am I sabotaging my former intern’s job prospects?

A reader writes:

About two and a half years ago, I was hired by a cultural organization as their only staff person. While the job was not without its challenges, it was a great learning experience and I excelled in my role, which has greatly boosted my professional reputation in my area (it’s a small field in my city).

One of my roles was as the intern manager. My first intern came on board in my second month at the organization, and she seemed a good — but not great — intern. She produced good results and was eager to learn, but she worked slowly, needed a lot of coaching, had little initiative, and there were complaints about finding her asleep or on personal calls. However, due to the closeness in age (she was only a year younger than me) and it being my first intern, we bonded, which led to me not being as effective a manager and essentially not addressing her performance issues. I know now that this was a great disservice to her, although at the time I thought I was being kind.

She initially stayed on as a volunteer after her internship ended, and I wanted to give her something she could list as an accomplishment on her resume. So I gave her some authority over a new project I was designing, and told her that while we couldn’t pay her, she would work with me and get recognition in the industry (I had done something similar at an internship I had, and it really benefited me). However, she was dissatisfied that we couldn’t pay her, and expressed that by showing up three hours late to a four-hour shift, spending her time on personal calls, or just not showing up at all. I ended up having to end her volunteering with the organization.

Fast forward two years, and we were hiring for my replacement. She applied, but did not mention her experience as an intern at the organization, nor did she reference it in any way on her cover letter. As someone my board trusted, I was asked to give my opinion on her candidacy, and based on my feedback she was rejected without an interview. I felt some misgivings — it had been two years and she could have gotten her act together — but mostly I was glad that the organization would find a good person for my role.

Well, recently, her name came up again! At a part-time job where I pick up weekend shifts (not in my professional field), my manager asked me if I knew her. I briefly explained that she was my intern and that I wasn’t super impressed with her performance back then, though I stressed that she could have grown a lot since then. My manager then rejected her application without an interview, just based on what I said.

Have I been sabotaging her chances at jobs?? This is now two jobs in two months that she has been rejected for, just based on my word. I have worked hard to become a respected professional in my field, and I don’t want to vouch for her and attach my name with hers, but I also don’t want to keep her from jobs. Should I have not said anything? I’ve been stressing for the past week, and I know a situation like this will most likely arise again unless I move out of the area. Help!

You’re not sabotaging her chances at finding work. There are many, many jobs that she can apply for where people won’t consult you. But when you know the people who are considering hiring her and they ask for your opinion, you should be honest. (See yesterday’s letter about the reference who wasn’t honest for an example of why!)

You’re right to stress that she might have grown since your experience with her, because she might have. You could also mention that it was your first time managing and you didn’t give her much feedback, because that’s relevant. But you also have an obligation to be honest about what her performance was like. And really, this was only two years ago; that’s not a ton of time, and so your experience working with her is still very relevant.

And there are consequences to being a kind of crappy intern. That doesn’t mean that it should prevent her from ever finding work again, and it won’t. But it does mean that if she applies with people who know you — and certainly if she applies at the very organization where the internship happened! — it will be something those people want to take into account.

This is basically what references are all about. If they were exclusively positive, there wouldn’t be a lot of point in using them. Sometimes they won’t be great.

If you’ve never discussed with her the sort of reference you’d be able to give her, I’d recommend doing that … although it sounds like she probably knows, given how the volunteer work ended (and indeed, it doesn’t sound like she’s offered you up as a reference since then).

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 180 comments… read them below }

  1. Emmie*

    It is also really telling that she left her recent internship experience off of her resume.

    1. Esme Squalor*

      This is a good point! I wonder if she now reflects back on her poor performance with regret or even mortification. If she were entirely lacking in self awareness, she would probably have left the internship on her resume and bragged about her great work there. The fact that she’s not doing that may be a point in her favor.

      1. Specialk9*

        I can’t even imagine acting like she did, even as a 10 year old. I mean, I might *once* space out and come in late, but then I’d buy an alarm clock or 3, and get a whole system.

        So she pretty much tanked herself. Maybe she has grown, but that deep a level of don’t-give-a-shit makes me really skeptical.

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          I suspect that at the time she convinced herself that because it was volunteer work, she was allowed to show up anytime because it was a “donation” that was “better” than zero time. Of course, that’s not true. Or perhaps she was just being super petty/unprofessional. I’m always amazed at the kinds of rationales people can come up with to self-sabotage.

          She definitely tanked herself. I hope she’s grown since then.

        2. McWhadden*

          “I can’t even imagine acting like she did, even as a 10 year old. I mean, I might *once* space out and come in late, but then I’d buy an alarm clock or 3, and get a whole system.”

          I think people are being a little OTT on this. I was on a non-profit board for several years and people would flake out on volunteer commitments all of the time. People think they have more time than they do, feel bad saying that, and then just slowly taper off.

          I’m not saying it’s OK. But let’s not pretend it’s some rarity that no one would ever do. This girl isn’t exactly unique on this.

          1. Gen*

            There were complaints about her falling asleep at her desk when she was an intern too so it sounds like she already had issues being present to do the work (either physically or consciously)

          2. TheCupcakeCounter*

            I think because the volunteering was mostly for job experience/resume padding vs volunteering because you feel strongly about the mission makes it a little different. And if I read it right she had both a formal internship in addition to the volunteer role and wasn’t great at either.

          3. Jen S. 2.0*

            Re flaking on volunteer commitments, that is true, but the fact is that this flaky volunteer is applying for jobs at places connected to people who knew that she was *also* a flaky intern. If you’re going to flake on volunteering, do it at a place where it won’t reflect on your closely-related job performance, not at at a place where you once interned and where you have references and where you want to work in the field. That’s the whole point of volunteering there! There also are ways to back out of a commitment where you don’t burn a bridge; showing up 3 hours late and napping on the job are not among them.

            So, I think people are reacting to the combination of all of her actions, not just about the fact that she was a C- volunteer.

            As has been noted around here, this is one of those times that you learn that the job interview starts LONG before you walk in the room to talk to the manager, and ends long after you leave.

            1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

              Yeah, it’s also distinct when you’re volunteering with a prior agreement that the additional experience is specifically to help boost your hireability. This isn’t a drop-in volunteer gig or an overloaded flake; this is showing up late with explanation and being so bad—all without any communication to support an alternative explanation for her conduct—that the organization had to do major damage control. I don’t think the reactions are OTT given the unique nature of this volunteer gig and the level of bad behavior described.

          4. Rookie Biz Chick*

            Indeed! She’s not unique on this. And, it’s entirely possible she’s learned some lessons and gained some understanding of the industry norms since. Let’s not overlook the privilege inherent in taking on an internship or volunteer position UNPAID in a chosen field of work. Perhaps she was working a paid job the rest of the week that contributed to her sleepiness or personal calls. Perhaps she’s also a part-time caregiver to a family member. Not all young peeps don’t give a shit. Some are learning the right ways to demonstrate their give-a-shit-ness as they go.

            Sometimes grace is amazing. Perhaps if OP feels it could be useful – or at least redemptive for her guilt – a half-hour conversation of coffee with the prior intern could ease her mind?

        3. Hills to Die on*

          She sabotaged herself through her poor performance. When I volunteered at an organization in college, I was reliable, showed up, added value, and was volunteer of the year one year. That’s how you don’t sabotage your job prospects.

        4. Black Pudding*

          I can’t imagine working for free, then having someone complain that while they were getting something for nothing, it wasn’t good enough. But I’m a typical selfish millennial, I like eating and having a roof over my head and stuff.

          1. Linda Albaheimer*

            So don’t expect your irresponsible efforts help you find a job later to get that roof over your had and we’re all good.

