should I hire an ex?

A reader writes:

My company is starting a massive and complex two-year project. We advertised but after interviews we haven’t found a suitable candidate for the position that’s probably most critical. Rather than advertise again given the urgency, we’ve tapping our networks for candidates to interview.

One of my exes has the qualifications to be considered, and last I spoke to him (a year ago), he was unemployed. We had a three-year relationship. I thought we were heading for marriage (he didn’t, which was the precipitating factor and one of the reasons we broke up). There was screaming, and we’ve been mostly no-contact since, except a few times we’ve run into each other randomly. Those conversations have been … not “friendly” exactly, but cordial. That was four years ago, I’m over it, and he also seemed over it when we ran into each other a year ago.

This is a position I will have direct management over, and will have to rely quite heavily on as it will be on-site for the project while I will be mostly off-site. Should I reach out to my ex to submit an application for this position, or is this a bad idea?

I answer this question — and two others — 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.

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  •  My new colleague once quit a job with me after only a few months
  • Is it okay to give references for two people applying for the same job?

{ 94 comments… read them below }

    1. Haven’t picked a username yet*

      I was thinking of a longer answer: Noooooooooooooooooooooooo

      1. WantonSeedStitch*

        LOL. I have a friend who will say, “Short answer, no. Long answer, nooooooooooo.”

          1. linger*

            Betteridge’s Law of Headlines.
            (Robin Ince gives a more nuanced account in his BBC radio series “Laws That Aren’t Laws”.)

      2. Zeus*

        I was going to borrow from Stephen Fry on Qi:
        “The short answer is ‘no’. The long answer is ‘f*** no’.”

        1. TeaCoziesRUs*

          I was thinking short: “No”
          Long – video clip of “oh Helllllll Nawwwwww”

    2. kiki*

      Yeah, it’s not even like he’s applied and LW would have to ask her team to reject him. He is not at all involved in this and there is no need to make him so. I don’t care how niche the project is and skillset that’s needed– there will never be a situation that makes this a good idea.

      1. The Other Fish*

        That’s what struck me.

        Apparently she’s over him.
        But she’s still planning to reach out and offer him a job… that he has some skills in, but isn’t a teeny tiny little “Three guys in the world know this” niche.
        She ain’t over it.

        1. Karo*

          I want to push back on “she ain’t over it.” To start with, we’re supposed to take the LW at their word. To finish with, this is a weird assumption to make.

          I have a remarkably similar story with my ex: we were together for 6ish years, I thought we were headed for marriage and he didn’t, so we split. It wasn’t amicable (though there wasn’t screaming), but we’re cordial when we run into each other. If my company were struggling to hire an archeologist (though not one I’d be managing), I’d absolutely reach out and see if he needed a job. It’s not a 3-guys-in-the-world niche, but it’s specialized skills.

          Meanwhile, I’m married to a man whom I’d move heaven and earth for, with a kid and a whole life that has nothing to do with my ex. He just…happens to be the only archeologist I know.

        2. Emily Byrd Starr*

          And even if she is over him, we don’t know if he is.

          And even if they both are over each other, it’s still a bad idea for all the reasons Allison said. It sounds like it could potentially work if she started a new job and then discovered that he was working there, but that’s not the case.

          When it comes to exes, the default rule should be, “If you happen to randomly cross paths, be civil and friendly, but don’t directly seek them out.” It applies for work, too.

    3. Msd*

      I really wonder about this person’s management abilities that they would even consider this let alone ask ama if it’s a good idea.

      1. Redrum*

        This was my thought as well – why would you even consider this??? They can’t possibly be the only person in the world who can do this job.

      2. TheBunny*

        I don’t. I have been where they are with hard to fill positions that have one ir two candidates and passive candidates aren’t working out either.

        I think it’s a good sign OP asked for a gut check. If they saw no issues they wouldn’t have asked. I think they were hoping Alison was going to say…no…go for it. Why not? Because then they could roll the dice and hope it worked out.

        I’m guessing OP isn’t surprised by the answer.

    4. The Bill Murray Disagreement*

      Yeah, I hate to sound like I’m criticizing LW because I do understand how when you need to bring someone with the right skills into the team, and you know a person has those skills you can overlook some serious issues…

      And that caveat to say: “how is this even in question???”

