RedEye

References, and how to avoid giving them

Not long after becoming America's most beloved workplace-advice columnist (self-proclaimed), I learned that our nation's economy is based largely on companies that generate surveys about workplace issues.

Approximately every 12 seconds, I receive a press release about an exciting new survey that reveals fascinating insight into how the average American worker feels about solar-powered pencil sharpeners, edible timecards or not being killed by lions.

Consider this: A company called Kronos Inc. runs a thing called The Workforce Institute, which recently hired a company called Harris Interactive to conduct a survey that found that 82 percent of employed adults in Mexico "currently use or have in the past used a time clock to clock in and out of work."

Did you know that? Of course you didn't, because why on Earth would you want to?

And yet every day there are more. It's an endless spigot of navel-gazing workplace data.

My only hope is that I soon receive an email announcing that 100 percent of Rex Huppkes agree that emails about surveys should, like asbestos, be banned.

On to your questions:

Q: A person I worked with at my last job was let go, and he just requested I write him a recommendation. This co-worker was not the best employee, and I do not want to write him a recommendation, but I do feel bad he is unemployed. Should I write a vague recommendation? Politely decline? Ignore the situation?

— Anonymous, via Facebook

A: Well, when someone hands you a stinky kettle of fish, don't try telling them it smells like roses. (For more delightful aphorisms, check out my book, "Unhelpful Sayings Guaranteed to Annoy.")

The short answer to this painfully awkward situation is, tell the truth.

"References really matter," said Dan Schawbel, a personal branding expert and author of "Me 2.0: 4 Steps to Building Your Future."

"Whether they're written on LinkedIn or if it's a phone call reference, it can make a real difference, so you need to be truthful."

There are several reasons for this, aside from the basic fact that lying is wrong.

From a selfish standpoint, you put your own reputation on the line when you recommend someone for a job. If you vouch for a person you know isn't qualified, and that person doesn't work out, the company won't trust you. It's a small business world; why sully your own image?

You're also not doing the worker any favors by recommending him for a job that won't fit his skill set. Tom Gimbel, president and chief executive of LaSalle Network, a Chicago-based staffing and recruiting firm, said dishonest references just set up potential employees for further failure.

"In the recruiting business, we put a lot of weight on references," Gimbel said. "But in most offices you can look around and see people who aren't good, have bad attitudes and their work product stinks, and everyone wonders how they ever got the job. People suffer as a result."

So, how do you break it to the person seeking a reference?

Schawbel suggested identifying the person's strengths and weaknesses, and then explaining why the particular job might not be a strong fit.

"There's a company for everyone," Schawbel said. "Tell them you'd only feel comfortable recommending them for the right opportunities. Say, 'Hey, I think you'd be a better fit for a different type of role.'"

There's no easy way to do that, but by kindly offering an honest assessment of the person's strengths and weaknesses you can help that person avoid mistakes.

I believe it was me who once said, "You don't give a kid medicine because it tastes good." Just keep that completely useless phrase in mind, and everything should work out fine.

Q: How do you deal with a co-worker who thinks that because they have been there longer and are older, they know more than you about how best to do the job?

— Anonymous, via email

A: I imagine there are many elves at the North Pole who have similar thoughts about Santa Claus: "Just 'cause you've got that fancy beard and have been doing this forever doesn't mean you know the best way to make a wagon, chubby."

It's a dilemma. We're generally taught to respect our elders, but the reality is, people who haven't been in the same job half their lives often bring some clearer thinking and innovation to the table. And the people who have been in the same job a long time rarely embrace change.

The key, as is so often the case, is striking a respectful balance.

Oregon-based career coach Dorothy Tannahill Moran gave me several suggestions for deftly handling a veteran co-worker.

First, humble thyself. Though you think your way is best, it's always worth listening to another person's approach. You might find they do know more than you do, or there might be something helpful in their suggestion.

Next, keep in mind that when someone gives you advice, it's usually coming from a good place. They want to be helpful, and workplace relationships are built on a foundation of support and idea sharing. If you're dismissive, it's just going to create tension and, possibly, hurt feelings.

Finally, ask the veteran whether he or she has seen anything wrong with your work, any specific part of your performance that isn't up to par. You might find there are areas that need to be addressed. Or, at that point, it might be clear the two of you have different ways of doing things, and you can explain why you work the way you do.

The key in all this, Moran said, is to never let the discussion get confrontational.

Unless you're dealing with Santa. That guy's a total prima donna. (Just kidding, Santa! Please bring me a new iPhone!!)

TALK TO REX: Ask workplace questions — anonymously or by name — and share stories with Rex Huppke at ijustworkhere@tribune.com, like Rex on Facebook at facebook.com/rexworkshere and find more at chicagotribune.com/ijustworkhere.

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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