when the employee you recommended gets fired

A reader writes:

Last fall, my firm hired an employee who I had referred for the same position that I have. This employee was just fired last week (after nine months with the firm). Apparently, the people she worked for felt she was somewhat lazy and was not keeping up with her work. Should I apologize for referring an employee (I received a referral fee) who ended up being fired? I realize you don’t *have* to apologize, but I feel bad about the situation. What would you advise? Should I apologize or just let it go?

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 60 comments… read them below }

  1. Bananabiat*

    Hindsight is 20,20. I note that the letter writer does not explicitly agree with the firing and there does not appear to be anything wrong with the recommendation. So I think the letter writer should feel no more bad than to the extent it affects her own career at the company.

    1. Snark*

      I think she might be well served with something like a “It’s too bad Brunhilda didn’t work out; I never had reservations with her work in the past, and I’m sorry your experience was different.”

      References do reflect on you. Best get out in front of that.

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Strong agree—and I think this script works if OP disagrees with the firing. But since OP may not know what it was like from the perspective of the employer and their team, it’s also ok to use Alison’s more (apologetic? conciliatory?) language to make it clear that OP was unaware there was a mismatch in expectations or performance.

  2. Detective Amy Santiago*

    I feel like the timeline is important here. This happened after nine months, not nine weeks. So obviously the referral at least worked out for a little while.

    1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      Eh, I think getting fired after less than a year is still a big deal. Nine weeks would just mean she was so incompetent or terrible that they had to let her go immediately. Nine months makes sense for most employers who are trying to coach an employee’s performance and are waiting for them to hit their stride—this sounds like the case, here, where the concern was ability to pull equal weight. If someone is dragging but not horrible, it’s easy for them to stay on for 6+ months. But being fired at nine months is, imo, still a pretty big deal that could reflect on OP’s credibility as a referee. On the spectrum of bad referrals, OP’s referral of this particular person is not the worst, but it’s certainly below-average.

      1. Been There, Done That*

        An HR person told me years ago that if the person is let go at three months or less, it’s the employee; at six months, it’s the manager. I was startled because I would’ve thought HR would automatically side with management, but she spoke very definitely. Firing looks bad on the employee, but we’ve seen enough posts here about bad managers to know that someone could be aces at their job and still get cut loose. Speaking very generally here.

    2. Antilles*

      Nine months is still pretty short at most jobs, unless it was planned/agreed upfront as a short stay.
      Most advice I’ve seen says that it typically takes at least 3 months, for someone to be fully and completely 100% up to speed. OP describes the cause as “somewhat lazy and was not keeping up with work”. So it’s not like gross incompetence or underperformance, just a little behind the standards of pacing. Which is *exactly* the kind of issue that is going to take some time to realize is firing-worthy. The timeline goes something like this:
      >At first, you might not even notice while you’re working her into the regular flow.
      >Then you might (very reasonably and fairly) just think it’s an initial adjustment period, since every company does things just a little differently, so she’s falling behind in her work while she’s trying to learn and establish best practices.
      >After a few more months, you might realize she’s still not getting it. But at this point, given that she’s not *that* awful and you’ve already done the upfront time/money to get her onboarded, it’s still worth at least attempting to coach her and fix the issue rather than firing her immediately, paying severance, and having an empty position for 2-3 months while trying to-refill the position.
      >Then it takes you another couple months of non-progress to just confirm that nope, none of your coaching or fixes are working, so it’s time to take that step.

    3. De Minimis*

      They also might have a bureaucratic process where it takes several months to officially fire someone unless it’s super egregious.

    4. Tuxedo Cat*

      It might not have. Granted, this is academia but my current employer has effectively fired two employees in the past two years. Each stayed on a year and didn’t have their contracts renewed, which is tantamount to firing. From what I understand, the bosses wanted to give both employees multiple chances to do better and then didn’t want to go through the bureaucratic process. Even if they chose to actually fire the employees, it would’ve taken a long time and a lot of documentation. Having worked closely with one of the fired employees, her performance issues were not drastically different during the year.

    5. Diane Nguyen*

      I think the people saying 9 months really isn’t very long are correct, but I would offer the viewpoint that some companies are intentionally quick to cut new hires loose if it doesn’t look like a long-term fit. So if you know the person you referred isn’t incompetent or unethical and you know your company tends to move people out quickly with sort of a “no hard feelings” approach, 9 months might make sense.

  3. Hmmmmm*

    I think there is a difference between a referral and a reference. I would never list someone I had never worked with directly as a reference (or agree to be a reference). I absolutely would write in a casual friend or acquaintance who had told me about their personal experience with the company as a referral (if they said it was okay). Am I wrong to think that a referral typically just means that someone found out about the job existing or basic background on an individual’s experience with the company from someone?

