did my friend give me a damaging reference?

A reader writes:

I just had an interview and they moved incredibly fast and got back to me the very next day, saying they would like to check my references. I have a friend who works at the company, so I gave her name, as well as two other people from a previous company. They only contacted my friend who works at the company. She emailed them a reference saying she would recommend me and that I was a good presenter and can work under high pressure.

However, she also said that she gave a weakness because she thinks it’s phony to give a completely positive review (although not asked to give one). What do you think about that? She told them I was not very technical but she does not think that would be a requirement for the job, and that I might be more suited for an ad agency vs corporate, although I’ve worked in both atmospheres. The job is very corporate and my last two jobs were corporate; I actually haven’t worked in an agency since 2012.

Help — am I in jeopardy of not getting the job or am I super freaking for no reason?

Ugh. Maybe? Maybe not? It depends.

If she said you’re not very technical and the job isn’t very technical and they’re not particularly looking for someone who is, that’s probably fine. There are loads of jobs that don’t require technical skills; if this is one of them, “she’s not very technical” could be a good way to come up with a weaker point that won’t detract from your candidacy.

But telling them that you might be better suited for an ad agency when you’re not applying to an agency? That’s not great, although it’ll also depend on what context she gave them for that impression. If it was something like, “I could see her doing great at an agency because of X and Y, although I know she’s thrived in corporate environments too,” that’s fine. But if it was, “Honestly, I don’t think corporate is for her because of A and B; I’m surprised she’s not looking at agencies instead,” that’s … not great. It wouldn’t necessarily kill your chances, but it’s not great.

However, if that’s her honest opinion, it’s not unreasonable that she told them that. This is her employer, after all, and she has an obligation to be fairly candid with them. It wouldn’t be fair to expect her to shade the truth (as she sees it) when giving a reference — in any case, but especially with her own employer. (And it does speak well of her that she told you what she told them rather than leaving you in the dark.) On the other hand, if she said that not because she believes it but because she just felt like she needed something that wasn’t positive, then she’s bad at being a reference and you’re right to be upset.

As for your question about whether you’re in jeopardy of not getting the job: It’s always possible that you won’t get the job, up until you have the job offer. But I think you’re really asking whether you might have been on the verge of getting an offer and this reference will torpedo it. And I just don’t know — it depends on exactly what she said to them and how and with what context, and how much they care about whether you’re “more suited for an agency” (they may not care at all), and how much standing and credibility she has with them … and how all of this plays into this particular role and the manager doing the hiring.

In other words, as with all interviewing, there are just way too many factors for you to really know either way.

For what it’s worth, if your friend’s assessment is basically accurate and it does contribute to you not getting the job, that would mean that it wasn’t the right fit — and could have been a job you struggled in or were unhappy in. That’s actually exactly how references are supposed to work. After all, they’re not just about “is this candidate a smart, talented, capable person — yes/no?” They’re about “is this candidate the right fit for this very specific, nuanced role on a very specific, nuanced team in a very specific, nuanced culture?”

I know that’s cold comfort, but it still might be worth holding in your head as an antidote to anxiety while you wait to hear back. Good luck.

{ 153 comments… read them below }

  1. BRR*

    Sometimes I think the answer to the LW just needs to be not enough information (many times because we’re not in the closed door meetings of employers but also this time because we don’t know the situation). I’m curious if they followed up about the weakness, something that I think would have been more likely in a phone call. Are email references common for internal recommendations? Also, do you really need to give a weakness?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      You don’t need to give a weakness if not directly asked for one. But I think it’s possible that the reference genuinely thinks these are weak spots of the OP’s candidacy, felt like she needed to mention them in the reference since it’s her reputation partly on the line (this is her employer, after all), and then mentioned it to the OP but framed it as “I felt like I needed to balance it out” as opposed to “actually, I do have some concerns about places where the fit might not be as strong as would be ideal.”

      1. Colette*

        Yeah, I have friends I’ve never worked with who I suspect have issues in some areas of their jobs, and I have former coworkers who I like as people but don’t want to work with. If one of them was applying at my company, I’d mention my concerns.

        1. The Other Dawn*

          Do you mean that if a friend was applying you would mention your suspected concerns, even though you’ve never worked with them and don’t know for sure? Or are you talking only about former coworkers? If you’re talking about former coworkers, that’s fine since you’ve seen them in action. But if you’re talking about friends, that seems unfair to say anything other than, “I know Joe as a friend, but I’ve never worked with him and can’t speak to that.”

          1. Colette*

            I would probably mention the concerns in a “I’m not sure how she’d deal with X” way. Not that it will ever be an issue, because we are in very different fields.

          2. Koko*

            I think sometimes you can gain enough insight just from being close friends with someone even if you never worked with them. I have a close friend who has a generally negative attitude about most things in life that I can see…at least once a week I hear an overblown complaint about something small that went wrong at work that has made her disproportionately furious, and I’ve seen her get snappy and short-tempered with other friends over small and/or inadvertent slights. If I had to give her a reference if she were applying at my own employer, I’d probably mention that although I can’t speak to whether or how it affects her work because I’ve never worked with her, that in social settings I’ve seen her have a short temper and become sullen and snappy with others when things go wrong. I would then expect that the hiring manager would probe her professional references for more information about how she handles problems/disappointment in the workplace and whether she has a good attitude about work and treats her coworkers respectfully even when things are going wrong.