          2. Peter*

            How is it fair to volunteers who do work extra hard and extra well if their efforts aren’t recognised in references? And how could you recognise that effort if you gave the same reference to someone who regularly showed up 3 hours late? A volunteer who thinks that by simply being there they have earned immense gratitude, irrespective of performance or attitude, is exactly what a lot of organisations don’t want or need.

    2. Detective Amy Santiago*

      Especially when she was applying for a job at the same place. Did she think no one would remember after only 2 years?

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        I suspect she was kind of banking on no one who’d worked with her being around (especially if the cultural organization is a nonprofit). The turnover in many NPOs and civic organizations is 2-3 years.

      2. Falling Diphthong*

        I could see crossing your fingers after 10 or 15 years, but 2? When minimal research would show that the role for which they are currently hiring is filled by someone who will remember her?

        I mean, we all have our periods of feeling invisible, but counting on it to that degree is a little alarming unless you’re applying to work at the CIA.

      3. Someone else*

        Maybe, but it’s still weird to me. If her reasoning is “I really hope no one remembers me and how horrible I was” and leaves it off…well if they don’t remember her, she’s omitting a detail that could’ve showed her interest in the org: she’s been there before! And if anyone does remember her, they’re going to wonder why she left off something so recent that ties her to the org. There’s no way to pull this off and not look weird.

        1. Breda*

          Eh, I can imagine being embarrassed about your previous behavior and feeling the chance to start with a clean slate is worth the risk. I don’t know if that was her rationale, but I get it.

          1. Where's the Le-Toose?*

            At least for the job with the nonprofit, the intern’s past would have been a good topic for the cover letter, unless the intern did absolutely nothing to remedy past conduct, which is what I suspect happened.

            The intern could have had a cover letter like this:

            “Dear ABC Nonprofit: I was an intern for ABC two years ago, and I wasn’t a good intern. Looking back at my internship, I’m mortified about my behavior. So after leaving my internship (and a short volunteer opportunity at ABC where I carried on some bad habits), I realized I needed to do better for my employers and myself. I completed two time management courses and another class on employee motivation. After obtaining skills in managing my workload, taking the initiative, and effective communication, I was hired by XYZ Corporation, where I was an administrative assistant to our Regional Sales Manager and named employee of the month for November 2017. I would love to take the next step in my career to give back to ABC by being its new Llama Wrangler.”

      4. Emmie*

        When OP discusses her references with others, she should tell them that Intern left this off her resume. It speaks to the Intern’s credibility.

        1. Morning Glory*

          I don’t think so – a resume to showcase your best, most relevant experience. I’d had so many internships as an undergrad, I had to cut some out to keep my resume 1 page. I would not have thought twice about omitting one if I thought I had not performed well, or had been fired. It’s not supposed to be a complete accounting of your life.

          1. Kate 2*

            Yeah, but leaving off an internship at the place she was applying to? Leaving it off when she is working in the industry? And when it was specifically discussed that she would get a special project to make her more hireable?

            1. sap*

              It’s still fine and not an honesty issue to leave experience off a resume. Leaving it off if a form that requests all employment over x period is the type of thing that’s dishonest/a credibility problem, IMO.

  2. Anonanonanon*

    You aren’t going out of your way to badmouth her. You are giving your honest opinion when asked about her performance. Showing up 3 hours late is extremely unprofessional whether you are getting paid or not. Turning down an unpaid position would have been completely fine. That is not what she chose to do. If anything, she sabotaged herself.

    1. Hills to Die on*

      Yes, it would be different if you were actively trashing her name in the community. But you aren’t. You are being honest when asked. That’s protecting YOUR reputation. She wiill land somewhere–don’t worry about it.

  3. Kathleen_A*

    Why *do* people provide for references names of people who are certainly not going to give them good references? I probably torpedoed at least three jobs for one woman who had worked for me and who had some good qualities but who was NOT good at her job overall and who knew for a fact that I thought she was NOT good at her job overall because we’d discussed it in some depth. So why did she provide my name as a reference without even talking to me first? I do not get it. Are they banking on companies not checking their references, perhaps?

    1. Snarkus Aurelius*

      I have a handful of former friends and exes who sincerely have no idea why I cut off contact with them even though I’m confident I made myself clear at the time.

      Some people don’t want to hear it or when they do, they don’t think it’s as bad as you say.

    2. Gorgo*

      I would decline to give a reference in that circumstance, and let her know that you’re not going to provide references. Don’t return calls or emails, and decline to give any feedback without explaining why if you’re contacted. Actually discouraging places from hiring her is too much, IMO.

      She should have asked you, yes. But lots of people assume that anyone willing to be a reference will be a good one, and she obviously assumes (for whatever reason) that you’re willing. Potentially tanking her ongoing job search without letting her know is too much.

      1. Kathleen_A*

        I didn’t have any contact information for her. I left the job during which I supervised her, she had gone on working there with a different supervisor (I don’t know if she used him as a reference too or not), and then a couple of years later, she’d moved to a different state and started job hunting. So I had no way to contact her even if I’d wanted to. But truly, she had no reason to think I’d give her a good reference unless she had completely rewritten our history together inside the confines of her own head. I had never given her cause to believe that I considered her work to be any better than “barely adequate.”

        1. OhNo*

          “…unless she had completely rewritten our history together inside the confines of her own head.”

          That’s probably exactly what happened. I’ve certainly seen my fair share of folks who completely rewrite the story to make themselves feel or look better. An example would be an acquaintance of mine who got fired for showing up to work high, but told everyone who would listen that his boss was ‘forced’ to fire him by corporate. After telling that story to everyone around him for a month or two, I’m pretty certain he completely forgot the actual reason he’d been fired, and the only version left in his memory was the one he made up.

    3. Malibu Stacey*

      Some applications make you list the name of your supervisor at past jobs – maybe she figures she would rather roll the dice on whether they will contact you vs making up a name for the required field and getting caught in a lie.

      1. Coywolf*

        This is what I was thinking happened. I’ve had my supervisors I didn’t get along with and having to put their name as my supervisor at that job always made me hesitate because I knew the company would reach out to them even if I didn’t list them under REFERENCES. I wouldn’t assume she’s hoping nobody contacts you or that she somehow rewrote history in her own head, Kathleen.

        1. Kathleen_A*

          But the thing is, she doesn’t actually have to use me. I did supervise her, yes – but I left there and someone else became her supervisor and supervised her for at least 2-3 years. So I am not her only option from that job, and I’m not even her best option.

          My guess is – though I’ve never asked her final supervisor about this even though I see him from time to time – that she knew perfectly well she wouldn’t get a great reference from him, either. I would have guessed that he’d be nicer than I was – he’s a really, really, really nice guy – but on the other hand, he did have to work with her for quite a long time, and that probably did embitter him a bit. :-)

    4. Hey Karma, Over here.*

      It doesn’t sound like the past intern did use LW’s name.
      In fact, it’s pretty telling that not only did she not contact LW to be a reference, she didn’t contact LW to say, hey, I’m applying for a job where I interned for you. That was a chance to say, “I feel I behaved unprofessionally, but I was really upset about not getting a salary for the position. I wish I was mature enough to handle it better then, but I’ve learned a lot since then. Ex: I did…”
      LW writes that ex intern chose to apply where LW worked (which is the same place she interned, and could have easily checked Linkedin to find LW still employed, and employed in the position ex intern’s applying for.) Just by applying there, she had to realize that not everyone she’d interned with had left.
      The other job was just a fluke. That karma, huh?

    5. Roscoe*

      It didn’t sound like she gave them OPs name, just that the company asked if OP knew them

    6. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      I don’t think the former intern listed OP’s name as a reference, here.

