can you recommend your boyfriend for a job?

A reader writes:

I review intern applications in my university’s department A. An intern in department B, Jane (not real name), said her boyfriend Steve is interested in an opening in my department. She approached me to ask how Steve should submit his application materials. Jane then emailed me, saying she personally recommended Steve for the position, talking about his previous experience, and saying she wanted to make sure his name stood out.

This struck me as weird and unprofessional; I’d note that Jane has not worked with or supervised Steve before. If anything, Jane’s proactiveness makes me question Steve’s judgment. I know people can personally recommend candidates for openings, but I’m curious if is what Jane did considered normal in the “put a good word in” process? More generally speaking, is it appropriate for someone to recommend his/her significant other? Would you consider the situation different if Jane were recommending her friend Bob, rather than her boyfriend?

I agree with you that it’s bad judgment, but I’d attribute it to the fact that she’s an intern and thus (I’m assuming) is fairly inexperienced in how this stuff works.

But yes, you’re assumed to be biased where your significant other is concerned — far more biased than you’d be with a friend — and as a result, you really can’t serve as a reference for a significant other, even if you worked with them or even supervised them at some point.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with saying, “Hey, I wanted to give you a heads-up that my boyfriend is applying for X and I think he could be a great candidate” … but you really can’t push beyond that without making everyone uncomfortable. That’s where your intern veered off course.

A version of this is true for platonic friends, as well. If you’ve never worked with a friend but are suggesting them for a position, you need to state clearly that you’ve never worked with them. You can mention why you think they’d be well-suited for the position, based on your non-work knowledge of them (for instance, you might note that the person is smart/well-connected/diplomatic/a great writer/fantastically knowledgeable about X/or whatever else might be relevant), but you should always be clear that you don’t have experience working with them … and again, you can’t be pushy without making everyone uncomfortable. But you do have a bit more leeway with recommending a friend than a significant other, simply because there’s not the assumption of blinding bias.

{ 46 comments… read them below }

  1. Gene*

    And since Jane is young and inexperienced, OP should probably put a gentle bug in her ear about the line and just where she stepped over it.

  2. Anonymous*

    I agree that she went about this in an unprofessional way, and it would be kind to let her know how she could have mentioned this in a better way.

    However, I was once interviewing for a marketing manager role, and one of the people I interviewed recommended his girlfriend to me for another role we were hiring for (*without* telling me she was his girlfriend). She was fantastic, he wasn’t, and we ended up hiring her and not him. She was wonderful, and very professional. So…I was very thankful for his recommendation, even though he also didn’t go about it the right way (by not disclosing the relationship).

    1. BW*

      Since this guy was shady about his recommendation, it doesn’t surprise me he wasn’t so fantastic. I’ve never had any good experiences with people who try to fly under the radar like that. Not disclosing does say something rather unflattering about a person.

      When I hear recommendations from family, friends, and SOs I tend to take them with a grain of salt, but instead I want to talk to that person and see for myself, assuming they are qualified on paper with the right skills and experience.

    2. Ivy*

      Why does it matter if he discloses that she’s his girlfriend or his friend? I’m almost inclined not to mention the details of a relationship other than the fact that he’s never worked for her. “I have someone in mind that I think would be a great fit for x position. I’ve never worked with her, but here are the reasons she would be great…” No mention of the nature of relationship. Could be a girlfriend, a friend, a relative, or an acquaintance… I don’t see how it really changes anything or why one should have to disclose that information… Especially if the position is in a completely different area than where the boyfriend works and there could be no conflicts….

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Rightly or wrongly, if the person is a significant other, it’s assumed that you’re biased to the point that that’s a relevant part of the recommendation. If you don’t disclose that and it comes out later, you look deceptive. It comes across as if you were trying to help your significant other at the expense of honesty and openness.

        (Plus, frankly, many places will have a higher bar for the person if they’re dating or married to someone already working there, since there are a host of potential issues that come along with that.)

        1. Jamie*

          “Rightly or wrongly, if the person is a significant other, it’s assumed that you’re biased to the point that that’s a relevant part of the recommendation”

          This cracked me up – YES! If you ask my husband what I do for a living he would talk for an hour about things he thinks I do, but in reality are more the duties of the technology officer on the Enterprise than how I actually spend my time at the office.

          And I do them better than anyone who has ever worn the proud badge of IT (except my dad. He will allow that my dad was slightly more brilliant than me because he has learned that it is the only correct answer.)

          And he could sell it because my goodness does he believe it.

          He also thinks I should be making about 50K more than I am and working about 50% less. Because I’m just that valuable – I’m sure the fact that he would benefit from both the extra money and me being home more doesn’t bias him at all.

          All of which makes him an awesome husband but would make him the world’s worst reference.

