how should I handle friends who apply for jobs with me?

A reader writes:

What’s the best way to handle a friend who applies for a job not just at your company, but working with you?

This has come up a couple of times now. In both cases, the friend in question would work with me, so I was involved in the application process, but they wouldn’t report to me. I handled both situations differently, and they both, somehow, turned out to be not ideal.

The first time was a friend I really didn’t want to work with — Jon. I had some doubt about whether he was likely to be successful or a good fit in the open role given his experiences in other jobs. I played a small role on the hiring committee and ended up recusing myself and telling him so. He didn’t get hired (which I believe was the right decision), and he was upset that I hadn’t done more to promote his candidacy.

Now the reverse has happened, and it is also uncomfortable. I wholeheartedly endorsed an application from my friend Katie. (I was comfortable with this because we’ve worked together in the past.) I hadn’t seen the other candidates, but she seemed like a strong contender. The hiring committee, though, wasn’t all that into her application. I wasn’t sure how to handle the situation if she did make it to the final round; now I’m not sure how to handle her frequent requests for updates. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I don’t want to keep her in false hope. I also think we’re making a mistake passing on her, regardless of our personal friendship.

Is there any good way to handle these situations? Should I just have a blanket policy of saying, sorry, I don’t get involved with friends’ job applications? How much is appropriate to push for a friend who would be good at a job?

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.

{ 29 comments… read them below }

  1. gsa*

    Tell Katie that you did not interview the other candidates and therefore have no idea how she compared to other candidates they interviewed.

    1. Artemesia*

      Yeah. I’d say something like ‘I gave you a great rec but I know this is a very competitive search and I have no idea how things are going as I am not part of the hiring process.’

  2. Hmmm*

    I stopped referring friends/relatives for jobs a long time ago, and I’ve made it a personal rule now. I referred one friend who slacked off and lost the job due to poor attendance, and a second friend who acted like an absolute crazy person to the extent it was personally humiliating to me at work (these happened many years apart). The last straw was when I helped my brother get hired on in my department, and our boss disliked him from the start (for no real reason), then he was laid off less than a year later. I decided I no longer want to deal with the embarrassment or responsibility of mixing personal and work relationships, so I just don’t. I also have a rule that I won’t add my coworkers on social media. When you make it a rule and state it to people as such, and you consistently follow your own rule, people are less likely to get offended.

    1. HotSauce*

      I’m exactly the same way. I’ll give recommendations to former coworkers or employees who are applying elsewhere, but not with my employer. I’ve lost way to much professional goodwill that way.

    2. Pants*

      Same. It bit me in the ass once. That’s all it took. When you refer someone, they’re tied to you. It may be a tiny association, but it’s still there.

      I’ve also used the same outside-work rules. No friendships outside of work, no coworkers on social media. I’m not on much SM anymore but when I was, I’d make a point to block coworkers so they wouldn’t come across my stuff. Coworkers have generally been cool with that rule. A few of the younger ones were dubious but I hope that they filed it away in their heads.

      Even if I think I know someone perfect for a role, the most I’ll do is give them the outside link to apply (no inside referrals). Usually I’ll just direct them to the main page of the company job site and let them do whatever they want. I don’t care about referral money. I care about my reputation.

    3. Meep*

      Yeah, I only refer actual work friends. As in people I meet via work and can speak to their professionalism and work ethic. I am happy to be a reference and write a glowing letter of recommendation for anywhere else as long as it isn’t my job.

  3. Amy Farrah Fowler*

    OP – it sounds like you handled both of these situations well, but that you feel bad because you didn’t handle them exactly the same. But I think, like Alison said, it makes sense to handle things differently when the context is different. It’s not that you are doing more for one friend than another because you like one friend more. It sounds like you gave a more full-throated endorsement of one friend because you had more knowledge of their working style and you didn’t have that knowledge for your other friend.

  4. Casey*

    This is more relationship advice than job advice, but something that I often have to remind myself: just because someone else is upset, doesn’t mean that I’ve done anything wrong. It honestly sounds like OP handled both of these situations pretty well. Job searching is one of those things that brings up all kinds of emotions — anxiety, disappointment, frustration, hope, impatience, etc., and the fact that Jon and Katie are experiencing those emotions isn’t a failing or mistake on OP’s part.

    1. Caramel & Cheddar*

      Exactly. The only thing OP should takeaway from this is to not act like Jon and Katie if a friend ever refers OP to a job opening.

    2. KN*

      Yes–came here to say something similar, but you phrased it better!

      I’m sure I would also feel uncomfortable in both situations, but discomfort doesn’t necessarily mean that something has gone wrong–and especially not that OP has done something wrong.

    3. Wisteria*

      “This is more relationship advice than job advice, but something that I often have to remind myself: just because someone else is upset, doesn’t mean that I’ve done anything wrong.”

      That’s job advice that more letter writers should take to heart: Just because you are upset, doesn’t mean the other person has done anything wrong.

    4. Smithy*

      100% this. I think that for some of us, it’s not unlikely that we’ll find ourselves with friends who were also former colleagues or friends/family who are also interested in our employer/sector.

      On its surface, it can be easy to say that you offer one kind of help to former colleagues and another to friends/family but the reality is often FAR more fuzzy. There are people in our personal lives who we may know a lot about professionally and then people in our professional networks who when we think about it carefully…..we might not actually know a ton about them professionally. If it’s a big team, it may be more that we enjoyed spending time together in large group meetings and occasionally worked on a project or two.

