I Just Work Here

References, and how to avoid giving them

Do you give a bad former colleague a recommendation? And why veteran employees think their ways are best

References

A bad co-worker has asked you for a recommendation. Should you turn him or her down? (Alex Mares-Manton, Asia Images / November 11, 2011)

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.

CHICAGO

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