    1. MommyMD*

      Would you refer someone you didn’t personally vouch for? Referring someone implies you are familiar enough with them you think they will be a good fit and proficient employee for the company. It definitely reflects on your judgment if that proves false.

      1. That Would Be a Good Band Name*

        Eh, this depends. I worked for a company that begged for referrals. It was entry level customer service work in a call center. We could “refer” anyone by sharing a facebook post and no one was going to think that we were vouching for them. I pretty much never actually encouraged anyone to come apply but had several “referrals” over the years I worked there.

        1. Snark*

          That’s kind of the exception that proves the rule, though – call centers are not really places where reputation and politics matter.

          1. That Would Be a Good Band Name*

            True, but it seems like it works the same for a lot of the factories around here too. I guess I’m just saying that I agree with the referral vs reference distinction. If I’m talking to someone and they mention they are looking for work and my company is hiring for what they say they do, I’d most likely mention it. That’s referring them, but it’s certainly not recommending them in the way a reference would.

          2. Ego Chamber*

            The call center I worked at was all about reputation and interpersonal politics (for certain values of “reputation” and “interpersonal politics”). It was fucking exhausting.

        2. Ego Chamber*

          Speaking as another exception, there’s no reason to think referrals will be seriously damaging to your professional rep if the company culture is that turnover is high, and the company will hire anyone with a pulse—and they’re still struggling to fill seats. (Also at a call center, but I’ve had the same experience in retail, fast food, factory work, and pretty much everything around here that isn’t an office or government.)

          When I was in training at the call center, they expected each person to turn in a list of 5-10 referrals by the end of the 3 weeks of training. Anyone who didn’t hand in a list, or didn’t know 5 unemployed people, was told they’d be written up for insubordination (I have no idea why they had such a damn hard time keeping seats filled…). The other companies gave it a less obligatory tone, but they still asked everyone to go through their mobile phone contacts and write down contact info for anyone who was looking for a job.

  4. RVA Cat*

    The OP should also re-read the referral policy to see if there may be claw-back/repayment provisions for the referral bonus.

    1. PhyllisB*

      In my experience, the referral bonus is paid after 60-90 days for this very reason. After that, if the person leaves/gets terminated it’s still yours to keep. However, if she wants to keep goodwill with this company she could offer to repay the bonus, but is not under any obligation to do so.

      1. Nervous Accountant*

        Wow, 6-90 days, that’s amazing! Ours is 6 months. Which makes sense because there is such high turnover. As far as I know, no one has ever actually gotten the bonus, bc ppl leave so quickly. ugh.

    1. Bananabiat*

      I refer everyone because I just provide the lead. It’s the company, hiring manager and hr to perform due diligence. I give a name, nothing more,nothing less.

    2. Triangle Pose*

      In my Biglaw job, referral bonuses were 25k or 50k if the need is high enough. That’s enough for me to think through my network and make a good referral.

  5. Danger: Gumption Ahead*

    I refer people all the time and hit up my network when I need referrals. My criteria for referrals is that I worked closely with you on more than one project, with more than one style of management, and on more than one team. I also only refer people to jobs where I used to (or currently) work for the hiring manager since it gives me a better idea of how the management dynamic plays out. Thus far, nothing has come back on me and everyone is happy, but whether that is luck or my criteria is unknown.

  6. Marie*

    I misread the headline at first and thought it said “when the employee you recommended gets you fired” – that would be an interesting letter.

    1. I GOTS TO KNOW!*

      Dear AAM,

      I recommended someone for a job at my company. I was fired 6 months after she was brought on and it turns out she was the one who laid the groundwork for getting me fired! So, I decided to frame her for credit card fraud. Did I cross a line?

      Revenge is a Dish Best Served From an Amazon Locker

      1. Nana*

        Happened to a cousin…who was devastated at the time. [Poorly paid AA at a church, who recommended a member of said church…which then decided they felt ‘more comfortable’ with a co-religionist.] But she found a better job, with lots of benefits, and ended up retiring from it 20+ years later. Said she should have thanked her former friend…

        1. Been There, Done That*

          Not an unusual situation at churches. I’ve worked for two, in a technical job for a year and as temp office staff.

    2. Steve*

      Depends on how bad it works out. For instance, just as a hypothetical situation of course, that your referral has poor performance from day 1, gets fired after less than a month, and then sues your (current, his former) employer for wrongful termination.

