only suspect.”

          OK – sorry about that.

          But in that case you’re mistaken that such things should not be repeated – if something is possibly important but we only suspect it, it’s often appropriate to repeat it but make it clear it is not confirmed.

  25. Don*

    I was a boss. Every hire has risk because of the unknowns. Any boss would appreciate any insights, and would value input from a current employee. Project out. Try to imagine if he hired the person, and the person repeated the behavior…and you then told him oh yeah, I used to work with him & I’m not surprised. You can be sure he’d say “Why didn’t you tell me?

  26. Jennifer*

    This is an interesting one. I had a former co-worker do this to me when I was applying for a new job. The problem with her doing this is that she did not disclose the details, nor her biases. The reason she had “concerns” with me was that I used to report to her and then was promoted and ended up being the HR generalist that worked with her manager to let her go during a RIF. She took it very personally that I had let her go and not given her a secretive heads up about it before hand. In reality her speaking to the hiring manager about her concerns about me came from a very biased perspective. I think any manager who has someone come forward with concerns has an obligation to get the whole story and be able to verify whether it is true or not. I am not suggesting that the co-worker should stay quiet…but I am suggesting that the manager may not be able to take it at face value.

    1. OhYouKnow*

      That really stinks that that happened to you. I see very few people on this thread acknowledging how much office politics, misinformation, ignorance, rumors, jealousy, and immature behavior affect co-workers career trajectory when they work together. For someone to intentionally thwart someone else’s career path is pretty brazen. Unless someone is a diagnosed sociopath or made it clear at the watercooler that their career motives are self-motivated and selfish, who can decide that someone hasn’t learned from mistakes or paid their debts to society?

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        No one can decide that, of course. But it’s still reasonable to share what you do know of the person from working together, with the types of caveats I discussed in the post. That’s what references are.

  27. AF*

    I appreciate the different perspectives and I agree with wanting to give people a 2nd chance, but I very much agree that if it’s a work-related offense, an employer has every right to turn down that employee. The job market sucks anyway – my financial life is pretty much ruined because I can’t find a good job and I’ve always been a very good employee, so the “ruining a life” comments affect many more people than we’re discussing here and most have nothing to do with previous bad behavior. I also agree that any good HR or hiring manager will try to verify the information.

    From my perspective, however, an entire organization that I devoted 10 years and thousands of dollars of my own money to was ruined because we did NOT heed those negative comments, which turned out to be completely true, and the person in question acted even worse when he got to our org. It’s only a matter of time before they’ll need to shut down because of this person.

  28. AF*

    To clarify, I meant that it’s unrealistic for an employer to hire someone out of pity or risking ruining that person’s life. Lots of people are in that boat, and it SUCKS, but it’s the job market reality. And again, if they’re choosing between 2 equally qualified candidates and one has a pretty big blemish on their previous work behavior, that should impact the employer’s decision.

    Also, with the person who is formerly incarcerated, they paid their “debt to society” and should get a second chance, and there are ways of protecting employers (bonding employees who work with money, etc.). Obviously it’s still challenging, but it’s very different from doing something that’s not against the law but highly unethical in the workplace. You can certainly rebuild bridges, but in the case of my organization, the person just kept doing the same old thing because no one ever disciplined or terminated him. And it ruined everyone ELSE’s lives in the process.

  29. P*

    I would be really careful about going to a manager about “issues” with a former coworker.
    I have worked with some pretty petty people in my career, I just would not be very trusting if someone can to me saying “back when I worked with X at ABC…”
    It is sort of like, would you ask the ex of someone you are interested in dating what they think of them?

    Additionally I would also think that you see the potential hire as a threat for some reason….

    Just something to think about.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think most managers will tell you that they would want to hear your impressions if you’d previously worked with someone they were considering hiring you. If a manager thinks an employee is so petty that she doesn’t even want to hear their impressions, there’s a much bigger problem!

  30. JuliB*

    I work for a consulting company that routinely send out confidential hiring emails of people “we” are interviewing, their reported specialties, and the companies they worked at. We’re encouraged to give confidential feedback.

    I’ve done so several times, and one of the times that I gave negative feedback I also included my personal bias against the person (and how I got the negative opinion). I made sure to keep it balanced by reporting a lot of her strengths.

  31. TOT*

    Hi am now having the same experience , and still thinking if I have to tell my boss about her.

    Reasons for not hiring her is , she was accused by former student’s not teaching during classes and I was part of the Tribunal which was proven true.

    Submitting diploma mill docs.

    Should I still inform my boss about it or not

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