Sunday, December 09, 2012

How much truth to tell when referencing a rotten colleague?

Several jobs ago, a senior colleague and I were discussing another colleague whose performance was less than par. The fellow in question was making life fairly miserable for those around him, failing to show up for meetings, blasting angry emails, not acknowledging people who didn't support him, and generally acting churlishly.

My colleague believed this person needed to find a different job, preferably someplace far away. I didn't disagree with his sentiment, but I asked: "Who's going to give him a good reference?"

"I would if it meant getting him out of here," my colleague responded.

It wasn't that my colleague thought he could focus on the positive aspects of this fellow's performance since he didn't believe there were any. It was that he felt that getting him to go someplace else outweighed the importance of being totally truthful about this guy's merits.

I was reminded of my exchange recently when a reader wrote me about finding himself in a similar situation. After dealing with an employee "who stirred up a lot of discontent in the office by his sometimes-abrasive personality," the fellow had the good sense to look for another job.

My reader came back from lunch one day to find that he had a voicemail from a prospective employer who had called to ask some questions about his abrasive colleague.

"I am an honest and (I think) a diplomatic man," my reader wrote. So he struggled with what he would say. Then he remembered that his boss could "sell the guy" a lot better than he could, so he turned the message over to his boss. The boss said what he said, and the abrasive employee got the job. "Whew!" my reader writes. "What a relief!"

But, he asks, whose behavior was more reprehensible - his or his boss's?

My reader didn't lie about his colleague. It's not clear whether his boss did, either. If the boss did lie in response to what he was asked, that would be wrong.

In cases like these, the responsibility for gathering information about an employee falls squarely on the shoulders of the prospective employer seeking the reference. Granted, there are times when the current employer should be forthcoming regardless of the questions asked. If, for example, there's concern about employee or customer safety based on past incidents, the right thing is to tell the prospective employer the facts concerning those incidents.

The right thing in most cases, however, is to respond to the questions asked by a prospective employer. There's no value in blurting out that you simply don't like the guy. If asked if the guy is a good report writer and he's not, it's fair to say that on that job it was not his strength. If asked about whether he showed up on time to meetings, it's fair to say that he did not always do so if that is factually correct.

Regardless of how much you dislike a colleague and would like him to be working some place far, far away, the right thing is never to lie about him or his performance. You needn't disclose more than asked, but the truth about what you are asked will set you, and ideally him, free. 

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 

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(c) 2012 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.