      But when I do get reference calls for people who I would not give a good reference, I find there are three general scenarios at play:

      1. The person listed me as a reference and is truly clueless about how terrible they were.
      2. The person did not list me, but they did list their prior employment, and the hiring manager is calling former managers from beyond the list of references the candidate provided.
      3. The person listed me as a reference and hopes I’ll give a good reference because they think it would be socially awkward/uncomfortable to give a bad reference, and they’re counting on me to feel embarrassed/anxious about sharing unflattering information.

      1. Kathleen_A*

        I think you’re on to something there, PCBH. I think in this case, it was probably either #1 or #3. She really did think she was a lot better than she actually was (despite our many conversations about her shortcomings), and I wouldn’t be surprised if on some level (the level that remembered all those conversations), she thought I would be too kind or embarrassed or something to tell potential employers what she was like.

        I actually could say some nice things about her, and I said them, but gosh, she was a handful. I wasn’t a very experienced supervisor at the time or else I would have probably fired her.

    7. seejay*

      We had a guy who basically tanked his job with us *twice* (we gave him a second chance, which he blew up by having a pissy fit and storming off when our manager wouldn’t give him more responsibility after a month of being back from his first blowout) and then contact every single one of us on the team three years later asking each one of us to be a reference for him when he was trying to get a job back in the city (he had moved states after he quit in a huff). Most of the people on my team said they couldn’t, in good conscience, give him a reference, I refused to answer his IM message when he tried to add me, and one person on my team who was way too nice for her own good said she’d be a reference for him and wound up actually doing *more* damage than necessary when a company called her and she got backed into a corner when they asked questions and she couldn’t lie and they asked her pointed questions that she didn’t know how to answer because she didn’t know how to say anything good about him.

      He tried to tell us he’d changed and was doing better and all that, but none of us knew that or could speak of his actions or behaviour in the past three years, all we knew was what we last saw of him from when we worked with him and he was holy hell in a handbasket and for some reason he thought we could still give him a good reference. I have *no* idea why he thought we’d do that. It’s not that we hated him or wished him ill-will, but I wasn’t going to go out of my way to say anything other than what I knew about working with him from the time he spent with us and it wasn’t pleasant. My only guess is that he had no other people to actually vouch for him working in the three years prior? Or his version of working with us was so warped, he had no idea how unpleasant he really was. :|

      (As if quitting out of the blue twice, both times in a huffy, isn’t going to be a black mark on your record *at all*.)

    8. Snark*

      Some applications require the names of fomer supervisors, in addition to selected professional references.

    9. Q*

      I listed my last manager on my references knowing full well he would not give a positive review of me. I was banking on the references not being checked. But, he was the only manager I’d had in the last 10 years so I didn’t really have a choice. It would have looked worse not to include him.

    10. BadReference*

      I had an ex-boyfriend list me as a personal reference for a job he was applying to with the FBI. If you have never had one of their agents call you, let me tell you they are THOROUGH as all get out. I have no idea why ex listed me as a reference. We had dated in college for a while and planned to move in together after. That all fell apart when he called me after I messaged him letting him know I got a job in his city so we could start apartment shopping together. See, the thing was, he had already gotten an apartment with the girl he was dating in the city… the girl he HAD been dating in the city for as long as we had been dating. She was his school break girlfriend and I was his school girlfriend – so he didn’t have to go without, you see. Then, a few years after this, he messaged me asking me for “favors”.

      So, when the agent asked me I would consider him trustworthy, I answered him honestly – I have no idea what he’s like professionally, but personally, no. I would not.

      No idea if he got the job or not, but the agent didn’t sound very impressed by the time we got off the phone.

      1. many bells down*

        WOW that one takes the cake. If you’d just broken up “normally”, fine, but to use as a reference the girl he was two-timing… that takes some cojones and not in a good way.

      2. Anonymoosetracks*

        If you’re interested, the way those FBI background checks work (especially for security clearances, which is what it sounds like you’re describing) is that they will ask each reference for additional references, so your ex may not have listed you at all. The other thing is that you’re typically required to list independent references for each job you had and address you lived at and school you attended at so that your references cover the span of basically your entire adult life instead of just the people who have known you recently. (And they’re not necessarily “references” in the traditional sense, so much as just people who can confirm that you actually did have that job/live at that residence/attend that school – but the investigators will still usually ask character questions of those people.) But if, for instance, you’re the only person from college he’s still in touch with, he might not have had a choice but to list you.

        Source: have been through several of my own, and have been a reference for many more of my friends/colleagues. :)

        1. myswtghst*

          you’re typically required to list independent references for each job you had and address you lived at and school you attended at so that your references cover the span of basically your entire adult life instead of just the people who have known you recently.

          This is they key. When I filled out forms for a background check like this years ago, it was a pain because I technically lived at 5 different addresses during college and had to put down a different reference for each address, which meant I did have to scrape a bit to find people whose contact information I still had (or people I could find on Facebook) for each of those.

      3. An Underemployed Millennial*

        The feds don’t always stick to the list of references you give them, they have their ways of finding other people from your life without you listing them, so it’s totally possible your ex didn’t actually put you down. I know this because my dad works for the feds and his reference checker called my uncle, who is my mother’s brother, after my parents had been broken up for several years. They have a decent relationship so my dad still got the job but I’m 99.99% sure my dad never listed his name on his application.

      4. Calpurrnia*

        Most likely he didn’t list you at all, but may have listed a mutual friend. When security clearance interviewers contact the references the applicant listed, they very frequently will ask *those* people for additional contacts that knew you during the time in question. So he lists his frat buddy who you met when you tagged along for drinks a couple of times as the girlfriend. Then the frat buddy is put on the spot and goes “who else knew Joe back then? Oh, he dated that blonde girl for a couple years, uhh, Nancy Sullivan? They were classmates, I think she lives in Boston now…” Then they call you.

        It not only happens, it’s common – if not standard – practice to go outside the provided references for national security investigations.

  4. Gorgo*

    Unless she was 6, she absolutely has to expect that her previous behavior will reflect on her future prospects. She sabotaged herself, and she knows it.

    1. Fake old Converse shoes (not in the US)*

      I’m sure that there are 6 y.o. kids that understand that too

  5. Snarkus Aurelius*

    If you were trying to deliberately destroy her for personal gain or even no specific reason at all, that would be sabotage.

    It’s not sabotage if the person did a bad job. That’s telling the truth.

    (I’ve had to explain such concepts to my mother a zillion times because she can’t believe she raised someone who would fire an employee.)

  6. Kheldarson*

    I agree with Allison, LW: this isn’t your problem. This is on former intern and how she handled herself. It’s not like she asked for your recommendation or you’re going out of your way to talk to people. Just be honest with those who ask, and if former intern ever asks you for a recommendation, just decline.

  7. Ruth (UK)*

    Ouch, I both feel a little sorry for this intern, while at the same time feeling that this is definitely a situation she’s got herself into (ie. it’s her own behaviour that has caused other people to hear a reference about her that makes them not want to hire/interview her).

    I do think you’re right to continue giving honest references if people ask you. It’s not like you’re following her around and going out of your way to approach anywhere she’s applied to and tell them about her, etc.

    1. Lil Fidget*

      I feel a little sorry for her too, although it’s not OP’s fault at all. I wasn’t always the world’s best intern – I was juggling a lot at the time and of course nobody was paying me much for my time. If the intern had written in, I’d tell them this is understandable and can be overcome, just understand that you burned a bridge with this specific organization and try to branch out a little if it’s an extremely small field (as OP states it is).