    5. BubbleTea*

      My answer, just from the headline, was “no, nope, definitely not, and also no”.

      1. allathian*

        So was mine. I get the temptation if this is a position that’s nearly impossible to fill, but still no, at least as long as the LW is working in that position.

        A friend was in the LW’s position. She was the hiring manager and her ex was a unicorn for the position she was hiring for. Everyone else on the hiring panel absolutely loved him while recognizing that it would be a terrible idea to have her manage him, but they absolutely wanted to have him work for them and offered my friend a lateral move to a different department. She took it and switched jobs with the other department’s manager, but the new job involved managing a function she only had a rudimentary understanding of and wasn’t particularly interested in learning more about, so she started looking elsewhere within a couple months and was hired before her lack of interest in the lateral move job tanked her professional reputation.

    1. Polaris*

      I mean, it was “No is a full statement” before this detail, but this detail elevates it to “oh he!! to the fvcking no”.

      1. MigraineMonth*

        It was kind of impressive that from the headline alone the answer was obviously “No”, but each additional detail (the length of the relationship, the seriousness of the relationship, how bad the breakup was, that LW would be supervising, that the ex *hadn’t even applied*) just added an additional layer of “Hell No” to the answer.

        1. Polaris*

          Honestly with the headline and it being obvious, I was hoping (hah) that it was something that was going to make me think about it a little bit. Like the relationship had run its course, everyone was all besties now, he had all the rare llama specific archeological dig direction experience that was required for the position, etc.

          But…the headline was as advertised. Just no.

          1. what was my username??*

            That’s what I thought too, that it would be an uber-rare specialization that only 10 people in the world had… that kind of scenario. Even if it was she would still need to configure the reporting structure so he wasn’t reporting to her. Even if there is no awkwardness between the two of them, there will always be the perceived optics of favoritism or bias coming from the rest of the team.

          2. Hlao-roo*

            There was an update to this letter and the “something else” that was going on… was a toxic workplace that was putting a lot of pressure on the letter-writer to hire someone, anyone for the position. Luckily, the LW did not hire the ex, and started working on plans to leave that workplace instead.

  1. Esti*

    Alison covered the most obvious reasons this is a bad idea, but I’m a little stuck on the OP’s suggestion that this is a good candidate to reach out to because he was unemployed a year ago. Either he’s found work since then, in which case he’s no more available than anyone with a current job and probably less so as most people don’t like to job hop too quickly, or he’s still unemployed a year later which suggests there may be reasons he hasn’t found a job elsewhere.

    Basically, OP, it sounds like you’re kind of looking for reasons to try to hire this guy, either because you’re just desperate to find someone for the position or because for some reason you want to reach out to him specifically.

    1. kiki*

      he’s still unemployed a year later which suggests there may be reasons he hasn’t found a job elsewhere

      I want to push back on this a little bit because while it could be true, this line of thinking is hurting a lot of really lovely folks who were just victims of layoffs and a bad market in some sectors.

      1. 1-800-BrownCow*

        I agree with this. I know a few people who are great employees and were part of big lay-offs that have struggled finding work for months, sometimes over a year, in the recent economy for their field. Additionally, there could be other reasons a person hasn’t found a new job in over a year. OP doesn’t specify why he was out of work. Maybe he stopped working to care for a sick family member or maybe for his own health reasons. It’s not fair to assume anyone out of work for a year, or any length of time, that it’s a reflection of that person.

      2. AnotherOne*

        yeah, I have a friend who it took almost 2 years to find a job after Covid layoffs because a lot of places wanted someone to do VP level work for admin level pay. And while he was willing to do the work, he wasn’t willing to take the pay.

      3. BubbleTea*

        If there are so few people who can do this job that it’s insurmountably hard to recruit through normal channels, it seems unlikely that there would also be lots of people out of work in that field through no fault of their own.

      4. Clickity Clackety*

        My mate was a highly paid software engineer who was laid off over a year and a half ago.
        I think management couldnt afford him any longer, but the market is also oversaturated.

    2. pcake*

      If he’s in a highly niche field, there may be very few jobs available in his line of work. I’ve seen this happen before. Or he could have gone to work for a startup that folded.

      Btw, I’m not a fan of hiring an ex one isn’t on current good terms with, as old baggage may be dragged out, complicating the project and possibly compromising the LW’s job or work relationships.