            1. Colette*

              Or think of a receptionist who doesn’t return phone calls because she hates using the phone, a daycare worker who gets frustrated with her children acting in an age-appropriate way, or a friend you know is chronically late for everything, including work.

        2. annonymouse*

          Suspected in what way though?
          If your friend is chronically late to things socially you can mention punctuality as a concern but time management might be a stretch.

    2. BRR*

      I want to add I think it’s important that the friend is honest but it’s not like a job interview where you have to give a real weakness and anything else seems like a cop-out. Also I think they should have contacted at least one other reference (assuming at least one was a good reference in terms of their relation to the LW manager etc).

    3. GOG11*

      Though the answer is ultimately “not enough information” in a way, I think it’s useful to work through the potential answers, even if they may be based on hypothetical information. OP may have a bit more information than was shared (due to a variety of reasons – wanting to remain anonymous, not inundate Alison/us with info, or not viewing certain details as all that relevant to the situation) and may be able to apply some of the advice given or logic demonstrated by Alison’s analysis to their situation.

      Aside from the LW, and though there is a lot of detail specific to LW’s situation, I think the broader issues/points raised by the letter/question might apply to other readers’ situations.

  2. sunny-dee*

    One thing that jumps out is that your last two jobs have been corporate …. since 2012. If you’ve been at two different corporations in three years and you’re looking at a third, then maybe you really don’t fit in a corporate environment? There can be really good reasons for changing jobs, but that seems like a lot of change in a relatively short amount of time.

    1. Sadsack*

      That is a good observation. The friend may be looking at OP’s job history and thinks that she seemed better suited for the agency than anywhere since. Can’t fault the friend for that since her rep at work could be damaged if the employer later determines that OP isn’t a good fit. I understand that it is frustrating for OP because she probably expects a friend to be in her corner, but I hope she’ll consider her friend’s evaluation. Maybe even talk to the friend about it again to gain more insight that she can apply to her job search.

    2. JB (not in Houston)*

      I wondered that too, but the OP explained below why the last two jobs were short.

    3. Vicki*

      I have always worked in corporations. If you look at my resume, you will see that I have a period where I worked at three different corporations in three years (one year each). That had nothing to do with “corporations” and everything to do with management.

      Blaming “corporations” makes no sense.

      1. TrainerGirl*

        She could’ve been in contract positions. Or it could be layoffs. I got laid off 3 times in 13 months from 2012-13. Because I went back to one job, a large government contractor and got laid off from two divisions there, I only had 2 companies on my resume, but I worried about how that looked when applying for my current position. This letter definitely needs more detail.

  3. Stranger than fiction*

    That’s what struck me as odd, she just sent a free form email spouting off what she wanted to rather than wait for their question? I’m wondering how good a friend she is honestly because she also clearly knew it was a corporate role

    1. African Sun*

      Agreed. I think putting a negative thing even if it is constructive from a friend for a job is excessive.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      But picture this: Your friend is applying for a job at your company. You think she has some strengths, but you also have some concerns about whether she’d really be the right hire. She lists you as a reference, and you’re concerned about your reputation at your company if your concerns turn out to be true. So you send an email saying, “Hey, my friend Jane Smith is applying for the X job. I think she’s great at A and B. She might not be right because of C. But she’s a great person and could be worth talking with, if A and B are in line with what you’re looking for.” That’s honest and doesn’t jeopardize your reputation with your employer and coworkers.

      But then you feel like you’re in an awkward position with your friend and want to be candid without causing tension in your friendship, so you frame it as “I felt like I had to be balanced.”

      1. AnotherAlison*

        It also isn’t completely clear if the OP contacted the friend first to let her know she provided her name as a reference. If she didn’t do it, the should have given the reference a chance to say yes or no to this beforehand. Otherwise, you can’t be frustrated when the reference was honest and not 100% glowing.

      2. LBK*

        Yep, I can totally see myself doing this in order to balance out my desire to be forthright with my employer and my desire to not hurt my friend’s feelings by saying “I don’t actually think you’d be a great employee”.

      3. Sarah*

        And this is why I’d never put a personal friend (as in, not colleague) as a referee, and if a friend asked me to refer them, I’d say no, unless I’d worked with them directly and was confident I could be 100% positive I knew what they were like – because if I was asked “what are they like at this” and I didn’t know, or worse, didn’t think they were great, I’d feel really torn.

      4. Jozie*

        That is definitely understandable. I wonder if it would have been better for said friend to decline to be a reference in that instance, though? (Assuming she was asked beforehand)

    3. Persephone Mulberry*

      The letter said “they only contacted my friend [for a reference].” So she wasn’t sending this info unsolicited, she was replying to some kind of request for information.

  4. ITChick*

    I think it’s more telling that this company only reached out to your friend and not to the other references you provided. Of course they still could, right up until they offer someone else the job, but checking only one reference wouldn’t be a very good hiring practice.