          1. BW*

            Yup – An org I work with actually bought into a proud husband recommendation like that, despite much protest from myself and a colleague. The woman was a complete disaster in every way imaginable. She couldn’t actually do any of the work. I mean she had ZERO of the skills we needed and she was expected to use, and the projects she took on that didn’t require technical skill, she never finished – not a one of them. She totally lacked skills for her technical position and was just terribly unreliable. *facepalm*

            He obviously thought very highly of her, but…man, love is truly blind! I got to clean up her mess when she left.

            1. Ivy*

              Man, I don’t understand this. Maybe its the cynical cat lady in me, but I’m fairly aware of peoples faults. There is many a’significant other, friend, or family member that I love dearly, but would NEVER recommend. I think recommending someone who’s so obviously a bad fit reflects terribly on the recommender for their lack of judgement….

        2. Anonymous*

          I also find it interesting to divulge the nature of how you know the person. I’ve had people I know through various ways put in a good word for me. Whether its a family friend, childhood friend, drinking buddy, person you know through sports, whatever, I don’t think it should matter. I think the problem is places may sometimes be less hesitant to hire for that reason.

          If my buddy said “I know Joe because we play on the same softball team but I’ve never worked with him, but I think he’d be good for reasons X,Y,Z” I don’t think thats really putting the person in a great position as opposed to “I’ve known Joe for years and I think he’d be great for reasons X,Y,Z”.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Except that you need to protect your own reputation too, and that includes (a) preserving your credibility by making it clear if you have or haven’t worked with someone — because if you don’t, and then you’re asked and have to disclose it, you won’t look very good, and (b) if the person is horrible and you recommend them, that will reflect on you if you didn’t disclose the limits of your knowledge ahead of time.

      2. fposte*

        The relationship may indeed not matter to the employer, but it’s up to the employer to decide that, not the significant other.

  3. Henning Makholm*

    “If anything, Jane’s proactiveness makes me question Steve’s judgment.” — Um, what, how does anything Jane does allow you to conclude something about Steve’s judgment?

    Is your point that Jane is such a horrible human being that Steve should have known better than be her boyfriend or what? (Because that seems to be the only remotely judgment based choice the whole story seems to tell you anythingabout). And you would consider hiring him if only he wised up and dumped her?

    1. BW*

      I didn’t get this argument either. Just because Jane is naive or clueless about who and how to recommend someone for a job doesn’t mean she’s a bad girlfriend or a bad person. It doesn’t say anything about Steve. He may not even know she’s being overly forward in an attempt to help him out.

    2. Kit M.*

      I am pretty sure it just means the OP questions Steve’s professional judgment in allowing his girlfriend to write to them, rather than, say, representing himself.

      1. Maria*

        This. My first thought was why he might need her to 1. approach the supervisor to find out how he should apply and 2. be so heavy-handed in trying to be a reference to help get him the job. I’ve had some very unmotivated boyfriends in my past so maybe I’m biased…

      2. Henning Makholm*

        I’m pretty sure the OP didn’t write anything that even hints that Steve has “allowed” his girlfriend to do anything. What do you want him to do — forbid his girlfriend from going to work (or having a job) or demand that she must forward all her work email to him for approval?

    3. Not So NewReader*

      It is possible that Steve had no idea Jane is doing a heavy PR campaign on his behalf. Perhaps he believes she is just discretely asking one or two people.
      Sometimes a firm redirect solves everything: “Jane, Steve needs to send in his paperwork and the process will be handled from there.”

      I have always felt awkward recommending people from my personal life. I like to have something concrete to point to- “Yes, we did volunteer work on a board together and we accomplished relevant work x,y and z”. I feel I must say something to raise curiosity about meeting this person.

      1. JLL*

        This is what I’m thinking. I wouldn’t hold it against Steve, because it’s quite possible he has no idea she’s done this. She said he was interested in the position, not that he asked her to do anything further or even that he isn’t aware how to apply.

        I’d just tell her that he has to apply through the usual channels and if they want to move forward, they will.

    4. some1*

      It’s kind of one those “like it or not, KNOW about it or not, it reflects poorly on the candidate” things. It could very well be that Steve has no idea that Jane is lobbying so hard on his his behalf, and if he did know, he wouldn’t want her to do it. But the LW doesn’t know their situation, and even though it’s unfair, she has already drawn conclusions about Steve.

    5. Amanda*

      I didn’t take it that way at all – Agreed with some of the comments below that I think OP means Steve’s professional judgment. I didn’t get anything from OP’s question that s/he was suggesting Jane “is such a horrible human being” etc.