      1. metadata minion*

        Yep. I’ve been on a hiring committee for that sort of position — there are only a few universities that need this particular combination of specialties, but that also means that there are very few people who go into the field, especially since it doesn’t pay all that well and is an obscure corner of library science rather that something that kids dream of being when they grow up. If you’re not willing to move across the country to grab one of the very few open positions, you’re probably out of luck and are going to start looking for more generalist openings.

  2. Jzilbeck*

    Just as you shouldn’t be managing an employee you’re dating, you shouldn’t be managing any employee you used to date either. Keep that ex’s number lost.

  3. ecnaseener*

    For #2 (new coworker once quit their job with me) I can’t imagine what LW thought they might want to say. If the person hadn’t been hired yet, that would be one thing — at least assuming the person left without any notice, which isn’t totally clear. But they’re hired. No one’s going to fire them over this.

    Although if LW didn’t think they could get the coworker fired, I have no clue what they meant by this sentence: “Since I no longer work for the previous company, I feel if I said anything negative, I could be held liable.” Liable for what??

    1. Person from the Resume*

      I wondered that as well. Probably just an odd word choice, but i did devote a few thoughts to wondering where the LW’s mind was going.

      Literally there’s nothing to say. The guy is hired; it is too late to stop it. There really isn’t a need to. That guy’s actions did “screw the LW over” ie made her life very difficult during the busy time, but he didn’t do anything wrong as Alison pointed out. He quit a job that he felt was a bad fit. Nothing to talk about there.

      1. Gumby*

        The only thing I can think might merit a conversation would be if the short term employee said “[field] is not for me” when quitting (so they hate accounting or technical writing or shoe polishing) and the new job is in the same field. But that convo would be w/ the short term employee. And even then I can’t think of exactly how it would go.

        I have complained to enough people about things I disliked about my previous role/industry that if I suddenly went back to it I’d expect several people to be all “I thought you’d washed your hands of llama wrangling?” And they would be absolutely correct if they feared I had only taken the job as an interim measure and would leave it the second I got a reasonable offer elsewhere.

    2. PotsPansTeapots*

      The timing also makes it clear that the employee left right around the three month mark. That’s not an employee rage quitting or applying for a job that clearly wasn’t right for them — they decided at the end of what’s often considered a “probationary period” that the job wasn’t a good fit. It made LW’s life harder for a summer, but that’s it.

  4. A Simple Narwhal*

    Short answer: no.

    Long answer: nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo.

  5. WritingIsHard*

    This sounds like the plot of a second chance romance I would love despite the real life ethical implications.

    1. Kristin*

      She reluctantly hires him. They butt heads but work successfully together. She realizes he’s matured emotionally since they broke up. He admires her new confidence and leadership skills. Both are hesitant to break up their new respect and comraderie by making a move, but they go on a business trip and WHOOPS ONLY ONE BED IN THE HOTEL ROOM!

      Honestly I am pretty sure I *have* read this novel, or else I need to go put in my notice and jump into my new career writing bodice-rippers.

      1. Kristin*

        Seriously though, if you had an ex from a casual relationship where you’d drifted apart and it had been a few years? I think that would be OK to hire them, provided you were able to maintain appropriate professional boundaries and manage them fairly. Not an ex from a serious relationship where there was “a lot of screaming”.

        1. WritingIsHard*

          I’ve read multiple AAM stories about sharing a hotel room/bed with a coworker/boss and was horrified, but I would read the shit out of this.

        2. Emily Byrd Starr*

          I think it would only be okay to offer a job to an ex from the relationship you describe if both you and he were completely over each other, and there wasn’t anything significant about the relationship (i.e., one of you was the other’s first kiss, first heartbreak, etc.)

        3. I Have RBF*

          See, I had this fiance one time that I broke up with… 40 years ago. We’ve both married since. We see each other occasionally, and get along fine. Would I hire him? Yeah, if he had the skills I needed.

          But managing him might still be awkward, because I used to know all his flaws. It would be like suddenly managing a personal friend.

          So if you wouldn’t hire a personal friend for a job that you manage, don’t hire a cordial ex, because the relationship is similar.

      2. Bruce*

        The thing about the hotel room is almost like the film Outsourced… only one hotel room, and it is the honeymoon suite (if I recall from 2006). I actually enjoyed the flick, but would not want to live this scenario in real life!

