how to (politely) discourage friends from applying to work at my company

A reader writes:

I’m a recruiter at a tech company — one of those cool internet startups that everyone wants to work at. Of course, along with that comes very high hiring standards. We have a very specific profile that we look for, and our interview process is extremely competitive.

In the past two years, I’ve had multiple friends (or friends of friends) either ask about jobs at my company or apply for a position. Most of the time, I know they’ll likely not be a fit, either due to experience level or cultural fit. When they ask about jobs, I’ll let them know what positions we have open, tell them it’s highly competitive, and let them apply. However, it feels disingenuous to let friends apply (and put all the effort into applying for a role), which I’m pretty sure they’ll be rejected. And of course, when a friend’s rejected from my company, it’s pretty awkward.

For some more context, I’m talking about entry-level, non-technical roles in communications or admin roles. So positions that have a very high volume of applications, but roles we still have high standards for.

Any suggestions on how to gently discourage a friend from applying for a job at my company?

I wouldn’t make it your mission to discourage them per se, but rather to arm them with information that will help them make a better-informed decision.

So for instance, you might tell them that it’s very competitive (as you’ve been doing), but also that the company is looking for people with a background in X or experience in Y. If they don’t have those things, that’s a clear message that their chances aren’t going to be strong … and from there, it’s up to them if they decide to apply anyway. It’s harder, of course, when the issue is a culture fit one — that’s harder to explain to people, but depending on the specifics, you could describe the sort of culture fit that the company is looking for, and let them draw their own conclusions from there.

I would not, however, make it your job to dissuade people from applying. That’s likely to create a weird, condescending dynamic with your friends, and it also might be doing them a disservice — because it’s possible that one or two of them might be closer to the profile of what your company is looking for than you realize. After all, few of us are intimately familiar with all our friends’ professional personas, and it’s possible that some of yours could surprise you.

So arm them with information, but leave what they do with it up to them.

{ 71 comments… read them below }

  1. Lanya*

    Alison is right. I followed a similar approach when warning a friend who wanted to apply to my terrible workplace. She considered my advice, but applied anyway. (Whether or not she realizes it, it was a blessing in disguise that she did not get hired there.) People are generally going to do their own thing despite kind warnings.

  2. AdAgencyChick*

    Totally agree with this. As long as your friends aren’t the pushy types who will bug you to advocate for their candidacy, there’s no harm in them applying as long as you’re transparent with both them and the hiring manager. “Wakeen, here’s the deal — they want someone with a PhD in Teapot Management, and I don’t think they’re going to bend on that.” “Jane, just so you know, Wakeen knows me from spin class, so I can vouch that he’s a good guy, but I don’t know anything about his work skills.”

    The only way you can get burned professionally is if you seem to be recommending someone who clearly isn’t a good fit (because then your judgment is called into question) — so if you’re forthright from the beginning about how much you know about your friend’s work ethic and abilities, then it’s on the hiring manager and they won’t blame you if your friend turns out to be woefully underqualified. (At least, reasonable people won’t.)

    And the way you might get burned on a personal level is if your friends feel like you’re shutting them out of a job. So again, as Alison says, giving them what they need to make an informed decision about whether to apply, and then letting them figure it out from there, is the way to go.

  3. VictoriaHR*

    Yeah just make sure that your friends aren’t expecting to have an “in” with the company just because you work there in a hiring capacity.

    1. Jessa*

      This. Make sure they understand that you’re not going in there gung ho and recommending their candidacy. Unless of course you are. “I’m sorry friend, I never recommend friends or family, whether or not they get the job it always works out badly for me.”

  4. Anonymous*

    If it is a culture fit issue then I’d tell them what to expect. My friend works at a huge international company that does a lot of …group activities and mandatory fun. This is great for her, she’s outgoing and the “fun” doesn’t seem to bad but things like being expected to have drinks with the team and lots of big corporate shindigery happen. I’d found a couple jobs there that looked like beautiful matches for my skill set. But after talking with her I didn’t pursue them because I would be a horrible fit for it. Now in other situations I might have been willing to tolerate that kind of thing etc. But if you are honest about the corporate culture (you have to work 70 hours a week and then socialize an extra 5 or they only promote from within or they expect everyone to always go after new projects on their own and they never assign tasks) then your friends can sort themselves.