      1. Steve*

        If you yourself are still pretty new, and didn’t have that much history to base credibility on, then I can imagine you might get fired too.


    Honestly, I am always wary of recommending people for this reason. I tell people when there are openings I think they will be a fit for – and I might even tell HR that I know the person. But I am always careful about how I present it to HR if I have never worked with them. Similar to how AAM phrases it in her response. “I like them a great deal and believe they could be a fit, but I have never worked with them so I can only speak to how I know them personally.”

    1. PlainJane*

      I’m careful about how I word recommendations/referrals even if I have worked with the person. I say something about how I worked with the person and indicate what I do/don’t know. Something like, “I worked with Joe on a large project. He did more than his share of the work and always had a positive attitude.”

  8. Ramona Flowers*

    I have learned the hard way that recommending people can come back to bite you. It’s always kind of tempting if you can get a fee, so I’m actually relieved that my current employer has a no-names application process (the hiring panel only see initials until after you’re confirmed for interview) and I can’t refer anyone.

  9. Samata*

    I think other things might factor into this. I referred someone for a job once and after a year they just completely ghosted by not showing up on a day they had previously requested vacation for and been denied. There was a concert with an all-day tailgate they wanted to attend (apparently rather badly).

    I was mortified and immediately went in to our manager & apologized for what happened and let them know I had no idea this person would do something like this based on history. Manager was very clear that up until that point they had been a good employee and that this in no way reflected poorly on me – they realized that even people you think you know will sometimes do things that you just don’t expect.

    I hope OPs place of employment is as understanding. I do think being proactive about addressing it may have been in my favor, too.

    1. Samata*

      To be clear, when I say apologized for I didn’t say “I’m sorry co-worker ghosted” ….I said “I have no experience with Jane where she’s done this before, I would not have referred her if that was the case.”

  10. pj*

    I have a very good friend who works in somewhat the same field as me. I love her to death… and I want her to succeed… but I just can’t bring myself to refer her for anything. She’s very creative and could be great. I’ve seen her do great work. But she can also be unpredictable and flaky. I’m fine with that in our friendship, but I can’t chance it in my professional network. I am friendly with work people, but I like to keep my coworkers and professional friends very separate from my other friends group.

    On the other hand, I had a former co-worker and friend who’d moved and asked me to be a same-level reference for a job she was applying for, and I was very happy to do that because she was fantastic and I did have a lot of knowledge from working directly with her. happily, she was not only hired, but has apparently done very well, receiving a professional award from a local association last year.

    1. Tuxedo Cat*

      I have multiple friends like this. One of my friends completely ditched me on a project for months (wouldn’t respond to emails, phone calls, etc.) I forgave her but I recognize that she’s not reliable and I would never recommend her.

      I currently am working with a friend on a project, and I plan on not working with him ever again because he’s a wreck and he’s lazy and pompous. Part of me feels bad talking about my friend but this has been my experience with him.

    2. shep*

      I have an old friend I’ve been distancing myself from over the past several years. She works in a stressful field and reading between the lines, I’m pretty sure she’s very good at what she does. She’s smart, competent, and on paper a great hire.

      But I would never recommend her for anything, especially at my office. She can be extremely moody and judgmental, especially when she feels like she knows you well enough that she doesn’t have to hide these things. (And therein lies the reason I’ve practiced caution and distance with her over the years.)

  11. Jesmlet*

    This is why I don’t refer people I’ve never directly worked with, or if I do, I frame it as a casual acquaintance and not a recommendation.

    1. Marillenbaum*

      That’s totally reasonable. I’ve only referred someone once before–at my last job (which was my first out of college), I had a friend who was looking to move back to town to be near his girlfriend, and my office was looking for another entry-level employee. We’d worked together in college on some shows in the theater department, and I knew he was generally decent and reliable. Luckily for me, he ended up killing the interview, and is actually still working there! Selfishly, I was also glad to have a coworker I knew I’d like, instead of the really annoying guy who quit right during our busy season (while hiding a Title IX violation, but that’s another issue…)

  12. Where's the Le-Toose?*

    OP, I think your level of involvement dictates your response in this situation. If you simply forwarded your friend’s name with a disclaimer of “I’ve never worked with Jane, no nothing about her skill sets, but she appears interested in working for us,” then I’m fine if you don’t apologize because you never really acted as a reference. But if you said Jane was awesome, or Jane was a rock star when you worked with her at Teapots, Inc., then I would apologize, not because you did anything wrong, but because you want your reputation intact. There could be various reasons a person performed badly at a new job that have nothing to do with your recommendation or that started after the person started working for your employer.