  8. Wannabe Disney Princess*

    No. You’re doing nothing wrong. It’s not like you see her application and run through the halls, gleefully, shouting that she was a terrible intern. You give your opinion when asked. That’s not sabotage.

    It’s only been two years. As time goes on, and she develops more professional history (and she will), this will be less and less relevant.

  9. Roscoe*

    When its at your company, I kind of get it. However, at another company where you just pick up shifts part time, I probably wouldn’t have said much at all. If I did choose to say something, it would be something to the effect of “at the time, i was still learning my role and so was she, and so I don’t think either of us did our best in the situation” and leave it at that.

    1. Not a Blossom*

      Disagree. The manager at the second job asked the OP’s opinion, so it would have been weird not to respond.

      1. Roscoe*

        You aren’t required to respond to anything. Now they can take that however they like, but you don’t have to respond when someone asks you about a former employee.

        1. Kate 2*

          Oh no! Remember the sister letter? If OP refuses to answer the boss’s questions and Intern gets hired anyway and behaves the way she used to, OP will be in big trouble! It’s not enough to not say anything bad, OP would still be at fault for letting them hire a problem person. At the least if Boss knows s/he can do due diligence.

      2. Lance*

        Not to mention, by OP saying they knew the applicant, I’ve little doubt the manager would have wanted more info regardless… and it would’ve been strange to withhold such a thing. In my opinion, OP made the right call by being completely honest and relaying their experience.

  10. Observer*

    I just want to add one thing. Don’t beat yourself up too hard for not giving her the feedback she needed. Of course, you should have given it, but I suspect it would not have helped. The key issue is how she handled the volunteer opportunity. Had she turned it down, I would think nothing of it. It doesn’t matter why – she’s entitled to feel that it’s not the big favor you though it was. What she is NOT entitled to do is to accept a volunteer posting and then blow off her commitment. Even coming back to you and saying that she couldn’t do the job would be ok. But, you don’t just stop showing up on time, etc.

    This is basic “adulting”. You don’t need a supervisor to give you feedback to be aware of this.

    1. Yorick*

      Right, there are some performance issues you need feedback on in order to improve, but “arrive on time” and “stay awake” aren’t those.

  11. McWhadden*

    I agree that you have to be honest. But I think it’s pretty unfair if the whole story isn’t being told. Like that she wasn’t ever given feedback to improve her performance or reason to think her work was deficient as an intern. And that her behavior coming in late was after her internship had ended. Coming late to a volunteer position where you aren’t even receiving academic credit never mind pay is not the same as shirking work duties. It’s not good behavior but not reflective of how someone would behave at a work where they make money.

    Again, be honest but I hope those important details made it into the story. And this was someone you initially described as producing good results. So, I would definitely mention that potential.

    1. LBK*

      Coming late to a volunteer position where you aren’t even receiving academic credit never mind pay is not the same as shirking work duties.

      It’s still a commitment you’re making and then not following through on. When you’re that early in your career that you have nothing else to put on your resume, what you do with the few opportunities you’ve had matters a lot.

      1. McWhadden*

        Yes and I didn’t say she shouldn’t bring it up. But it’s absolutely not the same thing as blowing off an internship or other professional job. And I hope the LW is making clear in her reference.

        Lots of people over-commit to volunteer positions and don’t know how to get out of it. I was on a non-profit board for several years and it happens a lot.

        1. Lara*

          But it is. If you over-commit you always have the option of withdrawing / quitting. Not showing up is exactly the same as flaking on an internship.

          1. McWhadden*

            It isn’t exactly the same, at all. Slave labor /= compensated labor.

            If you don’t pay people or give them credit you get what you pay for.

            1. Lara*

              Volunteering to do a job is not slave labour and it is not forcible. She could have chosen to withdraw her labour at any time, with zero consequences.

              She chose not to because – as per LW’s update below – she thought turning up late, sleeping on the job and making frequent personal calls was the best way to obtain a salaried role.

              1. Justin*

                Yeah wow, no, slave labor is labor you can’t leave or they will kill you. Can we not with calling things slavery?

                She was just a not-great volunteer. There are plenty of conversations to be had about the volunteer model, but slavery it is not.

                1. Thlayli*

                  Not read all the comments so this may have been said: I think you should forget about her volunteer time, and give your reference based on her internship experience only. By all means mention the bad things she did as an employee, because they are relevant for someone considering employing her.

                  But if she did a bad thing as s volunteer, but not as an employee, that’s not really relevant, because you know she didn’t do it as an e player. If showed up for work on time as an employee, then you have no reason to pass on that she showed up late as a volunteer, because there’s no reason to believe that would happen if you employed her.

            2. Snark*

              Don’t be silly; she was offered credit on the project, and she willingly accepted the offer to volunteer her time, so neither point applies here. Volunteering isn’t slave labor, and unlike slave labor, volunteering is a voluntary – hence the name – commitment that still carries expectations of commitment and follow-through.

            3. Jesmlet*

              If you have a decent work ethic, you show up when you say you will, regardless of whether or not you’re getting paid for it.

              I have my own grievances against unpaid internships and such but commitment is commitment.

              1. Lara*

                Agreed. I can fully agree that internships can be exploitative and classist. Not slave labour. Volunteering? Really not slave labour.

            4. Hera Syndulla*

              Sorry, I do volunteering work for a Non-profit. If I don’t show up (without warning) they are in a mess: others have to jump in when there is a big chance that they can’t because of plans already made in advance.
              yes one volunteeers, but they do count on you. So no showing up (without a good reason that is, things in life do happen) is a no-no.

              Btw: Trust me, volunteering is not slave labor ;-)

        2. Lindsay Geeeee*

          To be fair though there were enough red flags in her behaviour when she was an intern, being paid prior to the situation with her blowing off the volunteering. There seems to be plenty of evidence for her assessment aside from ditching the volunteering

        3. Falling Diphthong*

          This is exactly what is often meant by networking. Sometimes it means that your gig volunteering at the bird refuge puts you in contact with a part-time employee whose neighbor wants to hire someone with your skill set. And sometimes it means that when your neighbor says “Hey, Fergus mentions volunteering at the bird refuge and I know you help out there; what do you think of him?” your review of Fergus isn’t flattering.

          1. Purple Puma*

            Ha! I wonder if you volunteer at my workplace. Which is a bird refuge that is mostly volunteer-run. :) And our volunteers do network sometimes!

          2. Manic Pixie HR Girl*

            I got one of my positions because of my volunteer commitment with a professional organization. I had recently started a new job at the time and the organization didn’t align at all with my new role, but I had already committed to a major organizational role at the yearly conference which I wanted to see through, so I made it happen. A year later, one of the past presidents got put on a special project and she recruited me for a high profile role on her team. (I hadn’t intended on leaving the role I had only been in for about a year and a half at that point, so soon, but it was an offer I couldn’t refuse!)

            That role I took with her resulted in 2 promotions to get me where I am now, in a job and an organization I love. (She has since retired, but we still keep in touch – she was a great boss.) All because I kept my promise on a volunteer commitment 7 years ago.

        4. hbc*

          Yes, it’s different, in that a person who only flakes out on the volunteering is showing that she only keeps her commitments if failing to do so will harm her. The person who blows off volunteer commitments is exactly the type of person who slacks off on group school projects because she knows the rest of the team wants the A or pull all the easy tickets from the system to boost her numbers.

    2. Breda*

      I mean. The OP should have given her more feedback, yes, but one shouldn’t need to be told to know that sleeping at work is bad.