  5. Joey*

    Here’s one version of what I’ve said to friends I know have no chance. “Sorry, dude. We’re buds and all, but you flake on me to have a beer. I’m not going to stop you, but I wouldn’t get your hopes up. Its hard to get in, crazy hard. Its so hard to get in let me tell you about the people who actually got hired…….”

  6. Joey*

    And the let em down softly version:
    “It’s great that you applied. Now I’ll warn you, its extremely difficult to even get an interview- we get tons of candidates. If you feel like you’ve for what it takes apply and we’ll go through our normal process. Good luck.”

  7. Elizabeth West*

    Newjob is one of the city’s most sought-after employers. It has a reputation for being a fabulous place to work (and so far, I would agree with that!). But don’t ask me if I know someone in HR or if any departments are hiring; HR is not even in the same state, the company is huge, geographically, and I’ve only been here a short time myself.

    I refer them to the website and tell them if they see something they are a good match for, to go ahead and apply. That’s all I can do because it’s so tech-oriented you absolutely HAVE to have special skills for a lot of the jobs. Even mine, which mostly isn’t–I could not have gotten it even three years ago.

  8. Laura*

    I have friends who work at some of the “cool, competitive” internet start-ups and they all could use this advice – particularly the bit about coming across as condescending. What if they get hired? You’re then basically on record as saying you didn’t think they were good enough, which doesn’t bode well for your reputation as a friend *or* a recruiter.

  9. Wilton Businessman*

    Does anybody else see the irony in a recruiter discouraging people from applying?

    1. FD*

      Even a bad recruiter wants quality candidates, because bad candidates aren’t a good use of her time.

      A good recruiter wants quality candidates, both because bad candidates aren’t a good use of her time, and because bad candidates are wasting their own time applying to a job that isn’t a good fit.

      (I use bad candidate not in the sense of ‘bad person’ or ‘bad worker’, but in the sense of ‘a candidate who is not a good fit for this position at all’.)

    2. Joey*

      Wouldn’t you want a friend to be frank with you?

      What’s so wrong with discouraging applicants who won’t cut it?

  10. Kou*

    “a tech company — one of those cool internet startups that everyone wants to work at.”

    Oh no we don’t.

    1. Jamie*

      Ha – true. A start up sounds like a nightmare at this stage in the game for me.

      There was a time I’d have loved it, though.

      1. Kou*

        I’m in the young starry eyed crowd those places are usually staffed with and I’m still downright curmudgeonly about the places.

        1. Emily*

          What I meant was “a tech company — one of those cool internet startups that everyone wants to work at,” if you’re in your early 20s.

          I’m at a much more established startup than I was at my last company, and trust me, I can give you a long list of reasons of why to avoid the startup world. They’re considered “cool” because of name recognition, and nothing more.

          1. Kou*

            And they have slides, and foosball, and– holycrap bean bag chairs, at WORK? Say whaaaat.

          2. Felicia*

            I’m in my early 20s and I would absolutely hate working at a place like that. I’d probably be one of the people where I might be able to do the job but the culture would be a bad fit. I generally don’t want to work anywhere with a reputation for being “cool”

            1. EE*

              I recently applied for a temp job at a fashion startup. During research, I saw that a tech job was posted on their website (not mine – it wasn’t publicly listed.)

              It said “You will be all over HTML/CSS and have mad JS skills.”

              I shuddered.
              I’m glad I’m working somewhere more sedate now.

            2. tcookson*

              I generally don’t want to work anywhere with a reputation for being “cool”

              This made me laugh — “Cool” and I don’t get along that well, either o_0

    2. TheSnarkyB*

      Yeah, that’s similar to what I came to say.
      OP, this is just a gentle reminder – it may not apply to you, so please take that into consideration.
      At a lot of those tech start-ups, the “cultural fit” is both very important and also sometimes problematic. I’ll just say – please think twice every once in a while about whether you’re perpetuating/supporting/enabling a culture that isn’t in line with the … let’s say long term perception goals of the company. For instance, I’ve heard a lot of friends, colleagues, professionals, talking recently about the misogynist culture in tech and how it’s not very welcoming to women. Maybe not because of pure sexism, but because of how people get in – sometimes there can be a very fratty mentality, yet also a little anti-social, that makes it hard for people who don’t already know each other to get in or work well there. And when you’re hiring people who already know each other, that isn’t the best recipe for diversity, if that’s your goal.
      The counter-point to this is that someone in your position doing the opposite thing (hiring all their friends) could also cause the problem above, and probably much quicker. So I’m just saying every once in a while take a step back and make sure you’re not closing your gates to “the wrong kind of people” for the wrong kind of reasons.