    1. TootsNYC*

      Unless what they heard from that one reference totally derailed their interest. (Sorry, OP)

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Except the one reference they reached out to was an employee of theirs. They know her and if they think she has excellent judgment, she could say something that’s definitive for them. (I wouldn’t stop at her and then hire her, but I might stop at her if I’d decided not to hire her. That doesn’t mean that’s what’s happening here there; hell, there are employers who don’t bother with references at all, even after they ask for them, so they could still be planning to hire her.)

  5. Mike C.*

    However, she also said that she gave a weakness because she thinks it’s phony to give a completely positive review (although not asked to give one).

    I hate this reasoning so much and yet I see it all the time here on the internet. It’s nothing more than, “Ugh, I don’t want to be seen as biased so I better talk about how terrible something/someone is even though I think it’s/they’re great so I don’t appear all emotional and have evaluated everything Fairly and Logically.

    Not every story has two equal sides and having an opinion for or against something doesn’t make you biased. It reminds me of having my Glassdoor review of my last job rejected because it was “too negative”. Sorry GD, sometimes a workplace is a sweatshop where H1-B visa employees live in apartments run by the business owner.

    1. Laurel Gray*

      I have noticed that this is pretty common is in Yelp reviews. A reviewer will describe the perfect haircut, pedicure, dental cleaning, restaurant experience – and give 4 stars. The kicker is there won’t be a statement like “I took a star off because….”.

      (also: I didn’t know Glassdoor reviews could be rejected. Gasp)

      1. BRR*

        Ugh that bothers me so much. Say what prevented it. I don’t want to hear there’s always room for improvement. Some people/places are really great.

        Also wow at the glassdoor. “That’s too negative so people shouldn’t know about it.”

        1. Cactus*

          Yeah, the H1-B visa stuff that Mike C. talks about is the exact stuff I would want to know. I would prefer not to patronize companies who engage in those practices, given the choise.

      2. anonanonanon*

        I take Yelp reviews with a grain of salt, since there are quite a few places that will hire people to write positive reviews. When I was shopping around for freelance side jobs, I was contacted by someone who had a bunch of clients who needed positive Yelp reviews for their businesses.

        Also because some of the more negative reviews are hidden from view.

        1. Laurel Gray*

          Yeah, I now take them with a grain of salt too. When you arrange the reviews by date and then read (and go back and do the same for the hidden ones) it can be so telling! And I cringe when a business owner or manager mentions Yelp before they even finished providing the service – or worse, when they offer a discount for doing so on the spot!

          1. Steve G*

            I interviewed at a place in April that had so many red flags it almost made a joke of the place for me, and I was looking for the Candid Camera hidden in a bush. But no, they were just a wayward company with horrible HR practices.

            So the Glassdoor had like 40 horrible reviews since 2009, then this year they had about 5 positive ones. The negative ones were very detailed, the positive ones were very vague. Then after those 5 positive ones, someone wrote “don’t believe the positive reviews, HR posts” them, following by more negative reviews since then! What an entertaining read!

      3. Emily K*

        It’s because different people interpret ranking scales differently. Some people will use 5/5 for a positive experience with no problems. Other people want to reserve 5/5 for an outlier that goes above and beyond what was expected and will give out mostly 4s with just the occasional 5-star for that time the pizza delivery guy performed CPR on her dog and saved his life.

        Survey research methods are a pet obsession of mine and one of the most frustrating things to me is being asked to rank something on a numeric scale without an explanation of what the values qualitatively mean. Is 5 out of 9 “average” because it’s the middle of the scale, or is it below-average because we expect the average establishment to score a 7-8? Yelp does help this somewhat because they have translations – 4-stars is “Yay! I’m a fan!” and 5-stars is “As good as it gets.” So for me, I primarily review coffee shops – any place the coffee is good and the service is friendly gets 4 stars – only my favorite 2 shops that source the highest-quality beans and have baristas who perfectly froth milk and learn your name and your regular order and have a great atmosphere get 5 stars. It’s not so much that I deduct a star from the 4-star places…it’s that I’m a fan but I don’t think it “as good as it gets.”

        1. Joline*

          That’s the issue I have with survey and rating type things as well. I rarely choose the extremes on either end. I think four out of five stars is really quite good – it is something I would definitely frequent and recommend as a reasonable place to go for other people. But five needs to be exceptional.

          1. Cactus*

            Except when it comes to Über, where apparently too many ratings below 5 stars can get drivers fired.

            1. Joline*

              Good thing I don’t use Über, then! Or taxis. I’m both cheap and don’t like being in confined spaces with strangers.

          2. HR Wannabe*

            Adding to this, at an old retail job, customers where sometimes asked to complete surveys.

            There was a scale – but, in reality, it was either 5/5 or 1/5. Best part: we (employees) couldn’t mention it. I’d help a lady load her car, she’d fill out a survey for 4/5 and feel like she did me a favor…

            If you ever have/want to fill out a retail survey, give the best score; in between means the employee didn’t do everything possible to impress/serve you.

