What happens when you’re an unwilling job reference?

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I'm dreading that phone ringing. (Photo by: Gabriel - CC BY 2.0)
I’m dreading that phone ringing. (Photo by: GabrielCC BY 2.0)
I just started a new job, and my former boss (who I’m still on excellent terms with) put the call out to fill my old position. A good friend of mine applied for it. And though she didn’t ask me for a reference, our field is very small and I know my old boss will ask me about her.

The problem is: I have serious doubts about her ability to do my former job, and I think my old boss should know that. And some of my doubts are based on personal information that is none of my old boss’ business, but I know would affect my friend’s work. I’m stumped.

Homies! What wisdom can you impart? -Marguerite

Oof, Homies, how you would handle this sticky situation?

Comments on What happens when you’re an unwilling job reference?

  1. It may be worth mentioning that there is personal information that is not ethical or, in some cases legal, to ask about or reveal in an interview or reference. Addiction or mental health issues would fall into this category.

    • also family status (partner/spouse, children, dependent elders, etc) is protected information that you should not be asked about, nor should you volunteer it, even if you have concerns about such obligations potentially interfering with work

    • This isn’t true. As an interviewer, you’re legally allowed to ask anything you want. You just can’t *use* that information in your hiring decision. So that’s why many companies have policies banning the questions, but it’s not illegal. Icky and gross, yes.

      I’m assuming you’re not one of her formal references, and this would be your former boss speaking with you as a colleague. In that case, you have no obligation to either party. From the way you’ve worded your question, it sounds like you want to go the middle ground, not too harsh/revealing, but you want to make it clear that this person is not a good fit.

      Honestly, your wording is pretty spot on!
      Boss: Hey Alice applied for your old job, you know her right?
      You: I do know her, and without getting into any details, I think you should know that I have serious doubts about her ability to do the job. I feel like it’s important for you to know that, but I’m not very comfortable discussing it.

      • Or you could be passive-aggressive and say, “Yes, I know her; we’ve been friends since XXXX” and leave it at that. The fact that you don’t have anything personal to say about her work habits could be an indicator that you didn’t think enough of her to want to pass on anything good.

  2. Don’t volunteer any informations and even if asked, I would not say anything bad. Indicate what you believe her strengths are if asked for a general reference. If asked specific questions, be truthful, but do not be overly negative.

    Additionally, sometimes when we worked in a certain job we have this idea that the way we did it is the only way to do it. That’s not true. Maybe she’ll end up approaching the job in a different way that means the failings that she has will be negated, just as you probably did your job in a way that negated your failings.

    Trust to the rest of the interview process to sort it out.

  3. Maybe you could tell the old boss that you’d rather not give a reference because you’re biased due to your personal friendship, and that you don’t want to mix up personal feelings with professional abilities. Maybe you can think about someone else who is more neutral and could provide a reference for your friend?

    • I agree with the above poster, especially since you said the field is very small — it would be best to avoid providing too much or too little info about this person as it could do damage to your professional reputation later if the person gets hired and doesn’t work out.

    • The thing is, though, if her and her boss have a good relationship, no reference = bad reference. The only other option that could be a possibility is that she had a fight with the friend and is being weird and vindictive. Also makes her look bad.

      The field is small– that’s why personal recommendations are even more valuable. Not warning them that it could be a disaster is almost as bad as giving the good reference.

  4. Is there any way that you can bow out gracefully, saying something to your old boss like, “well, I am her friend, but I haven’t worked with her, so I can’t speak to her work ethic, but we have been friends for (fill in the blank) years”?

    If not, then you should talk to your friend who is applying for the position about your doubts. While, if she is sensitive, this may be difficult, it is better to be honest & let her know that maybe she doesn’t have a full picture of what the job entails- and let her know what you think might be difficult for her to do. (It is hard to tell from your question- is it that she would be dealing with sensitive info & she has a big mouth- or is it a hands on job & she has a tendency to call out every other week- or something like a physical job & she has a bad back?)

    There is also the possibility that she might do better at work than she does in her personal life- I have a friend who (socially) can best be described as “ditzy” or “silly”- and I always thought that she must be like that at work- until I worked with her (we are in the medical field). I saw this “ditzy” friend cut down a patient & use an AED on her- and there were no giggles, and suddenly my friend was in charge & on top of it- and saved the patient’s life. Is it possible that your friend is more responsible & reliable at work than she is in her social life?