      1. Anonymous*

        You don’t just have to have diversity be a goal to want a diverse group of people either. A diverse employee base is beneficial for the companies bottom line too. (The ever popular example of the Nova car, all you needed was one person in the room who spoke spanish to point out that it might not go over in that market etc..)

          1. Jamie*

            Was the female version the succubus? Silly Reebock, even a non-English major like me knows what they are!

        1. LV*

          I’ve always thought the Nova example was a bit ridiculous, actually. Saying that a native Spanish speaker would look at the word Nova and see “no va” is like saying that a native English speaker would look at the word “notable” and think it meant “no table.”

          1. Naomi*

            The difference is that “notable” is an English word we are used to seeing and reading correctly–correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think “nova” is a word is Spanish. It’s more like if we saw “Nogo”–I think people would read that as “No go.”

      2. Kou*

        And, hell, it doesn’t even have to be a discriminatory issue or an issue of diversity in the traditional sense of ethnic culture but even just business culture. If you’re so bent on being a Cool Workplace that your entire staff is any one way, be it baroque pearls or high tops, you’re missing out on a whole lot. Similar people sitting around agreeing with each other does not typically lend itself to having a comprehensive plan or perspective.

        Not that I get the sense OP is worse about this, but it’s one of the things that puts me off those types of workplaces. It’s not necessarily disastrous or anything, but it’s something to consider when building a new company.

        1. Jen in RO*

          But doesn’t this apply for other types of workplaces too? I might be extremely qualified for a job, but if I have to wear a suit, I’m not touching that company with a 10 foot pole. I think companies are free to choose their cultures just like we’re free to stay away from certain kinds of cultures.

          1. Kou*

            True of all workplaces. The place that first made me skeptical of highy homogenous work forces was a research institute.

            Sure they can do whatever they want. You can do lots of things with your business that are not good ideas.

      3. EngineerGirl*

        Yes! My experience with brogrammers is that they are a bunch of arrogant dweebs unwilling to accept a divergent viewpoint. They think that they know more than everyone in the room, and are exceedingly condescending to older women. I love to watch them fail because they ignored my experience and advice.
        Consequences. Everybody needs em.

    3. AmyNYC*

      Yeah… all that cool “free” stuff – the food, the games, the campus, the slide… it’s because you pretty much LIVE at work.
      They’re not giving you dinner so you don’t have to cook at home, they’re giving you dinner so you DON’T GO HOME.

      1. AG*

        Its also a way of paying their employees that doesn’t get counted as taxable compensation.

  11. Mena*

    The tough part is the cultural fit … more difficult to explain than saying ‘we need experience in X.’ And especially if these are entry-level jobs, anyone wants IN and feels entitled to some form of screening.

    My company is extremely particular on the cultural fit once education and experience are cleared. This gets gray and like you, I know a lot of people that would NOT make the cut.

    1. Maire*

      Can I just ask what a cultural fit at your company is? I hear this mentioned so often and it always seems so vague; so I’d just like to get a better understanding of it.

      1. Lynn*

        It mainly means the way things are done at that company. Fast-paced or deliberate? What level of formality? How much humor do people find in the work? What level of sharing about personal lives, and socializing outside of work? Are tasks and roles well-defined, or are you expected to find work and do it? What are the expectations about time (long/short hours, early/late, yes/no on work from home, checking in on weekends is usual/unusual).

        Does that help?

      2. Jen in RO*

        For my company/team, this would mean: we’re all young, so we discuss “young stuff” (from Kardashians to parties to having first babies), we’re very open with our personal lives but we don’t socialize a lot outside a work, we usually don’t work overtime but it’s frowned upon to leave at 6 sharp and dump your work on others, we don’t write very formal emails, we have to juggle a lot of things at the same time, we don’t offer a lot of training and hand holding.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          In the U.S., the young thing could create a potential age discrimination issue if it was part of the screen being used in hiring (even if just unconsciously).

          1. Maire*

            I think this is why I have a negative reaction to the “culture fit” thing. It could so easily be used to exclude and create arbitrary rules for potential employees and they won’t even know why they were rejected or excluded:it’s just because they weren’t the “right sort of person”. Kinda like school really.

            1. Eva R*

              This is somewhat my experience.

