should you apologize when an employee you recommended for the job gets fired?

A reader writes:

I’m asking this question for a coworker of mine. We both work as legal assistants for a large law firm. Last fall, the firm hired an employee whom she’d referred for the same position. This employee was just fired last week (after 9 months with the firm). Apparently, the people she worked for felt she was somewhat lazy and was not keeping up with her work.

The coworker who referred her (who, by the way, is an excellent employee who received a stellar review) now wonders if she should apologize (in person or via email) to HR for referring an employee (she received a referral fee) who ended up being fired. She realizes she doesn’t *have* to apologize, but she feels bad about the situation. What would you advise? Should she apologize or just let it go?

It’s not so much about apologizing for referring someone who didn’t work out — after all, the company was still responsible for doing their due diligence on the person in the interview process and when checking references — but it would be a good idea to acknowledge the situation, so that she doesn’t seem cavalier about it.

In her shoes, I’d go to HR and/or the hiring manager and say something like, “Hey, I realize I originally referred Jane for the job, and I’m embarrassed that she ended up not working out. I hadn’t realized X or Y or I never would have encouraged her to apply.”

The idea is that your coworker wants to avoid seeming cavalier or unconcerned, and wants to reinforce that she takes things like this seriously — so that she doesn’t appear to not understand or care about the types of problems the fired employee ended up displaying. She also wants to minimize the skepticism with which any future referrals she makes might be looked at.

While we’re at it, this is a good time to note that it’s a big deal to recommend someone for a job — it can put your own reputation at risk if they turn out not to be strong. So it’s always wise when you’re recommending someone (or its lesser cousin, referring someone) to be very clear about any caveats attached to the recommendation — so far instance, it’s far better to say, “I only know Jane socially and she’s a great person but I can’t vouch for her work” or “She has a great reputation, but I’ve never worked with her myself” than to appear to be vouching for the work of someone you’ve never actually worked closely with.

It’s not uncommon for people to recommend someone just to do them a favor without thinking through the possible consequences — so vow not to fall into that trap. (I’m not saying your coworker did that, since I have no idea about the circumstances — just using your letter as a chance for a general reminder.)

{ 43 comments… read them below }

  1. Lillie Lane

    “While we’re at it, this is a good time to note that it’s a big deal to recommend someone for a job — it can put your own reputation at risk if they turn out not to be strong.”

    Oh, my goodness, yes. I’ve had a couple of colleagues refer/recommend people that we’ve hired, and they turned out to be disasters. I don’t think any less of my colleagues, but would never trust a recommendation from them again. In both instances, they were pretty cavalier about it, not realizing or caring how much of a headache their friends were. If the colleagues had apologized, I would feel very differently about the situation.

  2. KF

    People change, too. I once recommended a guy I’d worked with previously – he did stellar work (I was his supervisor at the previous job) but he was awful at the new job (same type of work). I don’t know what happened between one job and the next. So sometimes even when you know someone they still might not work out in the new situation.

    1. Liz in a library

      Absolutely…I had this happen with someone I was a reference for (but who I didn’t recommend at my own workplace). She was great when we worked together, but then at some point became really apathetic about her work and unreliable. I wish I had known before serving as a reference.

      1. Jessa

        Yes, but then you apologise and make it clear that you have no clue what happened to formerly lovely employee. You recommended them in good faith. That happens sometimes. You can’t predict that. But you still say something, so they realise you’re not a flake and your judgement is not suspect.

  3. Sascha

    If you do decide to refer or recommend someone – try to get a look over their resume and/or cover letter first. It’s helpful to the person you are referring, so they can tailor their documents to the position, and have a proof read. It also helps avoid embarrassment over a badly written resume or cover letter. I recently recommended a friend for a position on my team, and he didn’t put dates on his resume and opted for a functional format, because his wife told him “that’s what employers want these days.” I know for a fact the hiring manager wanted dates, because my manager pointed it out to me that he left the dates off, and then called him later to get the dates.

  4. Allison (not AAM)

    Anytime I’ve referred anyone, I’ve always thrown in a caveat if we’ve never actually worked together – and I tell the “refer-ee” that I do that. It’s up to that person and the hiring manager to decide if they’re a good fit or not.

  5. Allison (not AAM)

    And note – that’s on a referral, not a recommendation. I wouldn’t recommend someone unless I knew enough about them that it would be a good fit…

  6. Interviewer

    Recently, a young summer intern recommended a friend for an entry-level position. He told me up front that he understood the recommendation would reflect on him, that he would not be willing to recommend most of his “degenerate unemployed friends” (his words) and in sending me the resume, he knew that this one candidate would be amazing for the job.