    3. Bea*

      I disagree that she gets any leeway for flaking off a volunteer position. When you agree to volunteer, you’re offering a commitment. It speaks of your character if you treat it as an option to be professional about it. You still have to communicate properly and be respectful of the responsibilities you’ve taken on despite there being no payment. You sully your reputation and rightfully so, then you run the risk that this former intern ran into unknowingly, someone remembers you’re a flake and you lose out on possible opportunities down the road.

      1. McWhadden*

        As long as the OP is being honest about it not being an internship or work commitment.

        And honest that the OP chose not to manage her when she worked for her.

        1. Lindsay Geeeee*

          But we take the OP at their word, so we start with the assumption OP is being honest. We don’t tack it on as a big IF

            1. myswtghst*

              I feel like questioning the OP’s honesty and referring to the intern’s position as slave labor kind of suggests that you aren’t.

    4. Lara*

      No, but it says a lot about their character. Agreeing to volunteer then short-changing a non profit says that they don’t respect other people or feel the need to meet their commitments. And that they’re happy to waste the resources of a group that is helping the public.

    5. Anonymeece*

      I agree with you to a point that she should mention that she didn’t give the best feedback because it was her first time managing, but I also have to point out that falling asleep while on the job, and even to some extent taking personal calls, is something that most people understand without being given feedback on. As in, intern had serious judgment problems that I wonder would have been cured even if OP *had* given feedback to her on it.

      There’s “bad employee because I didn’t give feedback to her” and there’s “bad employee because they’re a bad employee”. There’s no way to know for sure in this case, because OP didn’t give feedback to the person, but I have some strong suspicions. To me, if it were things like, “She dressed outside of the dress code and didn’t realize professional norms,” sure, that’s more on the manager and she should mention it when people ask about the intern. This is more like, “She didn’t realize that she had to show up to work and not show up to meetings with a bottle of whiskey, and I didn’t give her feedback on it.” At some point, the scales of her being a bad intern outweigh the mistakes of a first manager.

      1. McWhadden*

        OP still wanted her to work for the organization after those incidents. So, they clearly weren’t that bad or chronic.

        And people accidentally fall asleep. There was a column about that yesterday that was 100% positive toward the sleeper. It’s especially common for interns to be sleepy as they also have school and often other work commitments.

        1. Lara*

          A star employee over committing themselves and a lacklustre intern being a flake are worlds apart.

        2. Anonymeece*

          I would be a lot more willing to take on a volunteer with some problems than an employee with some, honestly, and I think the OP realized her mistakes and was attempting to give the former-intern a chance to turn things around. It sounds more like a hope of confidence than a vote of one.

          As for the falling asleep, as someone mentioned below, cats and zebras. And there’s a difference between “made one mistake” (as other LW did) and “made one mistake of many”. If it was *just* the falling asleep, or *just* the personal calls, sure, but it sounds like this person had many strikes against her.

    6. Tuxedo Cat*

      Sleeping at your desk is one of things where it’s pretty straightforward that it’s something you don’t do.

        1. Kate 2*

          She fell asleep at the office. I sure as heck hope it wasn’t at somebody *else’s* desk!

    7. Coywolf*

      But if you’re volunteering for a 4 hour shift and showing up 3 hours late… that’s pretty much a middle finger to the organization.

      1. Lara*

        Yes, and the LW said below that the intern emailed and explicitly said her behaviour (coming in late) was a way to protest being in an unpaid role.

  12. LBK*

    This seems like a weird coincidence that she happened to apply for two positions managed by people you had connections to; unless you live in a tiny town, I think it’s unlikely this is going to keep happening. But even if it did, you’re not doing anything wrong by being honest – you’re not sabotaging her, she sabotaged herself by being so unprofessional.

    1. Malibu Stacey*

      I’m not getting why the manager at the weekend job even asked the LW if she knew the old intern? Like, did they go to the same school or something?

      1. Bea*

        Depending on the setup and position, many hiring managers will circulate potential candidates resumes for extra input. “She seems good, what do you think about this possibility?” can lead to “oh my, I actually know this person…”

    2. Brett*

      I think that is explained by “it’s a small field in my city”.
      If a field is relatively small in a city, I think people make a relatively safe assumption that everyone in the field knows everyone else. So if you know someone in that field, it makes sense to ask them about an applicant in the same field.

      1. LBK*

        But the OP said her second job is in an unrelated field – so that part at least seems like a random coincidence.

        1. J.*

          We know that the person left her internship off the application to the organization she interned with, but it’s not clear the she also left it off the one with the side job place, since LW is getting the info secondhand. If the manager at side job place knows that LW also used to work at the internship org, then it makes sense why they’d ask her about it.

        2. OhNo*

          Not necessarily. If I have a side job in retail, but my main job is in llama wrangling and all my coworkers know it, it makes sense if they see another resume with mostly llama wrangling work and ask me if I happen to know the person.

          Honestly, it happens a lot with small, unusual, or interesting fields. I work in libraries, and I regularly get asked if I know someone’s friend/cousin/former roommate Jane Smith who works in a library six counties away.

          1. Lil Fidget*

            It’s also a small town thing, I find. Although OP says she lives in a “city” – when I was in a smaller town I was constantly realizing that my hairdresser knew my banker knew my boss knew the person who cut me off in traffic that morning.

      2. LBK*

        Oh, wait, I think I see what you’re saying – that the candidate had “llama alchemist” on her resume and the hiring manager knew OP was also a llama alchemist, so even though the job she was applying for was unrelated, it seemed natural to ask if the OP knew her from their other common field. Yeah, I can see how that might be an issue, but I still think the OP is in the clear to be honest when asked about it. And I still wouldn’t anticipate it coming up a lot (especially once she does manage to get a job).

  13. MommyMD*

    You spoke the professional truth. No guilt. You are not coming from a vindictive place of wanting to hurt her. Her lack of work ethic had consequences and she knows it by leaving off her time at your company. You did just right.

  14. Beardown1*

    I think it is interesting that she happen to apply to the same place you work part-time. Are you connected on any social media sites?
    Also, all you can do is be honest.

  15. LW*

    Thanks everyone for weighing in! I’ve been pretty stressed out about this – I don’t want to keep her from getting jobs, but I also didn’t want to lie to people about my experience managing her. To answer some of the questions that have been asked:

    -She did not list me as a reference. About 2 months after I terminated her volunteering with the organization, she emailed me to explain why she acted as she did (which is how I know about her wanting to be paid). She asked me to be a reference at that point, and I declined. When she applied for my position, I was consulted (since I was still there), and my manager at my part time job knows the field I work in, so when he saw her resume listed those types of jobs, he asked if I knew her. A total coincidence, but it weirded me out!

    -I did briefly address her performance issues, but since I was not comfortable managing her, I’m not sure how well I did at it. Mostly I addressed the sleeping and phone calls in the moment, but I didn’t sit her down and go over professional norms. I definitely was remiss in that – there’s no denying I was a weak manager. I made that clear at my manager at my part time job.

    -I know that volunteering is different from a paying job or internship, and there’s more leeway. With that in mind, when she first started showing up 2-3 hours late, I reached out twice and offered to change her schedule, scale back on her responsibilities, or change track entirely. The last day she showed up I told her that if she couldn’t make the project work, or she had too much going on, I would be happy to take it off her plate, but she assured me that she wanted it. I tried to be flexible and empathetic, but it’s entirely possible that I could have done more.

    Overall, I thought she was a good intern because she was enthusiastic about entering the field, was personable, and believed in our mission. She did produce good work on the project I gave her during her internship, but that project was routine and easy once you understood the parameters. I hope she continues in the field – it’s a tough one in our area. Thanks everyone for your comments and insights!

