I work at a multi-location company, on a project involving people from different offices. I had a co-worker at another location who worked on the same project as me for a few months. Recently she was fired (I don't know any details, but it was quite abrupt).

A few weeks later she approached me because she was up for a job interview and she needs references from previous employments. I'd like to help her, so I gave her permission to use my contact information for reference.

I don't expect the prospective employer to actually contact me, but in any case - shall I mention to the prospective employer that she was actually fired, not simply "being redundant"?

She wasn't that bad for her job (I've seen worse and lot worse), but wasn't particularly good either and was pretty high-maintenance, bordering on annoyance (but this was partly due to the project setup) - shall I recommend her and stress the positives, be as diplomatic as I can and avoid the negative stuff, or be blunt (deep down inside I feel I wouldn't want to work with her in the future)?

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    You want to help her for some unknown reason, so why would you contemplate being 'blunt'? – Kilisi Sep 18 at 10:01
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    Do you know for a fact she was fired? Seems like speculation here would be bad. – Jamie Clinton Sep 18 at 17:23
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    I knew someone who asked their former boss for a recommendation and the boss agreed, then told people who called that this person showed up late and didn't work hard. If your ethics demand honesty that will hurt their chances, that's fine. But if it's not a glowing endorsement, you need to make it clear to the person asking for a recommendation what and why you'll say. – iabw Sep 19 at 12:23
up vote 20 down vote accepted

Recently she was fired (I don't know any details, but it was quite abrupt).

shall I mention to the prospective employee that she was actively fired, not simply "being redundant"?

No. You already stated you don't know any of the circumstances or details around the end of her employment. Since you do not know the circumstances, it would not be appropriate for you to speak to issues that you do not have knowledge about.

If they ask about why she left, simply say "I don't know anything about the circumstances around her employment ending."

Speak to what you do know about - was she technically competent? A good team member? What were her strengths? Etc. If they're looking to see if there was a big stink involved, maybe they'll ask "If you were hiring for a project, would you hire her?" Then, go ahead and answer truthfully, if you are comfortable making that kind of assessment. If not, just say that, since you're not at the level where you supervise her level of worker, you're not comfortable making that assessment, but you did find her to be an excellent (or not so great) peer.

If they're fishing for information on why she left your company, you simply don't know. Anything you say would be uninformed gossip or speculation, and you are there to share knowledge you have.

shall I mention to the prospective employee that she was actively fired, not simply "being redundant"?

You shall mention and answer what they ask you, and in a way you feel comfortable.

You say you are not sure on the reasons why she was let go, so you can't honestly answer such questions and would be better if you refrained from speculating on the reason in case you were asked about it.

Instead, try to focus on the positive aspects you recall of her, or the way you interacted with her in the past. Try to keep it professional; if you are not sure what to answer it's better to say you are not sure than to make something up that could backfire on your former colleague.

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    I feel if you you agree to be reference for somebody, you should only mention positive and neutral points. Do not say anything negative whatsoever about her – VarunAgw Sep 18 at 19:52

You say you want to help her, so help her. Stress the positives, avoid the negatives, and hope that someone will be willing to do the same for you in your hour of need. If you don't feel comfortable saying nice things about her, you shouldn't have agreed to give her a reference.

It may help to keep in mind, a glowing reference from you does not necessarily mean she will be hired but a mediocre reference from you will likely be her downfall. Hiring managers tend to have way too many candidates for any given position and sub par references are an easy way to filter people out. After your reference comes through she still has to get through technical exams, interviews, presentations, etc. All these stages are designed to poke holes in someone who superficially appears to be a strong candidate.

Imagine that she's on trial and you're her defense attorney. Having seen all the evidence, you know both sides of the case but your job is to be her advocate. The hiring manager(s) will be aware of your bias and will most likely not take everything you say at face value. You're helping her get her foot in the door--nothing more.