    Good luck- this sounds like a tough spot!

    • Agreed on the “we’re friends but I’ve never worked with her” bit… I had a friend who didn’t tell me she was using me as a reference and I felt like I’d let her down when they called me, but we were never even in the same classes in college except for one very early one! How in the world could I have anything to say beyond some words on her trustworthiness and integrity, because I have never seen her at work!

  5. Have you considered speaking with her about her skill set? maybe she could start work on improving the areas of concern? That way she is showing initiative and willingness to learn. It could help her in this job or others – constructive feedback is always good once the person is willing to take it on board.

  6. I’m torn here and I do think this is why people should always ask before they ever list someone as a reference. I know you said your friend didn’t ask you. So here’s my take.

    First, is your old boss someone that you might work for again or ever go to for a connection in the future? If so, avoid lying to them, even by omission. If you tell only the positive and then your friend turns out to be a bad fit, it could negatively impact your old boss’ view of you and your work ethic. That, in turn, could cause difficulties for you in the future with work.

    Second, consider approaching your friend, tell her you’ve been asked to give a reference by your boss and explain your concerns. Give your friend a chance to explain to you how she plans on addressing the personal issue so as to keep it from interfering with work. Being unwilling to give a reference, is giving a reference because it says that there are things you don’t want to tell your old boss about your friend. Being preemptive, and seeing if your friend has a plan for dealing with her personal business, gives you the chance to give a good reference.

    Personally, I would give a truthful reference. I wouldn’t delve into the personal information, but if your friend can’t give you a satisfactory way of how they would handle it, I wouldn’t lie to the old boss.

  7. Feign ignorance – “She is a really great friend, has been for years, however, I haven’t worked with her in a professional setting, so I can’t speak much to that point.” <– this actually sounds like it may be accurate in your situation. If you have worked with her professionally, I would still feign ignorance. You don't want to hurt your friends chances, especially if she does end up getting the job and doing well.

    Conversely, the more vague you are, I don't think a boss would push the subject. They need to be respectful of a personal relationship, and if you give them a polite, yet vague answer, and it turns out not to be a great hire, there is no fault on your end (or anyone's really). Hiring people that are the wrong fit happens all the time, rave reviews or not. It's just part of the process!

  8. I would probably give a reference that follows this general outline :

    *she’s a friend, not a coworker, so i can’t say what it’s like to work with/for her.
    *but she’s (a great listener/really organized/very caring/some other quality that makes her a good friend & a good professional)
    *but if i were interviewing her, I’d want to know more about (her work + life balance/how she handles conflict in the workplace/her time management process)
    *so, yeah, she’s a great friend, I’m sure you’ll see how (nice/friendly/general positive trait) she is if you interview her.

    this way, you’re generally positive about your friend, but emphasize she’s a friend, and you can’t say for sure how she is at work. you alert your boss to potential areas of concern, but do so in a way that invites your boss to address those concerns directly with your friend.

    if your boss asks “why are you concerned about x?” I’d give a general answer, like “since i haven’t worked with her, i don’t know how she does x, and i felt like it was really important to me when i did the job.” rather than getting into specific personal stuff that isn’t a bosses business.

    yeah, it’s a sticky situation, but try to trust that if both parties are clear about what they want/expect during the interview process, then things will work out. just like any relationship, really.

    • I think that’s a great idea to put the ball back in the interviewer’s court. Through a thorough interview, they can figure out the information you’re concerned about on their own.

    • My suggestion, taken from bits & pieces of other commented suggestions:

      “I’d rather not give a professional reference because our personal friendship makes me biased, and also because I have never worked with her professionally. But, if I were interviewing her, I’d want to know more about (her work + life balance/how she handles conflict in the workplace/her time management process)”.

      I think that’s a perfect balance of honesty and giving the interviewer subtle advice of things he may want to find out about her without you having to actually say a single negative word.

      • I’ve heard of places that take personal/friend references in addition to professional colleagues. So I disagree with some previous comments, and I don’t think it is necessarily unethical to give a reference for your friend. Striking a balance like this suggested script would be the way I would handle this situation.