      If I were in OP’s shoes, I’d also wonder why Steve might think it’s a good idea to ask his girlfriend to inquire and then endorse him (through what sounds like was a direct, rather formal email and not just casually saying, “Hey, I saw that this position is open, and my boyfriend is interested”). I think that’s what OP means by Jane’s proactiveness that might actually reflect unfavorably on Steve. I would think, does Steve know how the process works? Did Steve think he might get a leg up just because his girlfriend works there? Why didn’t Steve apply and let his application speak for itself? (It sounds like Jane approached OP before Steve officially submitted his application) and etc.

      Here’s a thought, though: What if, say, Jane was not an intern but a board member, donor, or other Super Important Person recommending her SO. I feel like that would be trickier…

      1. Amanda*

        ^^To clarify, I mean trickier because in a situation where Jane is a Super Important Person recommending a SO, the OP or relevant department might need to navigate carefully to not offend Super Important Person. I’m thinking it’d be necessary to make sure there is “face saving” for all parties, so that it’s not awkward in the future, especially if Super Important Person can influence the university’s funding/future.

      2. Henning Makholm*

        How can the OP infer anything about Steve’s professional judgement or lack of same when the OP has not seen that judgement in action.

        Are you suggesting that the only way for Steve to have “professional judgement” is to go Taliban on his girlfriend and demand control over what she does when she’s at work?

        1. Amanda*

          I don’t understand why your reaction and tone are so strong? No one’s saying Steve needs to forbid Jane from doing anything and control all her actions.

          My point was simply that Jane may be hurting and not helping Steve. A hiring manager can form unfavorable impressions of a candidate through how they act or don’t act. As AAM said, I think it’s bad judgment on Jane’s part. Steve is not taking charge of his own application and either encouraged, or at least did not oppose, Jane recommending him.

          Jane is recommending Steve’s work when she’s not qualified to give one. Jane is asking all the questions, and not Steve. Like another commenter here said, Steve needs to take the bull by the horns. At the end of the day, it’s his application and his fight, so having his intern girlfriend advocate for him so strongly seems weird – I don’t know about other work environments or cultures, but in my experience it’s a little awkward. At best it can make Steve look like he doesn’t understand how the process works; at worst it can make him appear passive, or that he’s trying to get in through (tenuous connections) and not his own merit.

          1. Henning Makholm*

            My reaction is strong because you’re punishing Steve for something he did not do. That’s patently unfair, and patent unfairness tends to get me worked up.

            “No one’s saying Steve needs to forbid Jane from doing anything and control all her actions.” Huh?

            You seem to be saying loud and clear that employers should consider Steve to be unprofessional because Jane is doing s0mething arguably wrong at work. That clearly implies that you think the only way Steve could be “professional” would be if he had somehow prevented Jane from doing that.

            “Steve is not taking charge of his own application and either encouraged, or at least did not oppose, Jane recommending him.” You have no basis at all for claiming that. The OPs letter does not tell about a single thing Steve has or has not done. It’s all about what Jane does.

            And what’s that about “at least did not oppose Jane recommending him”. So now you DO think Steve ought to control Jane’s actions? Do you think nothing Jane ever does can be something Steve “opposes”? And do you still; maintain that your position does not imply that Steve ought to ought to maintain so tight a control over what Jane does that the fact that she does something is proof positive to you that he must not “not opposing her”.

            “Like another commenter here said, Steve needs to take the bull by the horns.” Again, neither you nor the other commenter knows anything about what Steve does or doesn’t. All you know about is what Jane does. She is not Steve. Her bad decisions are not Steve’s bad decisions.

            “At best it can make Steve look like he doesn’t understand how the process works;”. No it can’t. What Jane does is something Jane does. Steve is not doing it. There is no evidence to suggest he made her do it. H0pefully for Jane, Steve cann0t just control what she does and doesn’t do when she’s a work. If he can, then she should run.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Hiring decisions aren’t about being able to prove something in a court of law. They’re about drawing sometimes conclusions on limited information. And this is really no different than when someone’s spouse applies for a job on their behalf or calls to check on their application — it’s possible that the applicant has no idea, but you’re not likely to assume that.

  4. lindsay*

    Yes to all of this. I tried to explain to my spouse this weekend why he really shouldn’t put me down as a reference for a volunteer position (even though I was his manager at our college coffee shop). Not only does it jeopardize his chances, but it makes me look like I don’t know about professional references. At least it’s a volunteer thing and not an actual job.

    1. COT*

      Depending on the volunteer role, sometimes a partner is a good reference (in conjunction with non-family references). For instance, I volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters. They do a pretty thorough background check and so they actually want to talk to a close family member to help them get a full picture of my life. But they also requested to speak with my boss, a friend, etc. It all depends on the nature of the work!

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        It’s important to note, though, that that’s a very different context. For most jobs, candidates would rightly bristle at an employer wanting to talk to a family member to get a fuller picture of their life!