            1. Joline*

              These types of things always end up being an issue for me. Where I don’t want to screw over people operating within a system but I also don’t like being pressured to change things to work within a system that I feel is just incorrect. If all the company really wants to know is whether I’m satisfied or dissatisfied then I want to just be asked that. Often someone didn’t necessarily do everything possible to impress or serve me – but I was definitely satisfied with the service level that I received.

    2. Stranger than fiction*

      And, if she really had Op’s best interest, she would have used one ofnthe cheesey weaknesses that isn’t really a weakness like ” she’s a perfectionist”

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        But she reasonably cares more about giving an accurate reference, because this is her employer and will reflect on her. If she really thinks what she said, it’s totally reasonable that she told her employer that.

        1. Mike C.*

          What makes me question this is that “the reference feels like they have to fit negatives in otherwise it sounds phony”. Maybe it’s the truth, but it feels like it’s shoehorned in there and may be given undue weight when the issue was really not that big of a deal.

          1. Laurel Gray*

            OP’s friend’s spouse should employ that same rationale when giving feedback if asked “how do I look in this dress?” and see what happens.

            1. Honeybee*

              When I ask my husband how I look in a dress, I want actual feedback. My husband always gives me thoughtful feedback when I ask (including, “that looks terrible”) and I’ve taken it into consideration. If I don’t want to hear negative feedback, I don’t ask.

              Besides, those are two completely different and not comparable situations. Giving an enthusiastic reference when you have reservations can reflect poorly on you later at your place of work if the new hire turns out to not be great. Remember the OP from a few weeks ago who wrote in to say that her boss kept coming to her to complain about her newly hired friend?

              1. Laurel Gray*

                Actually, I do think they are comparable situations going specifically off the text from the OP’s letter that Mike quoted above. If all-positive feedback is “phony” I think it could prove to be an interesting social experiment if someone answered “how do I look” with positives and a negative to eliminate any signs of “phony”.

            1. Mabel*

              This assumes that the friend really had a reason other than the one she gave, which we don’t know, but I haven’t been in the position of the reference-giving friend, so I may be missing something about why she would hedge on the reason for including the negative information. I think I’d rather hear from my friend that she thought the fit might not be great due to XYZ. If a friend told me that she included an un-asked-for negative trait in a reference for me just because she wanted to be “un-phony,” (not because she actually believed it), I’d never use her as a reference again, and I’d be angry, especially if she agreed to be a reference for me without telling me she had reservations (or felt she needed to make something up – it’s hard to tell which). I really hate it when people say they don’t actually believe something, but they’re going to argue it anyway “to play devil’s advocate.” This feels like that to me. If you feel a certain way, fine. But if you don’t, then don’t waste my time pretending you do.

          2. Merry and Bright*

            Yes, Mike C. It’s the reason given for the negative point which makes it look shaky.

          3. Windchime*

            I agree with Mike C. The friend didn’t say, “I said this negative thing to be balanced and fair to my employer”, she said, “I thought they wouldn’t believe a totally positive review so I also said some negative stuff.” Maybe she framed it that way so her friend wouldn’t be upset, but thinking that nobody would believe a totally positive reference is strange. I can think of several coworkers that I would give a totally positive reference for.

        2. OP*

          The interesting part is she texted me ahead of time and said “what can I put as your weakness to make this reference believable. How about more fit for agency life. The hiring manager came from an agency. He’d like that one.”

          1. S*

            I think that at this point, you need to not use her a reference ever again. This just shows that it wasn’t a thoughtful critique that she wanted to bring up, it was something damaging that she (it seems) made up on the spot.

            Personally, I would also reconsider your friendship, if a friend would do that to you and possibly jeopardize your chances of getting a job. I’d hope my friends would be supportive of a career change, not actively undermine it.

            1. JB (not in Houston)*

              I wouldn’t necessarily reconsider the friendship, just whether to keep using her as a reference. It seems like this person was trying to be supportive but was wrong about how to go about it.

            1. OP*

              Yep – That’s when I followed with. Did he specifically ask for a weakness and she said no, but she wants to put one down because to her it’s phony to not give one.

        3. Anonyliz*

          I agree that she should absolutely be honest with her employer if she had those concerns but she should have mentioned them to the friend first. For example: Sure Katniss, I would be happy to recommend you. I think your experience makes you a good candidate for the position. I know my employer mentioned that they would like someone with a strong tech background so I would have to mention that tech is not your strongest skill set but I would be happy to bring up your management work on project A and B.

    3. Christian Troy*

      I had this issue with one of my references and I just rolled my eyes at it. Yeah, everyone has weaknesses but if you have to pick at something to come up with, then clearly it’s not significantly impacting them.

    4. TFS*

      I had this happen with my peer review at performance evaluation time. The person I asked to provide one told me what she said, and also that she said this negative thing because one of her coworkers told her she had to say at least one negative thing. WHAT?! Fortunately she had trouble coming up with anything too negative to say…but that really sucked, because she loved me and thought my work was excellent and I wanted that reflected in her review.

    5. Steve G*

      I don’t think Glassdoor censors too much per se. I had a rating rejected for a particular word choice, and I changed the one word, and they accepted it, despite it being a negative review of a company’s interview process.