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    "sub par references are an easy way to filter people out" - that only applies if references are taken up before a job offer is made. In the UK at least it is the other way round: job offers are made "subject to satisfactory references" - which means that if the references are not satisfactory, you have to offer to your second choice candidate, or even restart interviews. – Martin Bonner Sep 18 at 7:08
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    I was going to write an answer but "If you don't feel comfortable saying nice things about her, you shouldn't have agreed to give her a reference." is a cohesive summary of what I was going to write. – MonkeyZeus Sep 18 at 13:51
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    Hiring managers may not have many candidates. That can differ widely. Reasons for few candidates can be a special job, or to few applicants on the market for reasons we might not know (A company, big or newly founded, got all local candidates employed). And there can be many errors in advertising the job opportunity. Maybe only you know of the job, because the task of publicizing just was not done correctly, and nobody noticed. – Volker Siegel Sep 19 at 0:29

I'm unsure of the standards of professionalism within all fields, but in engineering, if someone asks you for a reference and you agree to provide one, it is not appropriate to offer up negative information about that person when a prospective employers reaches out to check references. It's important to remember, someone who was fired is under a lot of stress and doing a lot of work to find a new job. To do otherwise, is a pretty substantial breach of trust and pretty much torpedos a lot of their work effort.

This is not to mean that you should lie, but when asked questions about the applicant you should present the information in the best light you feel you are able. For example, if asked why are they no longer working at your company, your response should be along the lines that, "You aren't familiar with the nature of their leaving," which is true unless you were directly connected with that person's firing.

This should not suggest that you need to heap praise, either. Simply provide an honest accounting of how your interactions with that person.

If you feel like you cannot do this (i.e. you genuinely don't think this person is qualified at this position and should not be employed doing it) then you've an obligation to inform them that you are requesting to withdraw your recommendation. It is extremely unfair and unprofessional to do otherwise. The reasons being that you'll seriously harm their chances of future success and they will have no idea why (most people checking references aren't going to report a negative one back to the applicant).

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    No, that's wrong. If you agree to provide a reference, you give an accurate reference. Good or bad. It is appropriate for you to refuse to provide a reference if you don't wish to give one or would only say bad things, but if you give one, be honest. Nor is a glowing reccommendation what I'd want talking to a reference- if you gloss over the truth to only say positives I'm going to dock him points for your lack of honesty, or at least discount your reference entirely. – Gabe Sechan Sep 18 at 19:57
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    I didn't say they should be inaccurate. I said don't offer negative information. Furthermore, if you agree to provide a reference to someone, you have implied that you feel positively about your interactions with them and would recommend them to other positions based on that interaction. If you don't feel that way, that's fine, but at least let the applicant know you feel that way. In the same way that it would be unprofessional for an applicant to list a reference without asking first, it is also unprofessional for a reference to speak disparagingly about someone they agreed to vouch for. – Pyrotechnical Sep 18 at 20:02
  • No, if you agree to give a reference, you agree to give one honestly. Its unprofessional to lie and make it positive if you don't feel that way. It is not unprofessional in the least to give a negative recommendation, although I wouldn't do that to anyone who didn't deserve it. And having listened to references, if you don't provide some negatives I just discount you entirely as not being honest. In that case you actually did worse to the candidate than if you had refused entirely. – Gabe Sechan Sep 18 at 20:04
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    I feel like you're trying to twist my answer to say that you should only be positive. That's not what I'm saying, I'm saying be honest and don't offer up negative information that isn't asked for. If you have to offer negative information because it's requested, present it in the most positive manner you can. You agreed to be a reference, there was an implication when you did that; if you can't do that in good conscious then rescind the offer. Were I an applicant, I'd rather not have you as a reference if someone calls and you say, "Oh yeah, they were fired and rightfully so!" – Pyrotechnical Sep 18 at 20:08
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    Then you should talk about why you're going to do that with the applicant so they've a chance to address that with you. What you're referring to is akin to casually sabotaging the massive effort of a job search that has progressed to the point of a reference check. You've given them no opportunity to address your concerns and instead gone behind their back and reported your dislikes for them in a manner that will only harm them as well as their future potential. Furthermore, they will continue going forward not knowing why they can't seem to get a job, so they've no chance for improvement. – Pyrotechnical Sep 18 at 20:15

If this is someone who you really don't recommend - you say she is mediocre at best, then if you do recommend her and she is hired, and then doesn't work out - all that will reflect badly on you.