    2. BW*

      At least you were his manager, and have some experience with him as a worker. My mother put me as a reference for a paid job once. I’m not sure she actually disclosed I was her daughter. What was she thinking?!

  5. Mike*

    Not quite a reference, but I find it humorous when I see someone’s dad or aunt endorse their skills on LinkedIn. I’m really glad to know your mom thinks you are good at making chocolate teapots.

    1. the gold digger*

      Oh man. Several people have endorsed my ability to speak Spanish. None of them have ever heard me speak it before. Indeed, one of them I have never met – a cousin of my dad’s who linked to me. Maybe she just believes I am telling the truth on my profile.

      (Y si, hablo espanol. Entonces, no es mentira.)

    2. Jamie*

      Ha. I have run into this with actual references as at one point or another all of my kids have worked for me.

      On school breaks a couple times a year they come in and man the phones, general office stuff…but they actually report to me. So technically I would be the proper reference, if they weren’t running around with my mitochondrial DNA complicating things.

      Anyway – they always list the owner of our company as the reference since she’s familiar with the quality of their work and speaks to their skills and the fact that they may have gotten the temp gigs initially because of me, but they were asked back time and again because of their own work and reliability.

      That worked and was totally honest – but we’re talking about teenage entry level stuff so the bar is a little lower on references than actual career jobs.

    3. Rana*

      Yeah, I’ve been bemused by those endorsements ever since they made their appearance. I tried to restrict mine to skills I know my contacts have and are good at, but other people simply “endorse” all my skills, including skills I know they have no personal knowledge of. It’s sort of awkward. I don’t know what LinkedIn thought it was doing when it set that option up.

  6. Zee*

    My only thought is Steve needs to take the bull by the horns himself and find out how to apply. Sure, it’s easy enough to ask his girlfriend to find out since she works closer to where he wants to, but he needs to investigate the application process himself.

    I think that’s what the OP meant when she said she questions Steve’s judgement. But we’re talking about young college kids who may not know. So instead of judging them, it’s time to teach them.

  7. Maria*

    I actually have a similar issue as I’ve been working for my husband’s business the past year or so, in a very different area than most of my other work. Sometimes it seems like someone hiring might be interested to hear from him what I do, but I am certain I should not use him as a reference. Maybe I could mention it when sending references…i.e. these are my professional references, but additionally, my husband would happy to elaborate on what I’ve being doing at his company if you were interested in learning more about that.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I wouldn’t even suggest him — so many people will consider talking to a job applicant’s spouse an absolute no-go that you risk sounding naive saying it. Instead, I’d say something like, “I could put you in touch with that company, but it’s run by my husband, so that might not be particularly useful since it’s hopefully a given that he thinks well of my work,” or something else to make light of the situation and demonstrate that you get it.

  8. KarenT*

    Maybe I’m just in a good mood this morning, but I think what Jane did is naïve though not necessarily wrong. You don’t recommend your boyfriend or your mother or anyone else you have unbiased feelings for. I think it really depends how she went about it, and it sounds like she did highlight his experiences not his actual work. I mean, if the posting said that candidates must have two years media experience and a master’s degree in science, and her boyfriend had four years media experience and a master’s degree, I don’t see anything wrong with her mentioning that. Again, it is naïve, but I’m willing to chalk this one up to inexperience and forgive Jane.

    1. Anonymous*

      +1. Especially given that Jane is an intern and possibly doesn’t know the ins and outs of professionalism in this context. I think it would be a nice thing for the OP to give Jane a pointer about this and tell her it’s inappropriate and why.

  9. KayDay*

    hmmm, I think this particular situation seems a little off/a little naive , but not grossly unprofessional. It’s more strange because the intern made that extra push of attempting to give him a professional recommendation and asked for special treatment for him. If she had stopped after asking how he should submit his application and giving a very brief summary of his experience, I think it would have been fine.

    More generally, I think mentioning that your significant other/mother/child is interested in a position is okay if it’s done in a very casual way, and not given in the same way you would give a professional reference (and as long as you two wouldn’t be working together). Basically, with significant others or family members, any mention of them should be thought of as more of an introduction and not a recommendation.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      “Basically, with significant others or family members, any mention of them should be thought of as more of an introduction and not a recommendation.”

      Yes! This is a perfect way to look at it.

  10. Anonymous*

    That line about “wanting to make sure his name stood out” jumps out to me as boilerplate career-center-speak. And OP works at a university. Suggestion: check what advice the career center is giving out regarding networking? It may be less “bad judgment” and more “doing exactly what your school is advising them to do.”

    The career center at my alma mater taught the best/only way to get an application noticed was to proactively take advantage of any and all networking contacts: friends, family, even random alumni. Having the applicant ask the contact to enthusiastically follow-up with a recommendation after the application is submitted… that sounds like textbook career center advice.

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