      I’ve been reading Glassdoor a lot during this job hunt and I’ve seen things such as “all management is incompetent and should be fired” over and over, and I’ve seen things as specific as “the owner is despicable, even his own kids don’t like him,” so I wouldn’t assume they are doing any meaningful censorship.

  6. TootsNYC*

    If you still have an opportunity for a follow-up email (sometimes called a thank-you email), you could try to counteract it subtly by saying something like, “I particularly like the corporate atmosphere of your company; it’s an environment in which I thrive.”

    But I also think that you shouldn’t worry too much about it. Your last 2 jobs were similar corporate structures, and this is her opinion. I think most smart hiring managers would look at your own history much more than her personal opinion.

    I also think that this could reflect more negatively on her than on you. It’s actually weird to say something like this, about where she thinks you should be applying rather than whether you’ll fit into their corporate culture. I know that if I heard that, I’d look a bit askance at her.

    I suppose the one downside is this: Since a friend will stereotypically want to only say good things, why did she bring this up? I’d wonder about that, as the hiring manager. And if I really wanted you, it might slow me down. I might probe a bit about how you think you’d fit in our corporate, non-agency culture. Which is why I suggested a follow-up email that included something about liking some aspect of the company’s corporate structure or culture.

    1. Stranger than fiction*

      It all depends how much they value this employees opinion, seems like greatly since they didn’t bother reaching out to the other two

  7. mno*

    If I trusted an employee well enough, I would start there before moving on. If it was enough to make me drop it, either in the reference itself, or by it confirming my concerns, I would move along to the next candidate. If I got a good or fair reference, or one with concerns that I didn’t have, I would continue on reference checking.

  8. Kelly L.*

    The way she phrases it, it sounds like she thinks she has to say something negative just because. Ugh. I’ve seen this theory applied to performance reviews too.

      1. Kelly L.*

        Oh, quite possibly. But this is also a real thing that sometimes happens, and I think it’s roughly as likely.

    1. JMegan*

      Yes, I would ask her about that part. Why does she think that’s a requirement? Why did she choose that particular weakness to highlight? Try to do some digging about how she really feels about your work, and if she would be comfortable giving you references in the future.

      Note that you’re not asking her to promise only positive references. But you at least want to get a sense of whether she is able to provide *generally* positive references, or whether you should ask someone else for help in this area.

    2. Shanna*

      During my last performance review, my manager insisted on only giving me 3 and 4 ratings (out of 5), despite telling me (and writing down in the comments sections) that I am vastly exceeding expectations and there is literally nothing I could do to be better at my job. She said that administration doesn’t like to see all 5s on a review because it means there’s “no room to grow.” So frustrating.

      1. Persephone Mulberry*

        I had the same experience with my previous manager. It was my first experience with a review that included a rating system, and I was (briefly) devastated. Fortunately, she’s gone and my most recent review was all 4s and 5s.

      2. TFS*

        I’ve had this happen, too, as well as the “must say something to improve on” thing. Really, really frustrating.

      3. Dana*

        I heard the same thing in my first-year review! “Have to have something to work up to” is how it was phrased. Awesome, so if I leave before the year that allows me 5s, how do I explain that to my next potential employer?

        1. TootsNYC*

          that’s so annoying! One of my bosses did this, coming up with something to improve on, and then she got another job. The next boss treated me as if that “weakness” was a Huge, Honking Deal. It was a major problem for me.

      4. Ad Astra*

        Well that’s silly. A 5 means you’re nailing it at your current level of responsibility. In most roles, there’s always room to take on more responsibility (or reach new sales goals or speed up a process or whatever it is that measures success in that role). Too many people think “room to grow” is the same as “needs improvement.”

    1. sunny-dee*

      Playing devil’s advocate, let’s assume the friend had legit concerns — the OP isn’t very technical and doesn’t flourish in corporate environments. If, being within the company, she knew some technical competency was required, shouldn’t she say so? Or what if she knows that department, and know that they’ve had a lot of turnover and need someone stable? It may not be that those are random dings that she threw out there just to say them — it may be that she has concerns about the OP being a good fit because it affects her own job.

      I mean, she may also have done something gimmicky to look unbiased, not realizing that it would hurt the OP more than it would help. Or that may be her assessment and her assessment is wrong. Or she could be a frenemy who scuttled the OP’s application because she could. We don’t know.

      1. the gold digger*

        It is better to be honest than to have someone in a job for which she is not suited. If someone asked me about my husband, I would be able to say honestly that he is brilliant, he will do what it takes to get the job done, even if it means staying up all night, and he will make sure his work is flawless.

        However – he hates change, hates working to a schedule, and would be an awful manager because he is not good with people who are not as smart as he is.

        All that means is there are certain roles – individual contributor for projects – where he is perfect and others – manager of people who need coaching – where he would be awful.

    2. JB (not in Houston)*

      I would do just about anything for my friends. But what I won’t do is lie about how great they’d do at my work place. If I do that, there is a very good chance that I’ll lose my employer’s trust, either in my honesty or my judgment. And if my friend isn’t suited for the job, they won’t do well here, and that’s not good for them.

