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A few years ago I was a project leader. Someone who worked on that project often uses me as a reference, even though neither of us are on that project or with that employer any more. This person was excellent technically. Unfortunately, the person lacked social skills and shunned most social interactions. From the number of reference requests I receive, I know the person has had some difficulty finding and keeping employment and suspect their problems with social interactions are the cause.

Whenever a reference request for this person comes to me, I always try to stress the person's technical skills. With some reference requests, this is all that is asked. However, some potential employers want to know about the person's social skills, having observed related issues in an interview. For these, I usually try to say something about how the person is socially awkward, but a good person. This never feels quite right.

How can I provide a truthful reference that minimizes or even eliminates the issues with the person's social skills?

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    However you end up writing it, it would be best to say "In my personal opinion". The person requesting your input doesn't know how you personally define social skills and just saying "he lacks social skills" would be wrong. – happybuddha Jun 10 '13 at 15:04
  • @happybuddha: Thanks for the recommendation. While I like the idea, I am usually making these references in telephone calls, where I have less time to think about my response. – GreenMatt Jun 10 '13 at 15:41
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    You always have the option to "no comment" or "I keep that to myself". And IMO reference check is normally superficial, just verifies that prev. workplace and position actually existed. – Balog Pal Jun 10 '13 at 16:17
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    @GreenMatt in regards to your "phone call" comment, i'd recommend keeping a .txt or something of the sort on your desktop. In it, include what you want to say about the individual. Thus, when someone calls in, you can quickly open it up and have something to look off of/notes to use. – acolyte Jun 10 '13 at 18:14
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    Are you in communication with this person? Are they asking you for your permission to use you as a reference? Have you explained that you feel uncomfortable wholeheartedly recommending them due to their social awkwardness? – jmac Jun 10 '13 at 23:45
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I'd say that you could address "social skills" as skills at being a team player and skip anything related to awkwardness in informal interation. If the awkwardness is more that the person doesn't do chit-chat, go to group lunches, or form friendships on the team - then there's no real reason to mention it.

Instead, focus on skills within being part of a functional team. Did the person:

  • tell you in a clear and timely way about issues that may impact the work?
  • communicate well enough with others - both teaching and learning from other members of the team?
  • could the person be trusted to complete work on time, and in a way that didn't hurt other parts of the project?

If the answer here is an unqualified yes, then dredge up some good examples of this behavior and use that as examples of being a good team player.

If the person is so disconnected from other people on the team that your answer here isn't so totally positive, then I'm not sure you can give an unqualified, 100% positive review -- these are issues I'd want to know as a reference-checker, because they could very well impact this person's ability to be successful on the team.

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    I agree in general with this. I might also frame it in a "when I worked with them, this was a weakness that they were working on". Poor soft skills aren't exactly uncommon, and are usually only a showstopper when the candidate is completely oblivious of them. – Telastyn Jun 10 '13 at 14:36
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The real solution here is to ask that person to stop using you as an employment reference. This cannot go on forever. The project on which you once worked together has receded into the past and is becoming less and less relevant; he has milked it for all the references it can possibly generate already.

When will it be enough? When the project was 10 years ago? 15? 20?

Employment references should be from the immediately previous employment, or maybe from the one before that, and no farther. Ideally, they should be people who are superior to the candidate, like direct managers or senior ones and who still work at that company and not coworkers. (A team lead is not a manager; just a coworker in a prominent position.)

So in several ways, you're a weak reference: convince the guy that this is the case. It was long ago; none of you work at that company any more and have both had a number of jobs since (or perhaps at least you have) and you were never his manager. Consequently explain to him that it therefore looks bad to be using such "stale" reference, and raises red flag with prospective employers! (So, stop it already).

It raises a red flag for a number of reasons one of which is simply the suspicion that you two are friends. If you use a reference from someone on a job that was many years ago, it looks like you are just buddies (why else would you still be in touch?), and buddies give good references, of course: to each other. (Modern analogy: search engine spammers, who create seemingly independent web pages that all point to each other in an attempt to fool page ranking algorithms.)

Another red flag is that someone digging in the distant past for old references is probably doing that because he cannot get good recent references. He managed to get a good job once where he did okay, and that's all he has.

None of the possible reasons for using this type of reference look any good, from just about any angle.

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    Your rules don't make sense for everyone - one job I had lasted over 10 years; following your rules, I wouldn't have had references for my next job. Also, some potential references move a lot and you can't keep track of them, even if it's only a couple years; other people stay in one place for a long time and are easy to find. Things like LinkedIn help, but not everyone is on it. And a Team Lead is not a manager? I guess that depends on where you work. Anyway, this person and I stopped working together 3-4 years ago; I think he's had 2 employers since that one, so it seems reasonable to me. – GreenMatt Jun 11 '13 at 13:40
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I don't think 'no comment' would be a very good response.

You can ask the interviewer what their concern is. They're probably trying to figure out if he was awkward because it was an interview.

Given that the interviewer noticed something during the interview, I will assume that he isn't one for small talk. If he is just awkward in social situations that require casual conversation that isn't project related you could say, "He isn't much for small talk, but when he does have something to say it is worth listening to."

Does he have problems talking about project related things? You could say something like "With encouragement he verb ... whatever is appropriate."

Try to think of situations where he does best and you can phrase it as "He does best in such and such a situation."

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"How can I provide a truthful reference that minimizes or even eliminates the issues with the person's social skills?"

That persons' social skills are his issue - not yours.

It is commendable that you do not voluntarily offer information that could be negative, but that is the best you can do. The interviewer will notice when you hesitate answering and try to circumvent the question - which is exactly (part of) his job.

The best you can do is what is always suggested about interview questions: "If it is a specific question about a negative, add what you did to turn that into a positive". In the third person: "He is aware that X is not his strong point, and is trying to change that"
(I'm assuming there's some truth in that statement).

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    I don't actually have much contact with them now, so can't say if they really are "trying to change that". Is there anything else you suggest? – GreenMatt Jun 10 '13 at 18:05
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In my opinion there is an opportunity to be constructive here, and help steer your former colleague into a position with the new employer where they can be successful. Given your experience with the person, you know the kinds of situations where the person can be successful, and the kinds of situations where they are unlikely to be (or will need more support).

I think it would be perfectly ethical -- and helpful -- to say things like, he/she wouldn't work out in a customer-facing role. And to talk about the kinds of situations where the person was productive, and why, e.g. the person worked well when paired with someone who helped to communicate with customers, or the person worked well when they were given a project to do with clear guidance and regular but relatively infrequent reviews, etc.

Given the employer has doubts, giving them examples in which the person can be productive ought to help the person get the job, and do well in it. Conversely, it is in no-one's interests for the person to get a sales or customer support job which would inevitably lead to another black hole on their resume / CV.

Many managers value the ability to get results as much as social ability (because no matter how pleasant the person is, if they can't do the job, you have a real problem). Finally, in my experience, it takes all types to make a successful team, and good managers know this.

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I'm not sure you can depending on how deep the interviewer probes. I can't imagine the questions are that specific (Maybe an example could be provided?). Interviewers are going to pick up on the awkwardness during the interview (if they don't it may not be that big of a deal) and for you to deny there is a problem if asked directly, may invalidate your entire reference. This person is technically competent and able to function in the workplace.

You need to have a discussion with this person and stress that you are going to give an objective reference (based on your post it sounds like you are intent on being honest). It is up to him to continue to use you.

This may provide this person with the opportunity to work on it or get some help. They say the first step is to admit there is a problem.

  • While good advice, this doesn't address the question I asked. – GreenMatt Jun 10 '13 at 17:49

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