    • Ok, I was in a slightly different situation here. But this is a VERY useful approach, since you express your concerns as hints for the interviewers to ask. They can decide for themselves how to manage them 🙂

      My boss came one day SUPERexcited because he had interviewed someone with a disability (that would be hard to work with in our field). He was excited because this guy ended his degree in spite of his disability, and for my boss this was an amazing example of integration and overcoming of obstacles.

      I knew this guy, and his disability had made him selfish, self-centered, and an expert in dodging group and solo tasks. Even teachers took part in the charade, passing his exams so they didn’t have to adapt the class contents for the following years. I tried to hide my feelings, because I met this guy years before, formed an opinion and walked away, and the rest of what I knew was because of common friends/classmates (who confirmed what I thought).

      The thing is, when my boss entered and told us, he just could see it in my face. When we were alone at the office my boss asked me and insisted on knowing why I wasn’t happy about this. I didn’t know if he had changed, and I REALLY didn’t want him to lose a job because of me, so I told my boss to not take my opinion as law, and I had to tell him what I thought. He answered that the decision was made, but that he would need to know how the guy was, so he could manage him the best way possible.

      This is different because he was going to be hired anyway when my boss talked to me, and because I really wanted my boss to know, since I was going to work with the guy. If he was my friend I would have told him where I think he might need help, so he got ready for the job. At least as ready as he could be.

      • I just want to put it out there that this guy’s disability didn’t DO anything to him to make him this way. I don’t know him, so who knows what he’s really like. But if he’s a jerk, then HE was probably already this way and just had this loophole to take advantage of, which would have been something else without this disability. I know it seems like this all the same thing, but people first language puts the good and the bad on the person and doesn’t define through abilities. Every group has nice/not so nice people in it.

        As a college teacher, I’d also add that in no damn way would it be difficult to change content/exams/whatever to adjust for any student’s needs. I would never just pass a student and neither would anyone I know. I’m sure it happens, rarely, but every teacher? Most of them? Nope, I don’t think so. We are USED to adaptations and don’t mind one bit. We expect to level the playing field for students with documented needs and are happy to do it. It is simply not a big deal to do it and I never want a student to think accommodating them means that I’m all butthurt about it. It certainly would never change my class content for following years at all. And I just don’t see how anyone would know what every teacher did or didn’t do for this guy all those years.

      • I just wanted to echo what Melissa said — having a disability doesn’t make anyone one way or the other. Not having the proper emotional and physical support to work with the disability can definitely impact a person. Not having full understanding of your disability can impact a person, and feeling limited can do a serious number on the soul. I don’t know this guy and I don’t know what his disability is — and I’m not asking you for more details — but it’s really important to keep in mind that it’s not the disability that makes a person. A lot of factors contribute to the kind of people we all become.

  9. I supervise a number of interns and am often asked to be a reference. When I give a reference, I want to be truthful because it’s my reputation on the line too. I won’t vouch for someone I don’t have confidence in. Everyone has their weak points, and I’ll always answer honestly when asked. Even the greatest people I’m happy to recommend have areas that need work, and I’d like to see a prospective employer commit to helping them improve.

    That being said, if the reference I’d give isn’t good, I don’t want to lie, but nor do I want to ruin someone’ s chance of getting a job. Perhaps my experience isn’t indicative, or there was a reason for their poor performance. I simply say “I don’t think I’m the best person to give a reference so I’d rather not comment”, and leave the employer to draw their own conclusions

    • “I don’t think I’m the best person to give a reference so I’d rather not comment”, and leave the employer to draw their own conclusions

      I think this is a good approach.

      If you don’t think she can do the job, don’t lead the boss to think she can. Remember that references are confidential, and if you have SERIOUS doubts, you can voice them — but honestly, since she’s a good friend, not gushing about her communicates your hesitation without making you say things that feel mean to say.

  10. I truly believe you have to be honest in a situation like this. Even if you aren’t still working for your former boss, your professional reputation is on the line if you either sugar-coat or don’t share information that could potentially negatively impact the workplace. It’s important to keep in mind that a potential employer will not typically disclose the reason for not hiring if it comes from a personal reference – especially if you offer your input with an explicit request that it be kept private – so your friend need never know. I have talked up friends to potential employers who I knew to be less-than-qualified, and it has bitten me in the butt; not a good thing for anyone!