    3. Honeybee*

      Well, the goal isn’t for the OP to just get ANY job – it’s for the OP to get a job that she can flourish in. I have a close friend in the same field as me and I wouldn’t recommend her to work on my new team, because there’s a specific piece of the job she’s missing and she wouldn’t be successful. But there are lots of other things she’d be great for!

      And that’s true of all of my friends. Part of being friends is wanting to see them succeed, and I wouldn’t knowingly recommend my friends for a job that I thought they wouldn’t succeed in or enjoy.

  9. African Sun*

    Well to start with, she definitely isn’t a mate or friend. Would it hurt to write a positive review for a friend who is goood so they can get a job?

    I just think adding a negative thing without being asked is jarring and annoying.

    Helping a friend out with a positive reference: 0.01% of anyone’s day and requires no effort.

    1. fposte*

      It most definitely could hurt–that’s the thing. If you say to your boss (or near enough) that your friend is great when you don’t think she is completely great, and then she’s hired and screws up, that damages you with your higher-ups.

      1. ActCasual*

        Agreed. They’re counting on you to provide an honest assessment/opinion, because that person may be working for them.

    2. Creag an Tuire*

      Helping a friend out with a positive reference to your own employer who then gets the job only to crash and burn: Damages their career and probably yours too. If the friend had legitimate concerns, I can’t blame her for expressing them.

      BTW, it’s not clear from the post, but OP did -talk- to her friend before volunteering her as a reference, right?

    3. Sadsack*

      Except it could really hurt the friend’s job if OP turns out not to be a good fit. Whose job is more important, your friend’s or yours?

    4. JB (not in Houston)*

      I agree -if- the friend said negative things only because she thought she had to. But if what she said is true, it was the right thing to do.

  10. Erin*

    It was kind of uncool of her to provide a weakness when not prompted for one. However, this is her current employer which changes things – she might have felt obligated to be brutally honest. And, she did give you a heads up about it.

    I too would be on edge about this, but let’s not assume the worst. This is one facet in many they’re considering about you.

    Also, maybe they’d like someone non-corporate-y to mix things up a bit in the office, and ensure a diverse group of people. This could work in your favor. Or not. Or maybe they’ll hire internally instead, and the reason they don’t hire you has nothing to do with this. You have no way of knowing.

    I would let your friend off the hook since she was honest with you, and treat this as you would any other job opportunity. You don’t have the offer until you have the offer, and there’s no sense in stressing over it in the meantime. :)

  11. Dan*

    I’ve referred a few friends to my current job, and if I have to pass along negative feedback up the chain, I don’t tell my friends that. I have nothing to gain by sharing that information with them, other than them putting me in the hot seat.

    And Alison is right about the nuanced blah blah blah related to a specific job. I can generally speak in depth to someone’s suitability for a role in my department, because I know most of what we do, or can quickly talk to someone who does.

    But for a role in one of the other dozen or so departments in my division, where I have no clue what they do? The HM would have to ask me pointed questions about certain things related to the role. I couldn’t send an un solicited (or even solicited) general letter of reference because I just have no idea.

  12. John*

    I don’t understand why she emailed that a reference. Instead, it should be a conversation that begins with the reference asking more about what the employer is looking for in candidates so they can speak directly to how the candidate matches up with them.

  13. OP*

    Hi – this is the OP. thanks for the feedback! They told me they declined checking one of my references because the reference recently interviewed at the company for a different team and sub-brand. She did not get the job so maybe they didn’t feel comfortable calling her. My other reference the team knew as well so maybe they didn’t care to contact her either. I work in a field where everyone knows of each other and this industry does change a lot and is why I’ve had a couple of jobs. It does make me feel like I’ve run through too many jobs and this might start to look bad but I think it’s the nature of my job and I plan to stay with this company for a much longer time than my previous roles. The first corp job was contract for 2 years and my last job I worked for 1 year and 3 months and was laid off. Regardless, the good news is today I got an offer! So, the reference must not have left a terrible impression on them.

    1. Stranger than fiction*

      That is great news! Have to admit I was worried (if you couldn’t tell by my comments)

    2. Ad Astra*


      I’ve also had three jobs since 2012, in part because of a layoff. I think it raises more eyebrows in some industries than in others. Clearly it wasn’t a huge problem for you this time.

    3. GOG11*

      Congratulations! Best of luck to you as you begin your new job (should you accept the offer, obv.).

    4. Miss M*

      Just curious OP. Did you ask your friend first about giving you a recommendation? A former friend of mine put me on the spot about being a reference – with no notice or no asking in advance. It was hard because I gave her a freelance project to due for my company (she was out of work) and she ended up telling me on the day the project was due that she wasn’t going to do it. I explained to her I felt uncomfortable about doing it, but she egged me on to do so. Sigh.

  14. Observer*

    You have just learned something about your friend, at least as a reference. If you can find out what concerns really are, then you might be able to use her in the future (maybe). Otherwise, just don’t use her again. If she really thinks are the always “has” to add at least one negative thing, she could do you a fair amount of damage. Even if she really has a genuine concern, y0u have no way to know if it’s something that could really damage your chances in a position, unless you know what her concern actually is.