    1. Lara*

      Personal calls can be a wavey issue but no one should need to be told that sleeping on the job is bad. Additionally, explaining her own behaviour as a passive aggressive protest because she wanted to be paid is an extra strike against her. Unless your organisation misled her about the role being unpaid – and it doesn’t sound like it – that’s just further bad behaviour. Mitigating circumstances would be health issues or a personal crisis – passive aggressive bad behaviour does not qualify.

      1. Lil Fidget*

        Even when someone has a health or personal crisis, if it causes them to flake on a commitment I think they’d understand that the person they flaked on is not in a position to offer you a strong reference.

        1. Lara*

          Lil Fidget: Absolutely, but if someone got in touch and said they were falling asleep / making personal calls because they had a chronic health problem or a relative with care needs, I wouldn’t necessarily give them a reference but I would understand and feel sympathetic. Saying “I behaved badly because I was cluelessly trying to manipulate you,” is such a bizarre follow up.

    2. Bea*

      The only thing her correspondence with you should have included was an apology for her behavior. It doesn’t seem like she ever owned up to her poor behavior. If you want pay, ask for it or give them a reason to want to bring you in on a paid level. She was incredibly immature the entire time and you have no way of knowing she’s grown out of it but it’s generous of you to hope she has.

      Being honest is your best way to continue to build your reputation and the respect of your colleagues. She will carve her own way one way or another.

    3. TCO*

      OP, you’re not “keeping her from getting jobs.” She’s keeping HERSELF from getting jobs by not performing well. If she really has turned over a new leaf in the past two years, she’ll be able to land a job somewhere based on the strength of the past two years. Regardless, it was either naive or arrogant of her to assume that she’d be hireable at a place she was terminated from just two years ago, when you did address serious performance issues with her while she was your intern (maybe not all of them, but at least the worst ones like sleeping and attendance) and had already declined to be a reference.

      Your former intern probably has many employment options that you won’t be able to affect (since your organization is not on her resume and she’s not using you as a reference). She’ll find a new job eventually, especially if she really is more mature and professional now. In the meantime, it’s not your fault that she’s experiencing some consequences from poor past performance.

    4. Observer*

      She asked you to be a reference? That’s good news and bad news. Good news, because it says that she realizes that not everyone is going to give her a good reference. Bad news, because it says that she probably doesn’t realize how badly she behaved.

      As for her explanation, that does not speak well of her judgement. Especially since she didn’t tell you, kept on saying that she wanted it, etc.

      In terms of how you handled the volunteer position, I have to say that I don’t think you fell short. You did make it clear that you needed her to step up her game and you did offer to work with her on making it work. There is only so much a person can expect – and you definitely met that.

      1. Half-Caf Latte*

        I have had students who I have failed for plagiarism (ie: poor work and egregious violation of professional norms) be absolutely shocked that I told them I couldn’t be a good reference. At least one didn’t have other faculty who would be a more positive reference…

    5. Lynca*

      I think it speaks well of you to give an honest opinion when asked and giving her the benefit of the doubt about being able to change.

    6. CM*

      It seems like you’re doing everything you can to be fair. You’re acknowledging that you could have given her better feedback, that she’s early in her career, and that her performance may have improved since you worked with her a few years ago. And you’re stating the facts, both good and bad, including that she volunteered for a position and then failed to show up without notice, and that she needed a lot of coaching but was able to succeed at a routine project. It sucks for both of you, but I think you’re doing the right thing here. Hopefully it’s just a coincidence that you’ve been asked about her twice recently. Do you know anybody who may have had a positive experience working with her? If so, you could suggest that the person asking you also talk to that person.

    7. Llama Grooming Coordinator*

      You…bent over backwards for this woman, it sounds like. And with the additional information, it seems like you’re assuming you’re wholly responsible for your intern being a Fergus.

      But from your letter, even if you were a bad manager (which…again is fine! Don’t beat yourself up for making some minor and frankly understandable mistakes – and it sounds like you just made a couple of rookie errors), her behavior was inexcusable. She blatantly violated professional norms on a regular basis from your own account – the best thing you could have said was, “I had concerns about her professionality, but her work was good quality and she’s personally nice.” Or you could have said nothing, which could be damning in its own way.

      Basically: like everyone said, LW, stop beating yourself up. She did this to herself.

      1. Drop Bear*

        I’m not sure that ‘essentially not’ giving feedback on performance issues, becoming ‘friends’ with an intern, and not outlining professional norms to an intern are minor and understandable mistakes (rookie maybe). The LW says it was a great learning experience for her (the LW) but some of that learning was at the expensive of the intern. I’m not saying the LW should lie in a reference or that the intern was without fault here, but internships are supposed to be a learning experience for the intern first and foremost.

        1. Llama Grooming Coordinator*

          I’m possibly giving LW a lot more leeway than she deserves, but it seems like from the additional info given…it’s not as cut and dried.

          Specifically, I was looking at this (emphasis mine):

          I did briefly address her performance issues, but since I was not comfortable managing her, I’m not sure how well I did at it. Mostly I addressed the sleeping and phone calls in the moment, but I didn’t sit her down and go over professional norms. I definitely was remiss in that – there’s no denying I was a weak manager. I made that clear at my manager at my part time job.

          I kind of got the sense that based off of the additional information she gave in the above comment (not just the quoted paragraph, but the entire thing), LW was probably beating up on herself more than necessary in the letter. She wasn’t a perfect manager, or even necessarily a good one, but…it just seems like LW made a couple of really common mistakes (which were probably higher risk because she was working for a small organization). So, yeah – I do think that if it’s not necessarily minor, it is completely understandable. LW is pretty young herself, and was essentially managing a peer with no experience (or, I’m assuming, guidance – again, she notes in the opening sentence that she was the only staff person for her org).

    8. kb*

      I think you have been very kind about commenting on your former intern. If you’re still getting asked about her in a few years, I would emphasize how young she was/ how long ago this was even more, but I think your responses have been more than fair for 2 years out.

      I also want to remind you that plenty of bad interns have gone on to great careers. It may take some time to get back on track, but she’s not blacklisted from the industry forever. And sometimes the winding road yields more skillful drivers.

  16. Gabriela*

    This intern could have been me (except for the 3 hours late out of spite thing). I loved my internship, but was often late and sleepy due to my other physically demanding evening job (I rarely took on extra assignments and regularly napped on my lunch break in my car). I still thought I did a good job when I wasn’t checked out, so I still used that supervisor as a reference in my first job search in the field.

    Consequently, it took me a LONG time to get a job in the field. It sucked, but every time I was passed over for a job by a peer, I looked at their performance vs mine and I learned a really hard lesson. I’m happy where I am now and make a point to be extra professional and friendly to my old internship employers at conferences. They have recommended me for different things and (I’ve heard) discuss my progress in the industry as a success story. Being a mediocre intern is not insurmountable.

    1. WeevilWobble*

      That’s the whole problem with the horrid free labor system of the US. It favors privileged people who don’t have to actually work for a living. Yeah, it’s easy not to be sleepy and be super on-top of things when you don’t have to work a full-time job on top of an internship and school.

  17. Tea*

    Honestly, if someone is clueless enough to apply for a job in an organization where you flaked out on shifts, fell sleep in your role, and ultimately had to be terminated, even as a volunteer, there’s really… no helping them.

  18. No thanks*

    I think you are not giving enough weight to the fact that op and she were friends close in age and as a result she was a crappy manager. The intern should have just stopped after the internship ended but imagine how crappy it would feel to get to the end and have someone you like and consider yourself close to say your not good enough to hire but you can keep working for us for free! She probably felt really taken advantage of and she probably was being taken advantage of. Think about that people.

    1. Observer*

      Probably not.