          1. Emily Byrd Starr*

            Titanic might be fun, if it weren’t for that whole thing about the ship sinking. But seriously, who wouldn’t want to go on a cruise and hook up with Leonardo DiCaprio in 1997?

            1. TeaCoziesRUs*

              You do that and leave Billy Zane to me… that man…. *drool* Granted, Cal was a b******, but give me Billy every day. :D

  6. AutoFill Contact*

    I’m imagining that yesterdays LW who had to fire her spouse’s ex is also this LW and there are only about 15 people in the job pool of some tiny town, so this kind of thing just keeps happening over and over.

    1. ecnaseener*

      Maybe also the guy from “I ghosted my ex and she’s about to be my new boss!”

  7. Garblesnark*

    I have an ex I’d totally hire.

    We broke up because we drifted apart; there was no screaming. We were both kind to one another and have regarded each other as good people consistently since. They are friends with my spouse. When others brought up the breakup to them, they took time to say that I had not done anything wrong. We live in different cities now, but usually meet up if we’re in the other’s town.

    I still would probably not manage them directly if I could help it – it would be hard for me to not involve my knowledge of them as a romantic partner in interacting with them as a leader. But I’d absolutely hire them, or recommend for them to be hired, anywhere they were qualified.

    The situation the LW describes is emphatically not that.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      Yeah, I have exes I’d hire (but not manage directly, on principle) but we weren’t “verging on marriage”-level involved and there were no screaming break-ups, so the stakes are a lot lower.

    2. Lenora Rose*

      I have exes I would absolutely hire and know are solid competent workers (one is the same person whose wedding I went to the week after I got back from my own honeymoon), but none, no not one, I would either want to manage or want to have manage me. Too many chances of too much complication.

      (I have successfully done that sort of thing for managing or being managed by in volunteer roles, and it can be fine, but volunteering is a different relationship than actual livelihood).

  8. I should really pick a name*

    Since I no longer work for the previous company, I feel if I said anything negative, I could be held liable.

    I don’t really get this. What would they be liable for if they said anything? I could understand being worried about being liable for not saying something.

    I don’t think they SHOULD say anything, I’m just confused.

  9. Elsewise*

    Reading the first letter, I was trying to predict the situation where this would be okay. So, obviously, he applied, and the breakup was a long time ago, and it was mutual, and you have a good working relationship since, and you wouldn’t be supervising each other, and… what? None of those?

  10. woops*

    i came in to just drop a one word answer – the obvious NO… but too many beat me to it ha.

  11. Kermit's Bookkeepers*

    It’s a lot to read into this short letter, but I wonder if part of this comes from, like, the societal expectation that one must “get over” one’s exes to the point of being able to be friends or colleagues with them as a sign of emotional maturity. I know I’m projecting here, but I often feel really guilty if I can’t get to the point of wanting to spend platonic time with an ex, and it took me a while (and a smart therapist) to accept that you can be healed and past something without necessarily needing or wanting to spend time around someone to prove it. Some relationships end for a reason and it doesn’t make you a bad person to leave them behind.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      I wondered this, too, and I feel like I see a lot of letters on advice columns in general asking how to be friends with an ex. I’m not friends with any of mine. We’re not actively avoiding each other (well, I’m not actively avoiding them; I have no idea if they’re avoiding me), we just . . . are not in contact. I might hang out with one of them again if he asked, but he won’t. The rest of them, I’m not mad or anything but if we had that much in common we wouldn’t have lost touch?

    2. allathian*

      I think a lot of that happens because when people date in their friend group, there’s a lot of pressure to be friends again if they break up. This is most easily avoided by either not dating your friends or by choosing not to nurture friendships with people of the gender you find attractive (fairly easy for heteros, not nearly so easy for others).

      The FWBs I had in college all ended for a reason, and I have absolutely no interest in hanging out with any of them again. I’m apparently incapable of maintaining a truly platonic friendship with a man, which is why I’m not willing to be anything more than work friends or friendly acquaintances with men now.

      The pressure to remain friendly if not friends is also a thing when people date in their professional circles, even if it isn’t in their organization. Especially if it’s a relatively small profession where you can’t avoid running into each other at professional conferences, at least not without making things weird for other people.