  15. misspiggy*

    I side eye the friend. If asked to give a general reference, I would just have mentioned the specific strengths of the person (unless they were so heinously unreliable that they’d be a disaster from day one). If I were to be asked specifically about suitability for a tech or corporate role, I’d be honest at that point.

    There’s no risk of upsetting your employer – in the very unlikely event that they come back and say ‘You didn’t warn us about Melinda’s lack of technical skills’, I’d say they didn’t let me know that was important to the job – or even that I wasn’t aware of the issue. The whole thing smacks of the referee being a frenemy.

    1. Honeybee*

      I don’t agree with this. There’s always a risk of upsetting the employer, and I don’t think the event of them coming to ask about the reference you provided is so unlikely. Even if they never come back to you, providing a glowing reference for a subsequently struggling coworker might damage the OP’s friend’s reputation more silently.

      I love my friends, but I wouldn’t give them a good reference for a job they’d struggle in. That would just make everyone unhappy.

  16. Juli G.*

    This is slightly off topic but can someone restore my faith in humanity(for likely a short period of time) and tell me that they’ve said a man isn’t technical enough. I’ve only heard this criticism of women but I hope some AAM readers have heard it directed at men lacking technical skills.

    1. Laurel Gray*

      Ugh, Julie. I wrote something kind of long winded with a similar feeling but decided not to post and when I refreshed I saw that the OP posted and let us know she got the job. I too wondered this and I also wondered if these technical skills the OP lacks are something she could learn on the job. If they are, it would have been more reasonable for her friend to state this in the reference. I guess it is all moot now since OP got the job but I think it is so ridiculous that on the job training is becoming a thing of the past.

      1. AnonAnalyst*

        Same. I am definitely the technical person in our household. And I actually expressed similar concerns when hiring my replacement at my previous job (it turned out rightly) since it didn’t seem like he had the technical aptitude to do the work.

    2. sunny-dee*

      Oh, I have. Definitely.

      Also, I have had complaints about men who had some hard technical skills but were lazy or lacked other required skills. (E.g., they are super computer savvy and can’t write a coherent sentence, which, um, matters in technical writing.)

    3. Amber Rose*

      Honestly I don’t really know what it means to be technical. Seems like a meaningless buzz term unless we’re talking about like, electricians.

      1. Mints*

        I think it means how comfortable they are at using whatever software is required for the role, and how quickly they pick up new software, and how intuitive they are at problem solving.

        It could be basic Microsoft, or proprietary weird project management or calendaring, etc.

        (For the record, I know a couple of really great electricians who are terrible at like, email and smart phones)

        1. Amber Rose*

          In that case, I was hired solely on my technical skills, and my male coworker was just let go for lacking them.

          But then, my company is really awesome.

      2. Juli G.*

        It can be buzzwordy and that’s the problem. The issue is that sometimes it almost gets used as a code for “I don’t think she’s smart enough.”

        There is valid usage of the term in my industry – at a midpoint in your career, you generally commit to becoming a technical expert or going to a leadership/business path.

        1. Windchime*

          It’s definitely a phrase with meaning in my industry (IT). If I say that someone isn’t “technical”, then what I mean is that they don’t know how to do basic things like ping a server, write a SQL query, or determine what the delimiter is on a file. Not a super high bar, but that’s what I mean when I say someone isn’t very technical

      3. Kyrielle*

        I’ve heard some people protest they’re “not very technical” – these were project managers who managed software installation projects, or trainers who trained on them. Almost invariably they meant “I just want to show people the user side of the program / schedule things / work with people, I don’t want to have to mess with anything in the comptuer except those things, even with instructions”.

        I say almost invariably, because one of the most brilliant project managers would finish out, “…but I can follow instructions” and what *she* meant was “assume I know nothing about this and tell me exactly what to do, and I will do it; if you tell me why and how to determine it, I will also apply it in the future going forward – correctly”. But most of them were just afraid of it. Regarding things like configuring ODBC under Windows, for example, or checking the network settings.

    4. Meg Murry*

      I say it about my brother-in-law. I’ve never had to give a job reference for him, but he is completely not mechanically or technically inclined. Or at least, that is really not his strong point, and I would never recommend him to a job that requires a high degree of being technically inclined. Writing or creative pursuits? Heck yes, he could write circles around me, and is very good at being a big-ideas, outside the box person. But a job involving numbers or using Excel or even Microsoft Word for something beyond basic writing? Nope, not for him. I would say he’s probably average in technical skills for a creative, majored in the arts type, which is below average for the general population.
      His current job requires a certain amount of mechanical troubleshooting, and he’s getting way better at it from what I can tell, but I’m not sure he could apply the same overall logic to another situation on different equipment.

    5. Mints*

      Oh, I’ve definitely said this about a couple (male) coworkers. Our jobs don’t differ wildly in what tech they require, but I tend to be the computer question-answerer. They often need help doing really basic things.