  11. I have to agree with Tramuntana. Let the boss know you’ve been friends for a long time, and feel like you may be biased and you’re not comfortable with that. I feel like that would speak to your ethical standards.

    Of course, that being said, sometimes not saying anything says everything.

  12. The good news is, most reference check calls do not ask open ended questions. They are usually yes or no questions, like Is she punctual or Can she work on a team? And you can often answer yes, no, or I don’t know, without giving examples. However, since your old boss knows you, he might stray from that and start delving into personal revelations, in which case, I would shut that convo down quick. Or steer it back to the basic questions. Just keep your mind in two distinct sections, what you know about your friend personally and what you know professionally, and only answer from the professional side. I don’t believe it’s ever OK to share personal details about a person in a reference check. Just think, is there anything your friends could have said about you to sabotage your own reference check? We all have our secrets!

  13. I had a similar situation, when I was in grad school I was working for the school in my field. I graduated in the winter and they wanted to fill the position for spring semester. Two acquaintances had applied for the position and my bosses (who were also my professors) asked what I thought of them. So my bosses were going to be providing references for me, grading me, and since I stayed in the area there’s a reasonable chance that I could end up working there again. I had done class projects with both of them in classes taught by my bosses so they knew I had experience working with them. Neither friend was really a good fit.

    I said something along the lines that I wouldn’t want to say anything bad about people I was friendly with so, A had xyz positive attributes but I was surprised she applied and B had abc positive attributes but [negative thing they already knew from class].

    My bosses didn’t need to know that: A had just started therapy because she was so overwhelmed from stress, shouldn’t be taking on more and was super type-A overachiever who would clash with my bosses laid back management style or that B skipped her psych meds every so often and it made her very flakey and hard to work with and she need more direction and supervision than she’d get to make her buckle down and work.

    I don’t know if it was the right thing to do. I was on the spot and I didn’t want to say anything that would prevent either of my friends from being hired, but I didn’t want to risk my bosses being pissed off at whoever they hired and then getting a call to provide a reference for me. They didn’t hire either of them. In retrospect, they knew the negatives to both of my friends and were looking to me to confirm the choice they already made. Ugh, sorry for the novel.

  14. I could be totally wrong about this, but I’ve always had the understanding that people generally don’t give negative feedback when asked for a reference because it could put them in some sort of vulnerable position, legally? I have no idea where I heard that, but I thought the general rule was “if you can’t say something nice, decline to give a reference at all and let them draw their own conclusions.”

    I think in this case since you weren’t formally asked for a reference, saying “She’s a friend but I honestly have no idea what she’s like to work with, I’m not a good reference for that I’m afraid” is probably the best strategy.

    • Yes, that was what I did when a former classmate named me in her interview at my place of work. She didn’t even know I worked there before we passed in the corridor as she was going in to the interview. She was a pain to work with in school, I don’t know why she thought she’d get something good out of me.
      When my boss asked about her after the interview I just said that she was funny and driven, but I preferred not to comment my experience working with her on class projects. He totally understood what that meant and she was never mentionned again.
      Bosses/HR people are well aware that if you refuse to comment, then there is something you believe would not work for them. They usually won’t push you for more details because that is how the professional world works. If asked by the applicant, they’ll just repeat the nice things you said and won’t mention the rest.

      • Update :
        New anecdote: Another person tried to use me as a reference, but referred to me as “Mister” in their presentation letter (I have a generally male first name and we’d only ever communicated by email). My boss was laughing his head off when he informed me of that one. Of course, the person was never called back.
        Lesson: Sometimes, people who trap you as an unwilling reference will also solve the problem for you. 😉

  15. Unless you have actual experience with how this person performs on the job (i.e. you have personally worked with, over, or under her), you should say nothing. It’s a job reference, not a dating reference. Speculation is never a good thing.

  16. Whatever dirt you’ve got or think you have, keep it to yourself. Don’t volunteer anything, and if your boss asks you about it directly, obfuscate. Aside from the bad karma inherent in using privileged information that you have about your “friend” to potentially screw her out of a job, there are some things that just legally aren’t a boss’s business. It wouldn’t be his place, legally, to ask you those things, and it wouldn’t be cool legally or ethically for you to volunteer the information. She didn’t list you as a job reference, right? So mind your own business about it. If she fails, she fails…it only has something to do with you if you choose to involve yourself.