      I’d only had one serious relationship when I met my husband, but there’s absolutely no way I would’ve wanted to remain friends with him after we broke up, and the best thing about the breakup was that he felt the same way about me. Thankfully our social circles didn’t overlap, and I haven’t seen him after we broke up 25+ years ago.

    3. Emily Byrd Starr*

      Exactly. And just because your ex is a really nice person and you parted on good terms doesn’t necessarily mean that you should stay friends with them, either. I learned that the hard way when I invited an ex to my graduation party, and it was awkward and uncomfortable as hell.

  12. Sneaky Squirrel*

    #2 – What would the goal be in saying anything to anyone at this point and to whom would LW even say anything to? It sounds like LW is seeking punishment against the employee for doing something that is a standard “at-will” employment practice.

    1. Loz*

      Exactly. This is fine.
      They may even have put the job on the resume and the company/manager is aware of it.

  13. Radioactive Cyborg Llama*

    These questions were like the Goldilocks story. LW1–underreacting, LW2 overreacting, LW3 just right.

  14. WellRed*

    OP 1, I shall assume your desperation caused this momentary lapse. The company might need to push back the timeframe a bit (I realize this may be impossible) but it’s unfortunate the project was agreed upon without this aspect considered. Tap those networks, repost the position, check with any industry associations etc to really cast that net!

  15. Bruce*

    The third letter reminds me of when I was asked to give references for 2 people applying to the same job, including which I preferred… and I recommended the wrong one. In my defense, I did not know the second person as well as I _thought_ I knew the first. But wow, did I NOT really know the guy I recommended! He was OK as a worker but turned out to be a stalker and harasser at the new company. To make it worse, I later got to work more closely with the second guy for a bit, realized he was awesome, and then watched his career go from individual contributor to start up founder and CEO. The whole experience is a mortifying memory and made me much more careful about references…

    1. AngryOctopus*

      Just remember, the first dude was not a stalker or harasser at your company. It’s very unfortunate that he turned out to be so, but you didn’t know that at the time. You can’t beat yourself up about that one.

    2. Cmdrshprd*

      Maybe this is semantics but I don’t think you recommended the wrong one. Based on your description and information you had at the time you made the right choice.

      Just because it didn’t work out does not mean it was wrong.

      If you know there are 9 green balls, and 1 red ball in a bag, and I ask you to guess what color ball will come out the “right” answer is green, even if it comes out red, green was the best/right answer.

    3. Dust Bunny*

      That sounds like you gave the best answer you could with the information you had, which is entirely reasonable. You can’t help it if people hide their worst sides from you!

  16. AngryOctopus*

    LW#2 needs to reframe their thinking. Does it suck that the employee left right before a busy time? Of course! But if the job wasn’t right for them, having them stay through the busy time probably wasn’t going to be good for either of you! They didn’t like the job! Staying through a busy time wouldn’t have changed that at all. It probably would have made it worse! So LW, you can look at this person and think, “Oh look they have found a job that is good for them”. You have no reason to believe otherwise!

  17. StressedButOkay*

    This needs the “nope nope nope” octopus gif. This would be a bad idea even if the breakup was amicable since your ex hasn’t even applied. The fact that it wasn’t amicable means that this is not someone you can – ever – manage.

  18. Phoenix Wright*

    There are bad ideas, and then there’s this. Hiring someone you’re dating and managing them is a recipe for disaster. Doing it with an ex would be going to the disaster bakery and buying the entire cake.

  19. Perry*

    There are just so very many ways for me to say this to you: Never. Not in a million years. Absolutely not. No way, Jose. No chance, Lance. Nyet. Negatory. Mm-mm. Nuh-uh. Uh-uh. And of course, my own personal favorite of all time, man falling off of a cliff. NOOOOOO00000000000000ooooooooooooooooooooooo………… *poof*

  20. CommanderBanana*


    Seriously, why are they even considering this? Not enough drama in their life?

  21. kalli*

    I thought I recalled Alison saying that Inc had arranged for all her posts to be in front of the paywall, but I am finding that when Inc redirects to a local version of their site (i.e. Inc Australia) the paywall comes up still. I’m not sure if the deal was only for Inc US or if this is unintended, or if it’s just me. I couldn’t find the post that said that to double check. Is anyone else not always able to read these recaps?

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