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A friend of mine asked me if I could be a reference for them. Both of us used to work for the same company, in the same department, until they were fired by our shared manager. Reasons were presented to the remaining developers for my friend's termination, but I wasn't (and am still not) in a position to evaluate the legitimacy of these reasons.

Anyway, like I said, this friend asked me to be a reference to them. This prospective employer called me up and asked me why they left. I don't know what my friend told them about the reasons for his departure. Certainly I could ask but, at the time of this phone call, I hadn't (because I didn't think of it).

My question is, in lieu of knowing what my friend told them for the reasons for his departure, what should I say? It seems like I have three options.

  1. I could tell the truth - that my friend was fired and that I'm not in a position to establish the veracity of the claims made against him. I could also say that, due to internal power struggles or some such he had been planning on leaving on his own, but that the early departure took him by surprise. If my friend didn't tell this to the prospective employer then I've potentially undermined him, which I don't want to do.

  2. I could misrepresent the circumstances and say something about how each successive year you learn less and less at a company, and that my friend left because he felt he could learn more at a new company. If my friend told the prospective employer the truth then I've potentially undermined my own credibility and usefulness as a reference.

  3. I suppose I could also refuse to answer saying something like "it's my understanding that there are some things I am not supposed to comment on", but at the same time, if I wasn't willing to comment on things I shouldn't have volunteered to be a reference in the first place IMHO.

Ideally, I'd have consulted with my friend so that we would be on the same page, but at the time of this phone call I had not done so (like I said, I didn't think of it).

So what would have been the best strategy in this situation?

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    What's wrong with "I don't know."? – Cypher Jul 24 at 19:18
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There is no good answer you can give to this question, so IMHO the best answer is to not answer.

I do not know the exact circumstances under which <friend> and <company> parted ways, so it would be improper for me to speculate on them.

You've heard your friend's side of the story, and you were given the company's official side of the story. The truth probably lies somewhere between those two, but exactly where on the spectrum is something you aren't privy to.

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    "the company's official side" every time I have heard that it bears no relation to what really happened... It is always company BS... – Solar Mike Jul 24 at 6:07
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    Additionally, this example quote is better than the one provided in the asker's #3 in that it is neutral. The phrase "not supposed to comment on" may raise questions about what you're hiding and who you're protecting (it sounds like someone asked/coerced you into silence on this matter), whereas the example here generally indicates that you wish to remain impartial, favoring neither party. – Phlarx Jul 24 at 17:58
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    I do like this answer, but I just want to add... Since this person is your friend, if you want to be friendly and help them, you can still attest to the person's character. "I don't really know why they were fired, but I know this person outside of work and they have always been honest, helpful, etc" – industry7 Jul 25 at 19:05
  • Yep, having been in this situation, this is almost exactly what I told them. – reirab Jul 25 at 21:38
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    @industry7 But this way, you say more about their departure (that they were fired) than in the answer's suggested "parted ways." – Angew Jul 26 at 12:03
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I wouldn't go into the reasons they left the position. As a reference you can vouch for their skills, or comment on their work ethic and professionalism, or mention their achievements or experience. But the reason they're looking for another position is something the company should be asking the potential employee, not their reference.

You can just let the potential employer know that it would be best to ask your friend about that.

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    Exactly. Be a reference for what they can do, not for why they stopped doing it. – Mast Jul 26 at 6:06
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My question is, in lieu of knowing what my friend told them for the reasons for his departure, what should I say?

You've heard both sides of the story, but you probably don't know the entire truth of the situation. It isn't for you to speculate, presume, assume, or make any statements on the why of it.

As such, you should say that you're not in a position to know or speak about the reasons.

  • As has been said elsewhere - "There are 3 sides to every story, his side, her side and the truth". Feel free to mix the genders as you please :) – KevinDTimm Jul 26 at 13:49
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I wonder what is the country where the hiring managers engage in such idle and unproductive gossip as trying to find out why somebody left, was laid off, or was fired from the previous position.

First of all, anyone with an IQ above 75 and more than 5 years of work experience knows for a fact that the one true overriding reason for getting rid of people is that they became expendable in the eyes of the current management. Everything else is just "he said, she said" fluff and BS that people tell themselves to justify the decision made.

Short of the guy killing somebody on the job or burning down the office building, there is no objective "truth" as to why anyone was let go from their previous job; it is all just perceptions.

Second, but not necessary less important: asking somebody for "corporate dirt" on somebody else puts the interrogated person in an very uncomfortable position of having to divulge internal information that companies are typically extremely unwilling to share (employees don't exist in a vacuum, so talking details about somebody's work you may divulge confidential or proprietary information about company's plans, technology, products, etc.).

And asking the applicant directly puts that applicant into a position to violate one of the sacred rules of interviews: you never bad-mouth your former employer.

For example, I was once let go from a company, because the manager was explicitly prejudiced against my ethnicity. Since I was not interested suing that company or creating any kind of drama around that manager in our small professional community, I would obviously have to give a "generic answer" (i.e. lie) to "why were you let go"?

Fortunately, none of my next employers were stupid or inexperienced enough to ask the question you are not supposed to ask for reasons obvious to anyone with half a brain.

Dismiss the question with: "He was a competent employee and a good colleague (if you believe that). Beyond that, I don't know any hard facts, so it would be wrong for me to speculate."

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    Agreed, the question should not have been asked. An HR person once told me she couldn't even ask that question from a legal standpoint. She said a few things that weren't entirely accurate, so I'm not sure it's true, but it's not a good question either way. – JackArbiter Jul 24 at 20:26
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    Re what is the country: Given the homonym/homophone error (than vs. then), the OP is mostly likely a native speaker from the USA (southern USA?). – Peter Mortensen Jul 25 at 9:55
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    ^ I love that deduction. – onnoweb Jul 25 at 17:00
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    "He was a competent employee and a good colleague. Beyond that, I don't know any hard facts, so it would be wrong for me to speculate." Beautiful. – Thomas W Jul 25 at 23:58
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What's wrong with both you, and your friend, telling the truth?