    Many moons ago when I was a young lawyer in private practice, one of the attorney’s I knew (“Fergus”), got sued for a negligent referral. Fergus didn’t want a case, sent the prospective client to another attorney, and that attorney committed malpractice. The client’s theory was easy–I trusted Fergus, and even though Fergus didn’t take my case, Fergus should have vetted the other attorney before referring me to the attorney.

    That event has stayed with me. If I haven’t supervised someone, I don’t give a referral or recommendation. I know some people give recommendations or referrals for coworkers who are peers, but truth be told that unless you’ve supervised someone, you really have no idea how good or bad a coworker does their job. In fact, three of my direct reports have a “stellar” office reputation among their peers, but their work is average. Their actual work product is nowhere near as good as their coworkers think they’re doing.

    1. Steve*

      Once a friend recommended a contractor (of the construction type). The contractor did unacceptable work. I told the friend that I didn’t think he should recommend that contractor any more. The friend ceased all contact over this issue. I never accused him of giving a bad referral! I just expressed that I was unhappy with the work the contractor did. Years later the friend tried to reestablish contact, and explained that he had been afraid we were going to sue him over the referral. Also note it was a friend, so it’s not like he had some professional duty to vet the referral.

  13. Snark*

    I’m actually struggling with part of this right now myself. A new friend of ours is miserable teaching middle school science and is likely to quit. She has a background in forestry and environmental science, and some background in related work like forestry work and firefighting, but also has mentioned various retail jobs and seems to have never really launched a solid career in the field. I’m super-tempted to encourage her to apply for a position with the firm I work for because I like her as a person, but her work history doesn’t give me a great reason to, and I have no idea whether she’s actually a good employee or not. I kind of get the impression she’d like me to do it, but.

    1. Annie on a Mouse*

      I think deliberate obtuseness is your friend here. When your friend starts dropping hints by saying what great things she’s heard about your company and how much she’d like to work there, just refer her to this site. “Yes, I really enjoy working here. If you’re thinking of applying, Ask a Manager is a great resource for tips on resumes, cover letters, and interviewing!”

  14. Nervous Accountant*

    When I was brand new to my current company, I referred a friend to work here. She was a recent grad, and we employ a lot o recent grads for support positions. As far as I remember she was great and everyone loved her. She OTOH was miserable and left after a year (which is long term at my company). For my own emotional well being and other reasons I’ve decided never to refer anyone again. What killed me though was that I was only seasonal while she was hired permanent/FT and I wasn’t eligible for the bonus (not that I’m bitter, no not at all……).

  15. Chaordic One*

    If I know someone who is looking for a job and if I think they would be a good fit, I would have no reservations about referring them. The referral fee, while nice, wouldn’t really make a difference to me. I’ve never really referred someone who didn’t work out.

    In a related matter, I once acted as a professional reference for someone who was let go after being on the job for 3 weeks. (They said they didn’t think he had adequate job skills.) Personally, I think he was doing fine and that they had some unrealistic expectations and didn’t really give him a chance. He tells me that he spent nearly half of those 3 weeks in orientation courses. I would certainly provide a positive reference for him again.

  16. lionelrichiesclayhead*

    This article and the comments are very timely for me. I have a friend who is applying for jobs at my company and I’m just waiting for the referral question to come up. This person is a wonderful friend to me but she has an awful job history and a self-admitted problem with authority, though she doesn’t think those two things have anything to do with each other (??). The points Alison makes and the points made by commenters are really giving me a fresh reminder of how important it is to keep my referrals for people who actually deserve them in a professional sense, not out of some friendship obligation.

  17. Prairie*

    A group of people were let go from my workplace recently. While the layoffs were due to financial issues, clearly the group that was let go were not considered top performers.
    This question caught my attention because I had referred 2 of the 15 people who were laid off. Both were friends, not former colleagues; in my field there is often significant overlap between the two and both were well-qualified on paper. Both were hired >18 months ago. Does the duration matter here?
    I’d love to hear from the commenters. This thread has provided me some good scripts as I think about how to acknowledge this.

    1. Steve*

      18 months means they did pretty well. Maybe not top performers but not so bad that it reflects on you.

      In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if people have forgotten you referred the people in the first place.

  18. BCHgal*

    I referred someone for a job in one of my corporation’s subsidiaries.
    He was hired on my promise that he was an even better employee than I was (and I’m downright amazing, and slightly modest). If he stayed for 6 months I would receive $2,500.
    So….10 1/2 years later, he’s worked his way up and makes scads more money than I do, but it’s okay, he buys me amazing gifts – he’s my baby brother. :)

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