      If you feel taken advantage of, DO NOT TAKE THE POSITION. If you’ve taken the position and are being told that your behavior is a problem back out gracefully. Do NOT act like a bratty child and just not show up!

    2. Falling Diphthong*

      OP specifically says that a volunteer project like this was a big help to her getting started in the industry. And I don’t see where it was suggested the intern gig would lead to a paid job at this organization, other than the intern perhaps hoped she’d be so great a paid gig would just materialize. (And I sympathize; I could see her being told that’s how internships work.)

      If she didn’t want to continue working for them without pay (a totally reasonable position) she should have said “Sorry, but I need to focus on a paying job now.” That’s an important life lesson–don’t hang around exuding bitterness over how unfair everything is, hoping this somehow materializes into (paid work/a permanent position/whatever) because sunk costs. It just convinces the people who might once have said “Oh I worked with her on the llama fair; she was good” to “Oh, I worked with her on several llama fairs–she was pretty unreliable and grouchy.” (Based on the end of the association being what people remember most.)

    3. Anonymeece*

      You can feel taken advantage of all you want, but if you react like this intern did, then you’re just hurting yourself, which is what this is: she is tanking her own career. It’s just like the fact that you’re not supposed to badmouth a previous employer in an interview, even if they were objectively awful. Is it fair? Not at all. But she’s just hurting herself, and that’s not on the OP.

    4. Tuxedo Cat*

      It happens quite often in my research area as well as with one of my hobbies, and it sucks. However, I turn down free labor. I don’t commit and then flake out.

    5. Breda*

      The OP was the ONLY staff person. Of course the internship wasn’t going to turn into a job! “I’m not leaving so there’s no job, but we’d love for you to keep you around as a volunteer, and in fact I’d like to trust you with this project that gave me a huge head start in this industry” is a huge compliment under those circumstances.

      1. WeevilWobble*

        In any other field this would be grossly illegal. And, yes, people often feel awkward saying no when people who have been more friend than manager to them make big asks.

        1. Breda*

          Well, sure. But if you read the OP’s comment above, you see that she kept giving her outs, and this person could have taken ANY of those to say, “You know, this sucks, but I just don’t think I have the time right now.” Continuing to just not show up until your friend is forced to fire you is WAY more awkward.

          My point is that from her time as an intern, this person should have known the lay of the land and not been horribly insulted when it turned out they weren’t going to double their staff.

        2. Lara*

          Well… yeah. But that’s how charities and non profits operate. They don’t have much money, because the bulk of their funds go to their mission. I currently volunteer in my downtime to get experience and help the charity. I cut back my hours when I moved 40 mins away. You know what I didn’t do? Agree to stay on and flake on a regular basis, inconveniencing other people and depriving another person of a volunteer opportunity.

    6. WeevilWobble*

      Thank you! I can’t believe people (and Alison!) are glossing over this. By the time she was asked to perform free labor on top of school and other work she and the OP were bonded. She was young and likely not confident to say no.

      I get being honest at that organization. But I would have declined to comment at the part-time job. You aren’t qualified to speak to her work in a totally different area.

      The OP also behaved unprofessionally, also had some stuff to learn, and seems to have taken advantage of a bond to get free labor.

      1. Lara*

        I’m really confused by this stance. If this was Big Law – a company with a budget – and she was an excellent intern? It might be classed as exploitation. As it was? I think OP is being overly generous to state that belief and enthusiasm made the intern ‘good’. Giving her a volunteer position was a huge favour. Flaking and behaving badly? Shows the intern’s level of maturity.

      2. Brittasaurus Rex*

        Read Breda’s post above. She explains it better than I could. I strongly disagree with you.

    7. Lara*

      Maybe OP felt taken advantage of when she gave a flaky intern a second chance to prove herself and the intern flaked even harder.

  19. Justin*

    I was a crappy intern (and overall work-person) until I was about 22. It eventually became a wake-up call that I needed to find a field in which I could thrive, and I learned from my mistakes (…eventually). It’s a privilege to have been given the chance to make the mistakes I did (I mean, nothing like THIS, but nothing good either).

    (Although a small part of me wants to get successful enough to be asked for an interview by the magazine I once worked for and turn them down, because we all have pettiness inside of us.)

    Anyway, no, I mean, it’s either do what you’re doing (being honest), or lie. You COULD talk to her yourself if you wanted to, but no real obligation there.

    Don’t fall on your sword for someone who hasn’t shown they are worth doing so. I once was not worth sticking up for professionally and hopefully she can learn and grow like I once did. Good luck to you (and to her).

    1. Justin*

      (Please understand that by saying “worth doing so” I am not calling this lady a bad person. Just in the context in which you knew her, she didn’t hold up her side of things.)

    2. fposte*

      Yeah, I was late on a lot of professional maturity myself, but that came with consequences; that’s just how it goes.

      And job references really aren’t long-term prognostications–all you really can talk about is how this person was when they worked for you. It doesn’t preclude the possibility they were better elsewhere or have learned better since–but how they were when they worked for you is still an important truth.

      1. Justin*


        One of my best friends is currently basically blaming everyone under the sun for his job troubles in a very Johnny-from-the-Room way (everybody betray me!), but he was always, you know, late to everything, did it all at the last minute, etc, and if you don’t correct that (or, if there’s a health issue, address/seek exemption for it or whatever), it’s going to bite you. (and it probably should).

        And these folks are asking the OP “what was she liked when she worked for/with you” and she’s telling the truth. Eventually, well, it’ll be long enough ago that no one will ask.

  20. Denise*

    Maybe it’s a mood, but I’m not so down on this intern. Honestly, people don’t fall asleep at work or other activities unless they’re really tired…usually. There have been plenty of times I’ve wanted to crawl under my desk and nap from exhaustion. Or have nodded off in class despite trying to stay awake. Obviously you have to make sure that you’re rested, but given that she was an unpaid intern, I’d wonder what other obligations she had besides that internship that might be getting in the way of that.

    Also, people take personal calls at work all the time. Whether or not it’s okay and how often or how long just depends on the particular office, and those norms should be explained. The same is true of work hours, again, particularly taking into consideration that this was an internship and volunteer situation. That’s something that should be clearly laid out and addressed so that it’s not an ongoing thing.

    No, her behavior wasn’t OK and the OP certainly didn’t and doesn’t owe her a positive reference. Nor should the OP feel responsible for her being looked over for the job. However, for an intern/volunteer situation with someone close in age when the manager is herself new to managing, eh, I’d probably just say something like, “We got along well on a personal level. Work-wise, she was only an intern who was learning at the time, and I was also new to managing, so I couldn’t really speak to her professionalism at this point.”

    OP doesn’t owe the former intern anything, but she also doesn’t lose anything by choosing to remain neutral.

    1. fposte*

      She absolutely could lose something, though, and that’s her professional reputation with the place that hires this intern. As it happens I wouldn’t hear your language as neutral–it would be a huge red flag to me if somebody said they couldn’t speak to an employee’s professionalism–but if I found out that you knew this employee slept on the job and didn’t tell me, your reputation with me would take a big hit.

      1. Denise*

        Well, interpreting the lack of an actively positive reference as a red flag is your prerogative. Yes, not saying something good is saying *something*, and the person asking the OP’s opinion would likely have been able to discern that.

        Also, no one is obligated to give any type of reference for anyone–either positive or negative. You can’t make someone detail to you every transgression someone else committed just because you asked. If someone decides they will let you make your own judgment about a person, that is their prerogative and should be respected. As the letter writer’s question indicates, not everyone feels comfortable being put in that position, even if they do have dirt.