              Too often I’ve seen “poor fit with the culture” to “no one bothered to explain things and just expected me to instinctively know” or “People who are not middle class, white, and local need not apply.”

              And the thing is, I don’t think these people are doing that on purpose, I think they’re doing it because they’ve been picking people for so long who “fit” in their social and working lives that they don’t really know how to interact with someone who may not know all the unwritten rules they all know that they don’t remember having to be taught at some point. I’ve seen this also in companies where most of your coworkers started the job 10+ years ago, but there it’s a little easier to explain when people start forgetting that you haven’t been working with this product or piece of equipment for so long that certain things are obvious.

          2. Jen in RO*

            I know, but doesn’t it also factor under this cultural fit thing? I really see it as just another aspect of company culture – to fit in with us, you need to be “young-thinking” even if you’re not actually young. Of course a lot of other things come into play, but we work closely together and it’s really important to find someone who can mesh with us… or at least not clash!

  12. Kou*

    Ok jokes aside, the angle you seem to have here is “this company is so fabulous, everyone wishes they could be here, but we are elite and not many people are good enough.” Do not take that attitude with your friends and family, it will not be appreciated. Go from the angle of “they really want people in this niche only and thats why its so competitive.” They will know if they’re in that niche or not, and they will take “you have x and we need y” much better than “you can’t meet our standards.”

    It’s really true that people don’t always know their families as well as you’d think. When I was looking to move back to my hometown I found my stepdad has posted an opening at his company and not told me. When I asked why, he said “it’s research, you don’t even do that.” I will give you three guesses what exact kind of work I do. (HINT it’s research.) The description actually almost identically matched the job I had at the time. He had no idea

    1. Ruffingit*

      What is it that he thought you did? His comment that you don’t do research means he must have thought he had some idea of what your job was.

      Anyway, agreed on the general concept of family doesn’t often have a clue about your job thing. I’ve seen that a few different times in my own life and that of friends.

  13. LMW*

    I work at one of the more desirable companies in my city. They have a fantastic employee referral program. If you refer a person and they get hired it’s $500 for an hourly person and $1500 for salaried (the hired position, not the employee position). If anyone I know wants to apply there, I happily write them an honest referral (which have varied from “I worked closely with this person for three years and can name several successful achievements and positive traits” to “I met so and so through a social organization have found her to be very prompt and polite.”)
    My sister works in a completely different division, and she’d referred me to a few positions in the past (with varying degrees of success). When I applied for my current position, she looked at the job level, told me it was much higher than my current job and rate of pay…and never bothered with the referral form. Of course, when I landed the job, she wanted the referral bonus. She still needs to take me out for dinner.

    1. Cathy*

      Referral bonuses are great incentives. The OP is a recruiter though, and recruiters and people above a certain title (at my last company it was Director, here it’s Manager) are usually not eligible for referral bonuses because finding and hiring people is their job.

  14. The B*

    Yeah…don’t assume that your friends are not qualified. That doesn’t mean you should do more than just direct them to the webpage where they put the jobs posts, or if they ask, tell them about company culture, but trying to dissuade them sounds rather rude.

    For example, one of my childhood friends, we went to school together and then kept in touch on Facebook. Color me surprised when a few years later he’s working in my industry, which I never imagined. Imagine if I had told him “Don’t even think about applying at Y, ’cause you’re not good enough” and turns out that YES, he’s got the experience and profile for this kind of industry.

    Plus, hiring managers are looking for different stuff. You may not think your friend would be right, but maybe they do want a Vanilla Tea Potter rather than an Executive Chocolate Tea Potter.

  15. Emily*

    I’m the person who asked the question. My goal when “dissuading” friends from applying is to let them know that their connection with me doesn’t give them an advantage, that these positions are competitive, and there’s a high likelihood they won’t get hired. I definitely don’t want to come across as condescending, just realistic.

    Much of the challenge with this is that my friends apply for roles that are relatively entry-level, the kind of postings new college grads read and think “I match every bullet point on the description! This is my perfect job!” With these roles, the main requirement is a college degree, which means I can’t tell them “we’re looking for x years of y experience.” Hiring decisions for these roles comes down to team fit, culture fit, whether we can see the applicant growing in the company, and mission alignment – the intangible qualities that people often mistake as reflective of their personality (personality is of course, some of it, but there are lots of other factors that determine fit for the role/company).