Your best bet is to call her back and tell her you've reconsidered, and you would rather not act as a reference.

If you are unwilling to do that, while you should not say anything negative that you are not completely sure about, you should also not say anything positive that overlooks the negatives. You're best option is to say that you have worked with her, and then answer questions honestly. Don't volunteer negative information, but also do not withhold it when asked.

Because if she is hired at your company, based at least partly on your recommendation, and then does not work out - you lose credibility, at best. The next time you recommend someone, perhaps someone you really do think is a good choice, they will doubt the recommendation. You will be seen as someone who can't identify good work. There is a large risk to you, and it is better to say nothing than to say good things that are not deserved.

Update: I read this that they worked together, OP moved to a new job, and then the former co-worker was fired, and was applying at OP's company. She is simply asking for the OP to be a general reference at other companies.

In that case, the hit to the OP's reputation is not so dire. But if you don't think she is that good of a worker, you should let her know that she shouldn't use you as a reference. You still need to give an honest response, and it doesn't sound like an honest response will be much of a recommendation.

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    Re: "if she is hired at your company": If I've read the question correctly, she was fired from the OP's company, and is interviewing at a different company. So I think the credibility concerns are somewhat reduced. But I'm upvoting this answer because even so, it's by far the best one on this page. It's simply unethical for the OP to proceed without telling her that she shouldn't list the OP has a reference. (It may already be too late for this interview, but she needs to know for the future.) – ruakh Sep 17 at 23:57
  • @ruakh - oh! yes, I read it wrong - I read it that they worked together, and then she was applying where OP is currently working. I'll need to modify the answer. – thursdaysgeek Sep 18 at 0:02

If you don't feel comfortable giving a positive feedback about a person to the prospective employers ("I feel I wouldn't want to work with her in the future"), I suggest you don't agree to provide a reference altogether.

Since you already agreed to provide a reference, withdrawing your consent now would damage your relationship. I therefore recommend to provide a good (even if embellished) reference: if you embellish too much you risk nothing. On the other hand, if you give a bad reference which could be interpreted as not completely truthful, you risk a defamation lawsuit.

For example, you don't know for a fact why your colleague was fired. If you tell her prospective employer she was "actively fired", that could be interpreted as a hint that she performed poorly or was otherwise problematic, and you will have a hard time arguing in court that it's not what you meant.

You should only answer that you worked with her for what period and in what position.

Don't give any other information at all about how much you liked working together, the circumstances about why she left or how good or mediocre her work was. These are all things which will impact her chances of getting the new job or not.

This is private information and you should not give that out. Also if you give out this information and it gets her a rejection at a new job, she could sue you and your employer and win.

In the end: don't trust some random person on the internet, go to HR and ask them what to do.

  • Why the -1? This is the only right answer. I know on a human level it is not a "likeable" answer. It is much nicer to help people. But in these cases you have to consider the legal implications, and that makes you do not the likeable thing but the thing that protects you best. – Pieter B Sep 18 at 10:34
  • Also, you should check with your company to see if they have a policy. I know where I work, we are not allowed to give any feedback and can only direct them to a number to call that would verify employment. – sous2817 Sep 18 at 18:54
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    Because references have nothing to do with company policy, and you aren't the corporate HR department. If you don't want to give a reference, tell them not to use you. But if you agree to give one, don't pull the HR garbage. – Gabe Sechan Sep 18 at 19:58
  • @GabeSechan not where I live. References are very much legalized. As a company, person working for a company, you are only allowed to give "relevant" information. And that's where company have lost a lot of money over. – Pieter B Sep 19 at 7:05
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    @PieterB No, where you live too. You are allowed to give whatever information you wish. They have no legal right to stop you, and definitely no moral ground. Unless you're an HR employee giving a recommendation on behalf of the company, there is no legal liability for what you say on the company for a personal recommendation. The myth of people successfully suing for bad recommendations is just that- a myth. Its only when a company lies on the recommendation that its open to any liability. And none from a personal rec. – Gabe Sechan Sep 19 at 7:12

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