    The candidate turned out to be amazing, and we are lucky to have him. I wish all recommendations worked out this well! I truly appreciated that this intern took the time to figure out that he couldn’t hand us a bad apple and hope for the best.

    AAM – maybe a separate post on the pros & cons of referral fees might be warranted?

      1. Tony in HR

        Then he turned out to be a serial killer and we had to fire him. The end.

        How’s that for a different outcome? A little too much?

        1. jmkenrick

          Then he turned out to be a serial killer….but we don’t want to fire such a stellar employee! AAM, what do we do? Is there a law that prohibits employers from firing serial killers if the killing doesn’t directly impact their work?

          His reviews are all great.

          1. Ruffingit

            Also, we work in a butcher shop so his skills are stellar what with all that dismembering practice. We’d hate to have to fire him, are we obligated to??

  7. Jill

    This was perfect timing for something that was going on at my dad’s office. Our new Front Desk Manager recommended a Salesman to him that he hired and then 3 weeks later the salesman just fell off the face of the earth. The woman who recommended apologized 5 times for his issues but the truth is, when she recommended him she was very honest about him so sometimes you just don’t know how someone is going to be which is why I think I will try to avoid those situations as much as possible. I would say 1 acknowledgement is enough.

  8. Kou

    A couple of my friends who work in tech have had experiences recently where they recommended friends that were classmates of theirs, thinking them to be competent from projects or internships they worked on together, only to have them completely bomb the skills tests and not get hired at all. They were embarrassed but not sure how to acknowledge it. What would you recommend in that situation?

    And when I say bombed it, I don’t just mean they were under the desired cutoff– I mean they had some more serious issues. We know because the recommended friends complained to us about how the tests were impossible and they couldn’t figure them out. In one case that was coupled with a really sour rant about how the test was poorly made so it was the employer’s fault, not recommended friend’s actual skills, of course.

    1. Not So NewReader

      Yikes. This is my nightmare. I very seldom recommend people any more because you just don’t know….

      I have no problem telling someone there is a job opening at X place. Let them go for it on their own.

      I think that the worst time I had was recommending people from school. Just because they did well in class does not necessary forecast that they will do well at work. I stopped recommending people from school initially then after further consideration I slowed way down on all recommendations.

      Alison nailed it- they have to acknowledge their errors. And then just stop recommending people. This is not something that should be allowed to snowball.

  9. Lily

    It can also backfire for the job-hunter. After Wakeem very strongly recommended someone who didn’t work out in a spectacular way, I interviewed the next person he recommended and realized that his recommendation was actually to her disadvantage.

    1. Anon

      can you elaborate? I don’t understand how it would be to the candidate’s disadvantage. Is it because Wakeen has a record for recommending poor candidates?

      1. Lily

        I started wondering why Wakeem recommended the first candidate. Like Alison wrote, “It’s not uncommon for people to recommend someone just to do them a favor without thinking through the possible consequences” And Wakeem is a great networker, so I wondered if he was doing a favor for the second candidate, rather than a favor for ME.

  10. Lily in NYC

    Ugh, I recommended someone who ended up having anger issues. She got sent to three different departments and finally seems to have settled into an area where she likes everyone. Two other people from here also recommended her, so at least I had company! I did go to the first person she worked for here and did exactly what Alison suggested – I expressed embarrassment that I didn’t know her as well as I thought.

  11. pidgeonpenelope

    “While we’re at it, this is a good time to note that it’s a big deal to recommend someone for a job — it can put your own reputation at risk if they turn out not to be strong.”

    True.

    I recommended a former coworker for a position with the new company I was working for and she completely let me down. While at her previous job she was great, this newer position she was awful. She was lazy and had a bad attitude. She ended up being let go. Ever since then, I don’t recommend unless I really know.

  12. Elizabeth West

    Watch out for people who recommend their best friends for a job too, especially if they have to work together. This did not work out well for me and a friend. She ended up being my supervisor, at a time when I developed some personal issues (unrelated to her) that turned me into THAT employee. Amazingly, we’re still friends, but not nearly as close as we were. My fault. :(

    1. Felicia

      I was recommended by a friend for a job that ended up being a terrible fit for me. I think I wouldnt have gotten it without her recommendation. And we actually had worked together so she knew my work. But I think we both knew she shouldn’t have been recommending me because we both knew I wouldn’t be good at that job, she was just trying to be nice. I took it because I was desperate and was fired after 3 months because I just couldn’t do it. I felt sooo bad that she recommended me and have apologized many times.

