How do I gracefully ask former co-workers what they thought of me and my work?


I recently got laid off and have been organizing my resume. I'm finding that personal branding is important for a resume now, and while it sounds unnecessary in my case (as a non-freelance web developer), I'm willing to give it a go.

I'm not very good at evaluating my strengths, though, and I can't really ask my friends outside of work about what I do well in a work scenario. Problem is, while I got along with my co-workers and I do have their contact information, I didn't really click with any of them beyond being acquaintances. Asking them directly what they thought of me and how I worked seems abrupt.

Is there a more conversational way to approach the topic?

  • 1
    The 'not clicking' was a team effort. I'm not good at connecting with people beyond acquaintances, but I can. It's just very hard if the other party isn't interested. Granted, I'm a web developer; so not being interested in being friends with co-workers seems to be more normal in my industry. – GrayIris Jul 16 '20 at 22:15

First off, good on you for having such a healthy attitude to constructive criticism and feedback. Many people don't realise they can't be above average at everything and so take negative feedback as a personal insult or allow it to knock their confidence rather than spur them on.

My view in performance reviews has always been "tell me the bad stuff". Yes a little praise is nice (and the salary it brings is nicer), but that's the stuff I already have a handle on so let's not dwell too long on it. If I don't know where I need to improve, how can I concentrate on improving that aspect of my performance.

To get to your question: "Ask them" is the easy answer.

However, if they are personal friends or even just decent humans, they are likely to sugar coat their thoughts to (a) protect your feelings and (b) protect their own brand/career/reputation. This is likely to happen no matter how much you insist you want them to be completely honest.

My suggestions would be to

  • Ask them for areas where they think you can improve or strengthen your skills. This will allow them to offer general criticism without calling out explicit incidents or expressing exactly how negative they are being.
  • Speak to them individually and explain your are looking for a full and frank, no holds barred assessment of your strengths and weaknesses. Explain that you want them to be brutally honest but you don't want to put them in an awkward position of criticising you in person. Then ask if they would complete an anonymous survey that N other people have also agreed to complete. Some people will politely refuse and some will still sugar coat their feedback but you are more likely to get the real honest answers. (Assuming that's what you're after?)

(Obviously if you go the survey route, you secretly send each participant a different survey so you know exactly who said what and can begin planning your revenge. This is a joke - don't do that. It would be deceitful and, to be honest, you're probably better not knowing who said what).

  • Thanks for the thought-out response. I hadn't considered making the request into more of one for places where I can improve, but that's a good idea. I've sent a couple emails out to some of the people I worked closely with, and I'll just have to see how that goes. – GrayIris Jul 23 '20 at 19:08

I don't know your budget.

A relatively inexpensive approach is to take the Gallup Strengths Finder. This is a conversation you have with yourself.

Another more expensive approach is to hire an ICF-certified executive coach who is also certified in conducting and debriefing 360 assessments (google 360 assessments for more info).

The coach will ask your colleagues to provide survey feedback without being specifically identified back to you. Thus, they're more willing to participate and be truthful.

Once you get the feedback via your coach, s/he can also help you craft and execute a personal development plan.

  • You have to know what you offer, including your strengths, match them to what the market wants, and then develop your pitch. Otherwise, you're just saying, "Buy this," with no explanation as to why that would be something someone else should do. Also, let me note that I'm answering the question posed by the poster. You've already expressed your opinion about the question, but you haven't answered it. – Donna Aug 5 '20 at 15:31

Honestly ... "your co-workers have moved on, too." If they had anything good-or-bad to say about you they probably wouldn't ... and I'd say they'd be well-advised not to do so.

Just get right back out there in the professional job-market. (In my candid and blunt opinion, "LinkedIn's" notion that "your [past ...] network" is of any value to you at all – is a myth. You need to learn how to be a salesman," and this time "your bag full of Fuller Brushes®" is you.

P.S.: "Sales is a very honorable profession ..."

P.P.S.: If you haven't yet encountered it, find a copy of "The Little Red Book of Selling," and read it cover to cover. Although the book discusses mostly the sales of physical product, the principles are really the same here ... where the (buiness valuable!!) product being sold is "professional services and accumulated expertise."

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