    1. CT*

      I would say something like this: “You can definitely apply but I should warn you that because we get so many applicants our hiring process is very structured and knowing me won’t give you any advantage. Good luck either way!”

      That way it’s friendly but removes any expectation that you’ll go to bat for them.

      1. blue dog*

        Good advice. I would give numbers, too. “Last time we had an opening, we received 500 resumes for one part-time position. We have people with 15 years experience offering to take huge pay cuts just to get their foot in the door. And it seems like everyone knows someone.”

    2. Not So NewReader*

      “What the ad does not say is that they are looking for people who mesh well with the people and culture already in place. So as they talk with you, they will be deciding how well you would fit in with what they have going on. I have no idea how they sort all that. I am routinely surprised by who they hire and who they take a pass on.”

      And this is basically just good job hunting advice. The candidate should seem like someone who would fit in with the group and likes the company culture.

      Just as you got the job based on your own merit, so should your friends.

  16. Colorado*

    There’s just an air of arrogance about this that I’m not comfortable with. You’re a recruiter, people are going to ask you about jobs at your company. “Very specific profile..” that just sounds elitist. Just kind, not judgemental.

    1. Maire*

      Yep, this letter came across as snobby and pretentious to me. I mean what, his friends shouldn’t even bother applying because they’re just not the right kind of people? If they’re friends I’m sure some of them have significant similarities in education, background and culture to the OP. So what makes him so sure they’re all inherently unsuitable?

      1. Emily*

        I’m the OP – I did not mean for this to come across as arrogant or pretentious. I think some of it comes across that way because it’s challenging to determine tone in email. There seem to be a couple misunderstandings here.

        Firstly, I’m by no means saying that all of my friends and family are unqualified. In fact, my company’s hired two of my friends, neither of which I referred (they told me they were applying, but got no special treatment).

        I’m talking here about a few instances where a friend is applying for an entry-level position with experience or a degree that’s vastly different than what we expect for the role. I recently had a friend get really upset because she wasn’t interviewed for a position at my company, and I wanted to avoid that in the future by setting realistic expectations with friends who apply.

        1. Maire*

          Ok, well that’s fair but just as a matter of interest, why don’t your job posts specify what degree or experience you are looking for?
          Wouldn’t that rule out people applying for jobs they aren’t likely to get?

    2. FD*

      I don’t think that’s fair at all. For example, if Wakeen is looking for a chocolate teapot decorator who has also worked with caramel filling, it’s fair to say this is a “very specific profile.” That doesn’t mean he thinks people who know all about casting white chocolate teapots are lesser somehow; it’s just that it doesn’t fit the profile he needs to fill his current opening.

      1. Maire*

        I suppose I was reacting more to the “cultural fit” aspect of the letter rather than the “experience fit”. Yes, of course some people just won’t have the experience that is required but to say they don’t have the “cultural fit” seems highly presumptuous. “Cultural Fit” seems such a vague, nebulous term that I don’t think you can determine definitively someone’s ability to fit with the culture. And I do think it would be used in certain quarters to exclude candidates arbitrarily.

    3. Rich*

      Nothing arrogant about this. Just how it is. Specific doesn’t equate to elitist. There’s just an it-factor they look for and are in a position to hold out until they find it.

      Also, it’s much more of a disservice to say “everybody has a fair shot!” when in reality, there are people that just aren’t right for the job. It’s apparent in their resumes and cover letters…and social media profiles.

      1. Rich*

        I’m also pretty sure I know what company this is. But I work in HR so I know a thing or two about secrecy and

  17. A Teacher*

    I guess coming from corporate to education, I worked for one of the elite physical therapy companies that “everyone wanted to work for.” Getting hired was hard at the time because they were a smaller growing company–now they’ve expanded too fast and as a former employee you couldn’t pay me to go back there. They’re still seen as “THAT” company and yet to many of us in the field that have been around “that” culture isn’t all its worth. Anytime someone says how awesome a company is, how its so much better, it throws up warning signs. Just because some consider it elite others definitely don’t.

    When I educate my students about job decisions I always tell them it is a two way street and that you shouldn’t just look at the glossy outside with all of the perks because with those perks often come a price and you have to be willing to play a price.

  18. Sara*

    Re: cultural fit

    I may have missed this in a previous blog post or interviewing guide, but how do you determine what the cultural fit at a company is? Is this something you ask during the interview? Observations during the interview process?

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