Sunday, September 15, 2013
How to handle a bad reference
The late Pierre Mornell, a renowned psychiatrist and author, was an expert in hiring practices. A particular piece of his wisdom sticks with me and has affected how quickly I respond to emails or calls seeking employment references for former colleagues or students.
Pierre told me that if you're calling a reference you can get a good sense of how highly the person thought of a prospective employee by how quickly he returns your call. If it takes days to get a response, Pierre suggested this might be an indication that you weren't that high on the person and his talents. If you responded within a few hours, it more than likely suggested that you thought enough of the person to want to assist him in getting the new position.
Granted, circumstances sometimes prevented a reference from responding as quickly as they would like to support Mornell's principle. But regardless of where I am when I get a reference call about someone whose work I found strong, I try my best to respond quickly.
Pierre's wisdom about hiring and reference practices would have come in handy for a recent conundrum that came my way.
Several employees at a business have found a recently promoted colleague to be less than exemplary in his new position. His treatment of those reporting to him has been unpleasant and they've found his business practices to be troubling. Still, the elevated employee seemed to have the ear of those above him who didn't seem to be moving fast enough to address the rank-and-file employees' concerns.
As their complaints grew louder and more consistent, however, it appeared that the questionable employee recognized that his long-term viability at the business might be limited. Word got out that he was looking around for new positions elsewhere. The employees reporting to him figured he was looking for a new job while he was still in a position of authority.
The question arose of what these employees would do if by chance they were asked by a prospective employer what it was like to work with this boss. If word was out that their boss was difficult to work with, would they confirm this even if it meant that such confirmation might result in his inability to land a job elsewhere?
One employee suggested that they should smarten up and heap praise upon the fellow if that meant the chances of having him become someone else's employee were increased.
What would Pierre have advised?
The right thing is not to exaggerate about the employee's perceived negative attributes, regardless of your personal feelings. But neither should you concoct a fiction about his positive traits simply to try to get rid of him. Instead, either defer to someone else in your business who might be better able to respond to questions about him or just confirm that you worked with him.
Sure, doing so might send a message that by not saying anything you don't have anything good to say. But that's a better approach than being untruthful about the person. Lying calls your integrity into question, not his. If you wait a few days before responding to any request for a reference, however, that might speak volumes.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin
Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to email@example.com.