    6. TK*

      This is such a weird thing to me every time it comes up. I guess it’s because I (a man) work in a female-dominated industry that requires pretty significant technical skills most of the time (though people skills are also very important).

      Also, my personal/family background is more blue collar, with women being the ones who work in offices and thus have greater technical skills, while men do more manual labor-oriented things.

      1. sunny-dee*

        Not to be snarky, but is it really a fight? It could be a regional or industry thing, but I have seen very little gender discrimination in my professional career.

        1. Amber Rose*

          Even if it’s regional/industry, it’s still a fight for that region or that industry. Gender discrimination doesn’t become ok just because it’s isolated.

        2. Colette*

          What are the stats in your industry? What percentage of executives are women versus the percentage of women overall? What is said to and about women who take maternity leave (or women who could potentially take maternity leave)? Who gets the most interesting projects?

          Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

      2. AnotherFed*

        The language of ‘good fight’ seems a little excessive in regards to giving bad references for men… I’m sure there’s gender discrimination in various places, but just from reading the way you’ve written these comments makes me think you’re possibly going overboard on this one.

        1. Juli G.*

          It’s not about giving bad references to men – not everyone is meant to be a technical expert regardless of gender.

          Here’s an example:

          “There’s an opening for Principal Technical Teapot Designer open.”
          “How about Sansa?”
          “She’s not really set up for technical work.”
          “How about Hodor?”
          “He’s really focused on the business side of things as opposed to design.”

          Now see how one of those has a negative vibe and the other is neutral? All I’m fighting for is Sansa gets neutral phrasing.

          1. Windchime*

            And also, Sansa has that problem with being super shy and unsure of herself. Hodor, on the other hand, is just a naturally quiet person who doesn’t talk unless he’s really got something to say.

    7. AnotherFed*

      I’ve said a man isn’t technical enough when giving references. Gender doesn’t have anything to do with whether they could do the work I assigned them well or not.

    8. LBK*

      I used to say my former (male) manager was non-technical all the time, and I’ve had a few other male coworkers that I would describe that way. I don’t take “technical” in the literal sense when it comes to being a technical worker (that is, it’s not just about how well you use technology). To me, a technical worker is one who’s really good with the nuances of complicated sets of information. They can learn them quickly, retain them long-term, explain them to others as needed and (most importantly) make decisions based on their understanding of that information. They’re capable of doing more than just memorizing information, they can also maintain abstract or interconnected concepts of that information in their mind.

      FWIW, the most technical person I work with right now is a woman. She’s exceptional at navigating all the different nuances of the data we work with such as the ridiculously complicated hierarchy of exceptions, how the different pieces of our system cause the data to flow different ways and knowing the impact any kind of change in our data will have to other pieces of information we use. I also work with someone else who is not technical at all and when you try to explain why changing X in our system will cause this money to be distributed to bucket Y on Z report, so we need to create an adjustment to move it to place N, the response is total deer in the headlights.

    9. TootsNYC*

      Well, I think almost anyone who’s worked with me day-to-day would say that I *am* a very technical person. And I’m female.

    10. bridget*

      I frequently have to walk my (male) boss through computer glitches or do stuff for him when it’s slightly more complicated than normal (the other day, I had to show him how to export a voicemail and attach it to an email).

      I think it’s way more a function of his being in his sixties and me being in my twenties. For not having used the internet for the first thirty-odd years of his career (I would have *zero* idea how to practice law without Westlaw/robust word processing functions), he can do most things himself. For the stuff that doesn’t come up a lot, there are associates around who have a little better technical intuition.

  17. Viva L*

    OP, it might be worth it to discuss with all your references if they are comfortable recommending you, and what sorts of things they would say. When you ask them to be a reference, it’s generally a good idea to give them a heads up on the positive qualities you’d like them to emphasize for this role as well.

    As for your friend, it sounds to me like she was asked for a reference, but NOT asked for a weakness – she just decided to give one so as not to appear biased. I guess she had good intentions, but poor execution.
    That said, if she really did have reservations about the OP’s candidacy, she should absolutely mention those in her discussion with her employer.

    I also noticed the “2 jobs since 2012, going for a 3rd” – that is a potentially slightly concerning trend. OP, can you clarify this a bit? I’m curious if perhaps it does have to do with corporate structure vs. ad agency structure, or is completely unrelated. Good luck with this one!

  18. Long Time Reader First Time Poster*

    So, I’ve absolutely done something similar to the situation in the OP.

    A former colleague (I was friendly with him but not friends outside of work) applied for a job at my new company, which happened to be an agency. He was applying for a very technical, very fast-moving job.

    When they asked me about him, I was honest. I said he was a hard worker and a great guy, but his technical skills weren’t very strong and that I didn’t think he would be the best fit for an agency environment. I felt bad saying something negative, but I knew his skillset pretty well and he wasn’t good enough to keep up at the required pace.

    My boss was kind of surprised that I came back with any non-positive feedback, and he actually asked me if I was sure about my assessment. I had to insist that I couldn’t personally endorse him. But really, I didn’t want his performance to come back and kick me in the butt — if I’d said he was great, it would reflect terribly on my ability to assess the work of others.

    So, he didn’t get the gig.

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