  13. long time lurker!

    Another vote for the truth of:

    “While we’re at it, this is a good time to note that it’s a big deal to recommend someone for a job — it can put your own reputation at risk if they turn out not to be strong.”

    I have a friend who’s an independent developer who I’ve brought into projects before; she always did great work. And then the last time I recommended her to a current client for a project, she literally just… didn’t do the work, to the point where it delayed the client’s project by almost a year. I was MORTIFIED and have apologized to the client a million times; they’ve been a great sport about it, but it’s just a terrible feeling. It’s made me really wary of recommending anyone for anything ever again, no matter how good they’ve been in the past.

    I also have another friend who I love dearly but who hates every single job he ever gets. He’s a great guy but I’ll never recommend him for a job.

  14. Elizabeth

    I suggested someone to apply at my employer, and she took it as me offering a recommendation/reference. The hiring manager, someone I’ve worked with a long time and consider a good friend, called me and asked me about her. I immediately said “Wait, no. I did not tell her to use me as a recommendation. I only suggested she apply.”

    As it turned out, she would have been a good employee if she actually showed up to work every day. When she was here, she learned quickly & was letter-perfect in her work. But she had trouble getting up & getting to work every day.

  15. Anonymous

    I have a story that breaks the other way in this. I have a very close friend who maybe shouldn’t have recommended me for a job, we’ve never worked together, she’s only heard me speak of my work and I don’t even think she really gets what I do. But she really strongly advocated to get me into a role at the org she was at. She left for a better spot but continue to advocate for me. They eventually hired me without an interview, just on what she’d said.

    I’ve been here for about a year and a half and I turned out to be a great fit. Considering I just got a huge promotion and I get to do all kinds of cool projects they lucked out big time.

    So it isn’t always bad! Sometimes you gamble and win. (But she really shouldn’t have pushed for me that hard based on what she really knew of my work which was…nothing.)

    1. Chloe

      Thats a really interesting perspective, great it worked out for you but as you say, could have been a big risk for your friend.

    2. Cassie

      It’s great that you turned out to be a great fit, but if I was an employee at the org, I probably wouldn’t be happy that someone was hired *seemingly* only because they were friends with a current employee.

      I’m sure your friend gave enough background/context of your abilities that the org decided to hire you without an interview, but to me (just an employee who wasn’t part of the hiring process), it would look like favortism.

    3. Twentymilehike

      You know, this pretty much happened to me too. I ended up getting a job I didn’t even officially apply for, based on one interview and my friends referral, and they didn’t even call my references. I had never actually worked with the friend that went to bat for me.

      It turned out to be an amazing fit and I love the job and my new boss!

  16. sara

    Ok whats the difference between recommendation and referral? Isee that theres a distinction here…..so now im eondering if i made a huge blunder by using them interchangeably

    1. QualityControlFreak

      I don’t do hiring, but my understanding is a referral is when you refer, or direct someone to a job posting or opening.

      A recommendation would be of a specific person, usually for a specific role, and so ideally should come from someone able to speak to the person’s background and abilities.

      1. Rana

        That’s my sense of it too. It’s the difference between “Hey, my company has a job opening in your field” (referral) or “I have a couple of colleagues with experience in that area; do you want me to pass along the job description to them?” (referral) and “Hey, you know that position you’re trying to fill? I have a friend with experience in that area and I think she’d be great at it.” (recommendation)

  17. NewToThis

    I wonder what goes through one’s head when he/she decides to mess up enough to get fired. If anything, a referral/recommendation makes me work even harder so I don’t let the person down.

    My uncle referred me for an internship position at an agency owned by a man he sometimes does business with and you better believe I was an excellent intern. I wanted to quit halfway through but they would never have known by the way I acted like I truly wanted to be there.

    1. sara

      I dont know–hindsight it seems so obvious but i was fired from a temp assignment and im still having trouble getting over it bc i really did try my hardest to br nice and fit in….the employer even said they could work on skills so itwassomething i felt i couldnt really control esp since i think i tried my best……….although this wasnt a frie d-recommendation situation i did want to address that part od your comment…

  18. AdAgencyChick

    Oh boy, have I learned this one the hard way. I feel like, if there were a Millionaire Matchmaker of the workplace, that she would tell me “your picker is off.” I’ve now recommended two people to my company who have eventually been fired (one was the good designer I knew and recommended for six months, and then he went crazy; the other, although highly experienced, wasn’t strong enough in one aspect of the job to cut it), and it makes me want to never recommend anyone again. Or, at least, I’ll never recommend anyone whom I haven’t worked with, and EXTENSIVELY, again.