  17. Im gonna come at this from the friends point of view. As someone who has been job hunting for a long time I often wonder about my references. I would say talk to her about your concerns. Take time to discuss them and why you dont think she would be good in the position.

    If any of my references had doubts about my ability to do a job or an aspect of a job I would want them to talk to me about it, ask my why I had applied for the job, especially when it involves x. It may be that they just havnt seen me do something, or I previously struggled with an aspect of work that I have learnt how to deal with. Alternatively it may be that they see me struggle with an aspect of work at the moment in which case I want to know now that I am struggling with something and I would want to know how I can improve. Or that I thought the job was something different to what it really is. I would want to know if there is something that I need to improve on.

    Unless the issue is something that she cannot work on then I would talk to her about it. She might be able to reasure you and if not she should know that there is an issue with taking on the job she has applied for at the moment.

  18. I would tread very very carefully here – you havn’t been asked for a reference, therefore any involvement on your part is not part of the official recruitment procedure and therefore not really above aboard, whatever you say about your friend to the ex boss would give either an advantage or disadvantage to your friend compared to the other candidates. It would also be very unprofessional of your ex-boss to come gossiping about someone they are thinking of employing, is this something you actually think will happen or something you fear would happen?

    I’m assuming your friend is suitably qualified and experienced, if she’s not then what you are fearing will never happen, she’ll get weeded out of the selection process early on. If she is suitably experienced and qualified then whatever else she has going on in her life is her business and has clearly been manageable so far, if your friend had a major drug/lifestyle/health issue problem I’d expect this to create the kind of gappy cv/resume that wouldn’t get her an interview for this job. You seem to think she would be considered a competitive candidate so I’m assuming this isn’t the case.

    This is meant in the friendliest possible way but I don’t think you have a role here if you are not an official reference. You don’t and can’t know how she will do in your old job, although of course the one thing you can be sure of is that she won’t and no one will, do it like you did. I would be very wary of approaching her with your concerns if she hasn’t talked to you about the job and opened up that conversation, however well meant it will almost be certainly received as interfering and the walls could go up.

    You may not actually be in the awful position of responsibility you think you are in here – it’s your ex bosses responsibility to fill the job and we know they have done this successfully at least once before (you!) and only your friend can make the right choices for herself. I don’t think you are in possession of a burning truth everyone would angry if they found out you’d been concealing, I think you just have invested views on the issues at hand here. Sit back and see if anyone asks you anything, if it’s your boss then you have the legitimate out that you can’t comment on her work and if it’s your friend you can just explain the job as best you can so she can decide herself.

  19. OP here. Your replies have been incredible and have really helped – thanks so much!

    Although it’s true that I have never worked with my friend, we’ve been in classes together so I have some idea of how she would conduct herself in a professional context. I actually feel pretty confident that she would do the job well…if she showed up. That’s the problem: major issues with absenteeism.

    It’s one thing if she bails on girls’ night every time – I would never comment on that as part of a job reference – but she was calling in sick to her previous job three or more days per week. My former workplace can be high-stress and it really puts a strain on the other employees if someone doesn’t show up for work.

    Thanks for all of the advice everyone. It gave me a lot to think about and I now feel more confident about how to respond if/when my former boss approaches me.

  20. Ugh – a friend did this to my husband (who is actually his cousin). I haven’t worked with her on anything since college and he’s never worked with her. Since you know the person who will be asking about her (We didn’t, she put us down on a few job applications before he told her to stop it and he wouldn’t lie about how he knew her) I would tell them you have a personal relationship with her and don’t feel comfortable giving a reference. That in itself may imply – hey I don’t want to give this person a recommendation – but you didn’t actually SAY that….

  21. You simply state that you have a personal relationship, and if asked note that she has lots of wonderful qualities as an employee but you are not sure she is quite ready for the challenge of the position she is applying for.

  22. Maybe this is just me, but it strikes me as REALLY inappropriate for an employer to ask someone who is not listed as a reference essentially for a reference. There has GOT to be something wrong with that. I get that it might happen because you’re in a small industry and there are friendships involved here, but . . .

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