      2. Roscoe*

        How would OP lose anything professionally? She isn’t lying about anything, just choosing to tell her opinion. If the new manager wants to take her lack of an endorsement as a red flag to hiring the person, that is perfectly fine. But I can’t see looking down on someone because they said they couldn’t impartially evaluate their work.

      3. Sas*

        That seems like such a harsh judgement to make though. It’s been a couple of years. They didn’t work together that long, the employee was really young?? I’d say what OP did was alright. But, at some point, she’s going to need to let it go in the form of something like, “I don’t really know that person anymore, or No, I can’t say much about them.” And leave it at that.

  21. SLE*

    I’d like to offer a slight counterpoint. I agree absolutely that you should be honest about your experience with and perception of her, which is valid and definitely does not recommend her work. However, consider there may have been other issues at play such as mental illness, sleep deprivation, etc. which combined with lack of management in an early career internship, could lead to poor performance. It’s quite possible she HAS grown and improved since then. Of course you have no way of knowing or vouching for that, but it’s something to consider.

    1. Anonymeece*

      I think she has at least considered it, however – OP stressed when people asked that the person could have grown in the time since former-intern worked for OP.

      Also, not saying that the former-intern should have self-disclosed those issues, but in cases like this, where it’s clearly leaving a negative impact, it would have made sense to disclose these issues to OP. And OP in a previous comment mentioned that (a) she had talked to the former-intern about these major issues, (b) offered to reschedule/scale back her volunteer duties, and (c) former-intern reached out afterward and asked OP to be a reference. At any point in this would have been a good time to mention any issues that could have caused her behavior. I get not wanting to disclose in case there are negative ramifications, but at this point, there already *were* negative ramifications from the behavior, and especially after she was no longer under the OP in point (c), that would have been a good time to say, “I realize I did not leave a good impression while I was working there. I was going through X/Y/Z, and since then I have [received treatment/resolved the situation/grown a lot/whatever].” Even at point B, she could have gracefully taken the offer to scale back on her volunteer commitment if need be without disclosing any reason why.

      1. Observer*

        More – the intern reached out and “explained” her behavior issues while volunteering. And that explanation does not speak well of her AT ALL.

        But, it’s absolutely true that the intern could have grown up since – and the OP acknowledges that and mentioned that to the people who asked her experience.

    2. seejay*

      So I can speak for how a former coworker sabotaged his job at my workplace then asked for a reference later on.

      I know for a fact that this coworker of mine blew up his job with us the first time due to emotional/mental instability which is why my managers gave him a second chance when he came back and asked for his job back (after a period of hospitalization). He then blew his second chance a month later when he quit in a huff after demanding more responsibility than what our manager was giving him. He was still under an improvement plan to see if he could perform well and prove he was going to be a good contributer before we gave him more responsibilities to shoulder since his first quit had created a huge mess and a lot of chaos for us to clean up.

      (as for why we knew about the mental/emotional illness and hospitalization, we’re a small team, he hadn’t kept it much of a secret and his quitting was a pretty big deal with the way he did it and created a big mess, it wasn’t any sort of hidden thing that someone disclosed against his wishes, so there was no violation.)

      When my teammates and I got contacted three years later by him to provide a reference for him, none of us had any way to tell if he was mentally stable now, if his work ethic had changed, if his ego had been tempered, or if he’d learned from his mistakes. We also could not state to anyone calling us that he had a mental illness at the time we worked with him (that would be a *huge* boundary violation) or that there were personal issues going on in his life that caused him to behave poorly with us.

      Whether the intern had mental illness, sleep deprivation or whatever, all these points are moot. The OP has to go on the performance and behaviour that she witnessed and tried to correct and how the intern reacted as a result. The OP can’t bring up any theories as to why or even entertain the thoughts as to why. Even if the intern was suffering from mental illness that led to her behaviour, that’s the intern’s issue to deal with since the OP still has an obligation to be straightforward with the truth and the intern will figure things out and fix things accordingly.

      1. Denise*

        It’s not clear in the story you shared why this person would have asked you all for a reference and also why you would have agreed to give one. Typically if someone doesn’t feel they can provide a good reference, they decline.

        The OP left a comment saying the intern asked her to be a reference and she declined to do so, which was probably the best thing for her to do. She just happened to be put in a situation where someone asked her opinion offhand.

        1. seejay*

          I shared above that he asked all of us on my team for a reference. I don’t know why he did… but he did three years later. All of us, except for one person, declined to give him one. I didn’t decline to give him one, I just refused to even answer his IM when he sent it to me. The one person who agreed to give him a reference wound up doing damage to him inadvertently because she wouldn’t/couldn’t lie and the person on the phone asked her pointed questions that backed her into a corner and painted him in a very poor light as a result.

          The point of my comment though is that I did work with someone who had a mental illness issue and at no point was this something that could have been brought up during a reference check, nor was it something that I would have even used as a potential excuse for his behaviour with us. Sure, he was suffering from several problems at the time that he was working with us and I felt bad for him, but it doesn’t give him a pass or a reason to gloss over the behaviour if someone does ask an opinion, which someone seemed to try to be bringing up as a possible reason for the intern’s issues. Maybe she was having problems at the time that caused her to act out (no one knows) but if she was, there’s also no way to know that they’ve been resolved and that she won’t bring them into the next workplace so it’s a disservice to anyone to not speak of known behaviour that you know about.

          I didn’t give a reference for my past coworker because I said I wouldn’t, but if he did put me down against my wishes and someone called, I wouldn’t have spoken well of him because I couldn’t, even if he’d gotten help in the three years, since I couldn’t in good faith saddle anyone with the same problems we’d had with him unless I had proof.

  22. AMac*

    You did nothing wrong. This is a lesson that everyone needs to learn. When you work in a specific field or small location you will get a reputation and people will reach out to others in that field or location for their opinions on candidates. One of my first jobs out of college was in the insurance industry in San Francisco. I was surprised at how quickly a person could get a reputation in the insurance circles in SF considering it was such a big city and there were so many people working in insurance, but they did – oh boy they did. I learned really quickly that in any industry people talk and people’s reputations get around, so you should always do your best and never burn bridges.

  23. SophieK*

    Nah, you’re fine.

    I gave a reference that might have ruined an ex coworkers job prospects once. She had decided to go to college and had left without having a job lined up I guess, and had applied at the college bookstore.

    I told the truth, which was that she was reliable, smart, and hardworking, but also…bubbly and enthusiastic. Our clientele was mostly upper middle class and older Boomers and Greatest Generation, so I did recieve concerned comments about her maturity level. It might not have been a problem in a college bookstore but then again it might have. The reference checker chuckled–I think she had already picked up on the issue.

    I ran into the girl later and she was working somewhere else, so I don’t think she got the job and I didn’t ask.

  24. No more participation trophies*

    Falling asleep at a desk and spending hours on personal calls is not just unprofessional, it’s ridiculous. I don’t care if this is a “first year intern” or its her “first job” …give me a break.

  25. D. Hill*

    I do not like the idea of references. The OP wasn’t a reference and should have kept silent on the intern. This woman maybe going through hell to look for a job and someone who isn’t a reference is sabotaging her.

    1. Anonymeece*

      But asking former supervisors – regardless of whether or not they are listed as a reference – is standard practice. There have been many stories on here about people reaching out to supervisors not listed and finding out the employee had serious issues that didn’t come up in the reference stage.

      And I think it’s clear the OP isn’t “sabotaging” her, she’s giving honest feedback. While it sucks for the person searching for the job, that’s one of the risks you take when you behave like former-intern did. And it’s absolutely appropriate for hiring managers to reach out to OP and for OP to respond honestly.

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