That is:

  • your friend should have contacted you beforehand and asked, "Would you be a good reference? What will you say about my departure?"
  • to which you respond, "I'll tell the truth: the company terminated your employment for reasons that I don't necessarily agree; however, I personally found my colleague to be a very capable and productive member of our team. I would welcome the opportunity to work with him/her again".
  • your friend should then be just as candid with the hiring company, explaining the circumstances as best they can, and what they may have done differently.

It's ludicrous to think that a hiring company should not question an employee's prior employment history. By sticking to the truth, the hiring company knows that they are dealing with an honest and forthright candidate.

If the company doesn't value that, perhaps the candidate should pass on the opportunity. I would.

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    Especially this because the friend did apparently not provide a manager to be their reference. Usually that already indicates the departure wasn't amicable. – Weckar E. Jul 25 at 1:07
  • "What's wrong with both you, and your friend, telling the truth?". The OP doesn't know what 'the truth' is (as was stated in his/her question) – KevinDTimm Jul 26 at 13:51
  • @KevinDTimm knowing the 'truth' doesn't mean knowing whether management's reasons for terminating the employee were legitimate. The OP said he doesn't know that, but he/she certainly does know what's true: the employee was terminated, he doesn't necessarily agree with reasons, and he has a personal opinion on the employee's performance. – Craig Jul 26 at 17:51
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You may want to check with your HR department what your company policy is with regard to to giving references.

If the policy is We only confirm dates worked, as it is in many places, then you can legitimately say

My company policy is that I am only allowed to confirm the dates they worked, X to Y.

I am sorry that I can't be of any more help.

It's even possible that your company rules may prohibit you from giving references for a former colleague at all, in which case the response could be something along the lines of

I am sorry, but it has been brought to my attention that it is company policy for HR to deal with all reference requests.

This may not be the best outcome for your friend, but it is certainly not the worst, and it will raise fewer red flags than the best alternative, if it is possible.

Being caught in a lie, could be bad for your friend, bad for you, or even bad for both of you!

Ultimately, my suggestion is about trying to find a plausible reason not to answer the question without lying, either in fact or omission.

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    Re: checking with my HR department... presumably an HR department is concerned chiefly with reducing the companies exposure to lawsuits. Pursuant to that they would probably advise everyone never ever be a reference for any former employees. Ever. I mean, of what concern is it to the HR department if former employees can't find references so long as the companies liability is reduced? Even talking about how they were as a coworker could segue into sensitive information potentially so best just not to do it from their perspective. – neubert Jul 26 at 12:38
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    In my world, the company policy about references is irrelevant. I'm just a co-worker and have no standing as a representative of the company. Professional references, employee to employee, are just that - my opinion of that person as an employee. Note that if I were their boss this would have bearing. – KevinDTimm Jul 26 at 13:53
  • Thanks for the comments, hopefully my edits address your substantive points. – Mark Booth Jul 26 at 15:00
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My question is, in lieu of knowing what my friend told them for the reasons for his departure, what should I say?

I would have said that I gave a reference based on my knowledge of his work and suitability for the role, however I don't think it's appropriate to discuss personal conversations we have had.

You should probably have said that if you were the type of person to divulge a personal conversation, you clearly wouldn't be someone your work colleagues could trust.

If you insist on saying more (which I would not recommend) then I'd limit it to something vague, e.g. You don't know the full story but it was apparently quite a shock to your friend from what you understand. The big problem with going this route is that one answer may be followed by more questions. You're better off making a single statement, citing confidential and personal conversation as a reason not to give any response and sticking to that rigidly.

You could be asked flatly if you trust this person. You need an answer ready and be aware that you could be held accountable for your views. Obviously no one here can tell you what to say to such a question.

I could tell the truth

If you insist on saying anything tell the truth as you know it. Making something up won't help you or them and does a disservice to the prospective employer. In fairness to the employer you either tell them nothing ("confidential conversation") or you tell them exactly what you know. Lies tend to sound like lies. Evasion sounds like evasion. Either let the employer make up their own mind without the bias of a lie or tell them the truth.

Your friend did not seem to ask you to lie, so don't. A lie from you could be different from the truth if your friend said that to his prospective employer and it might look like they lied when they didn't. Stick to what you know.

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“I think he felt it was time to move on with his career and explore new opportunities.”

That covers every set of circumstances without saying anything that can be used against him, you, or your employer.

Unless you are saying something that completely exonerates the applicant (e.g. “the company went broke”) then say nothing at all but use a lot of words to cover the fact that you are saying nothing.

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    But if you know he was fired for theft, then isn't that a lie? – Solar Mike Jul 26 at 10:10
  • Nope. If someone was fired for misconduct then they would know it is time to move on and look for different career opportunities. You aren’t lying, just leaving out part of the story that you have no obligation to tell. If you wanted to do him harm by saying things that will sink his chances then the question being asked does not arise. – jwpfox Jul 26 at 11:16
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    “We gave him/her the opportunity to explore new career opportunities” is a common euphemism for giving someone the sack. – jwpfox Jul 26 at 11:19
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    That is a phrase used by the employer, not a colleague... – Solar Mike Jul 26 at 11:21
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    Yes, of course. That’s why a colleague uses the phrase appropriate for a colleague that I gave in the answer. You seem to be arguing for the sake of it at this point. Bye. – jwpfox Jul 26 at 11:24

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