    I feel like this is the one blot on my otherwise good reputation. OP, if I were your coworker I’d look REALLY hard at what went wrong to see whether there were any seeds of the problem from the beginning (I know if I had been fully honest with myself in one of the above cases, that I wouldn’t have passed this person’s resume on) so that this doesn’t happen again in the future.

  19. Jessica

    Thanks to all of you for your feedback – I’ve passed it on to my co-worker:) One more question, would you recommend she express herself to HR in person or would an e-mail be better? We work for a very large firm, so we don’t regularly run into management on a day-to-day basis.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      It depends on the culture at your company. Generally I’d say stop by in person and do it informally — you definitely don’t want to schedule a formal meeting or anything like that.

  20. Brandy

    Recommendations are so tricky!! I know personally I have a VERY difficult time truly recommending someone for a position. It’s a huge reflection on me and I take that very seriously.

    Of course just yesterday I was offered a position based in large part on the recommendation of a former classmate (just graduated in May but I was a non-traditional student with lots of work experience). We went through school together and she saw my work ethic, both in class and in our clinic rotations (I’m in healthcare). She also knew about my strong healthcare background and felt she could give me a recommendation. When she called me about the position I was ridiculously flattered that she thought so highly of me and expressed to her that I consider giving someone a recommendation to be the utmost compliment. I went in for an interview and the gentleman said that after speaking to my classmate and seeing my resume (and after speaking to me!) he was ready to offer me the position. Given that I know a LOT about the company and position (and have trying to get on with this organization for a while) I accepted on the spot. You better believe I will be working my tail off to make sure I don’t let myself or my classmate down after her putting that kind of faith in me.

  21. LondonI

    My department was recruiting for a new team member last year. I work in a niche field, so it’s one of those professions where everyone knows everyone else. My manager ended up hiring a woman (let’s call her Sadie) based on the strength of the recommendation of my other colleague (‘Miriam’), who had worked with Sadie previously. It took a couple of months before Sadie could start working for us and during this time Miriam would say things like “Oh Sadie will be really good at this”, or “Sadie will probably be able to do this better than me.”

    Eventually Sadie joined the department and it soon became clear that Miriam’s assessment of her abilities was not altogether accurate. She was a slow learner, required a LOT of hand holding and it is only now, a year into the role that she’s really settled into the job. I know my manager has spent far, far longer helping her than she initially expected.

    So why was Miriam’s assessment so wrong? I think partly because Sadie is incredibly friendly and nice, which obviously makes a good impression on people. It also transpired that although Miriam and Sadie had previously worked in the same department, they hadn’t spent a great deal of time working directly with each other. Also, I think that the fact that Sadie had been well-established in her previous role before Miriam joined the company covered up the fact that she wasn’t a particularly good learner.

    Sadie is still at our company and has mostly got to grips with the role. However, she’s not as good as her predecessors were and this experience has been a really good eye-opener for me when it comes to recommending people, even previous co-workers.

  22. Bonnie

    We had a situation years ago where an employee recommended someone for a job with us. After we hired her it turned out to be a really bad fit. After we let her go, we went back to the employee that recommended her and let him know that his recommendation would not reflect badly on him as the person he recommended had all the skills we were looking for but just didn’t work out.

  23. RWPoorman

    I learned this lesson about referencing someone about 14 years ago. A friend and former co-worker reached out to me and I gave my HR a recommendation for him. I work in Customer Service and this guy is great at it, a natural and was always a top performer.

    But what I didn’t know is that he was a terrible interviewee, someone that relates better on the phone than in person, along with the fact that he didn’t even own a suit and showed up in a flannel shirt and blue jeans. (Clean and pressed at least) I had no idea of these issues. I could have at least loaned him a suit or jacket.

    Later in the day after the interview I was called into my manager’s office and was told about my friend’s interview. I was also told that the recommendation that I gave reflected poorly on my judgement and that I was also removed from consideration for an upcoming promotion. In the following months I also noticed that there was a clear uptick in tracking by our quality control manager reviewing my own work. I truly enjoyed working for this company but because of this I felt that my future there was damaged and I began job searching. Luckily I had enough time to find a position in another company that I enjoyed working for just as much.

    The lesson that I learned was to do much more due diligence, to the point, sadly, of micromanaging when referencing anyone AND when seeking a reference from someone to ask numerous questions about the company and people that I would be interviewed by so as to not embarrass the person trying to help me.

  24. Heaven's Thunder Hammer

    Wow. Great thread and well timed, a position opened up at my work and I’m planning asking a few friends to apply.

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