      I will also say, that even in cases where we it’s someone who’s work we know really well and can 100% stand behind professionally – I think it always benefits us to let the “professional process” to run its course a bit. In case it’s someone who takes the job and in six months gets an opportunity of a lifetime and suddenly quits or they’re recruited super heavily to then not the take job due to other opportunities. Not that we shouldn’t advocate for those candidates, but to just have other people at some point decide they’re best for the role as well. Because there may be very solid reasons for them to ultimately not take the job or leave the job soon after they start. And best, for a group of people to have decided this was the best hire…

  5. Dona Florinda*

    I think OP handled both situations very well.

    As for the friends, just tell them that you have little involvement in the hiring process and is now off your hands, so they should proceed as they normally would.

  6. Aggretsuko*

    I think it sounds like OP handled it the best they could, under the circumstances. They should be recusing themselves for friends’ applications anyway, probably.

  7. I Wore Pants Today*

    Alison’s advise is spot-on. I endorsed a person who I worked with 15 years ago, and my manager was not disappointed.

    On the other hand, I don’t endorse anyone else. I’d never hire my brother, even if he was the last person on earth. I would consider some friends, based on tenure with a previous employer and education, but not solely because they are a friend.

  8. High Score!*

    One point I’m not seeing here is that if you refer a candidate, you should not be on the hiring committee.
    Where I work, employees are encouraged to recommend people for positions and often even paid for successful recruits. But once you recommend someone you are no longer on the hiring committee and have no more visibility into the process for that position. However if you give someone a negative recommendation you’re free to stay on the committee bc they’re not going to interview that person.

    1. Mid*

      I’m not sure it’s always necessary to recuse yourself from interviews if you recommend someone, especially if they’ll be reporting to you/working directly with you and you’re directly involved in all other candidate’s hiring process.

      1. Koalafied*

        Agreed, I think it’s often sufficient simply to disclose to others on the committee so they’re aware of how your personal connection might steer you towards that person over other candidates and can filter your assessment through that lens. Typically in a hiring committee scenario you’d be offering explanations and examples of what you like and don’t like about each candidate, not just casting a vote or ranking the candidates with no explanation, so others on the committee can decide how heavily they want to weight your assessment against their own and others if they didn’t see those same traits you describe on display in their interview.

  9. I should really pick a name*

    I would tell Kate that you don’t have any more info than she does (even if it isn’t true) and ask her to stop requesting updates.

    Even if you disagree with the hiring committee’s choice, you really need to let go of the feeling that they should hire her. Even if they’re wrong and Kate was a great candidate, they’ll still find the right person eventually. And if they’re right, you don’t want to pressure them to hire her, and discover that she wasn’t a good fit for the role.

    From what you’ve described, I think you handled both situations well.

  10. Former HR*

    I disagree with one part of your language – naming the person in charge. Unless all candidates are told who is in charge of the process, I think you should allude to a hiring committee. We do this where I work – even if it is just one person, we reference the committee so that one person is protected from people like Kathy who are asking for numerous updates (which, IMO, is also a sign of the type of employee they’ll be).

    1. Aurelia*

      > which, IMO, is also a sign of the type of employee they’ll be

      I don’t think that’s necessarily fair. Katie is apparently a close friend that OP enthusiastically referred to for the job. It’s common for job seekers to be anxious and she’s reaching out to her friend, not a stranger. OP could cut this off by saying she can’t share anything about the process, but she hasn’t said anything except she has no updates, so Katie keeps checking in. That’s pretty normal behaviour.

      1. Despachito*

        Shouldn’t Katie be picking up the cues, and not pestering her friend with constant questions?

        As to Jon, I find his behaviour unacceptable, and would not consider him a friend. OP did him a favour, and he is repaying it with accusations? A good friend would assume a friend did for him exactly what he was comfortable with. I’d send Jon pound sand.

        But I, as a lot of other commenters, think that OP’s instincts are good and guide them well.

  11. Raida*

    The few times this has happened to me I’ve just been very very honest and blunt “I am not involved in the process.” “I would tell you if I knew anything.” “I won’t tell you anything because it’s a conflict of interests.” “I can’t give you an advantage over other applicants.”

    And the *exceptionally honest* “Me doing well at my job is more important to me than you maybe getting and edge over other applicants. If it’s going to make me look bad professionally or damage my reputation I’m not going to do it. I do not believe the process is unfair and that you aren’t going to get a fair chance as is. Understand?”

    I don’t sugar coat anything, I don’t offer anything I’m not willing and able to do, and I don’t give out information applicants should not have unless it’s important that my mate knows someone else is the frontrunner so yes they should consider accepting another offer.

    I certainly will forward jobs to mates that I think are interested, and I certainly suggest people that I think have the skills or the appetite for a role. I’m not high enough up to have this happen often, but the same approach should work – honest and clear and doubling down on who is responsible for what so I better not hear any whinging that *you* didn’t get a job.

  12. Beth*

    I also think the LW handled both situations well — they were different situations and needed to be handled differently.

    I’m having an uncomfortable flashback to a former friend of mine, who pushed on me at one point to promote them being hired by my firm. I had already started to find them — let’s just say “problematical” — and had been easing away from the friendship. The role would have been a terrible fit, and they would probably have been a terrible employee. There’s no way I would have wanted to work with them , and I really, really did not want to tell them so.

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