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Context

I have worked in the same software-development team as “Alex” (and another dozen people) for a couple years, and supervised part of their job at some point (due to “technical superiority”, as they joined the team before I did and our job titles were the same).

Alex has recently changed job (no hard feeling involved either sides).

Issue

I believe (I am afraid that sounds cocky) that they could testify for the good quality of the work I produced. So I would like to ask them a recommendation on LinkedIn — I've currently none and would like to “prime the pump”.

However, I fear that they would ask me to recommend them back. And even if they weren't particularly bad, they weren't particularly good neither and didn't show some above-par skills: they filled their duty ok, but didn't grew beyond their junior role for almost 3 years. So I wouldn't have much positive to tell about them and wouldn't want to vouch for them.

My litmus test is “Should I change company and pick my A-team, would I want them on board?” and they wouldn't pass it.

Question

Is it a good idea to ask someone for a LinkedIn recommendation, when one wouldn't be comfortable writing back something positive?

If so, what would be the best approach to avoid being asked to recommend them back?


Note: I am aware that in saying: “I think I'd 'deserve' a good recommendation, but they don't” while I was their de facto line-manager at some point, also tells that something is potentially wrong with me, as it's now kind of my responsibility to make them perform well.

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  • 13
    If you do not value their skills then what exactly makes them qualified to evaluate you?
    – sf02
    Nov 2 '20 at 16:29
  • @sf02 He was qualified enough to know that OP carried him for 3 years so he wouldn't get fired for poor performance.
    – Jack
    Nov 4 '20 at 22:05
10

Frame challenge: you're looking at the wrong problem.

Here's why:

  1. You don't respect Alex enough to give them any sort of recommendation.
  2. You don't respect Alex enough to value any recommendation they would give.
  3. You don't have any one else to give you a recommendation (you want to "prime the pump", in your words)

#1 and #2 aren't problems in themselves. I had a coworker that honestly thought GOTO commands in 1000+ line functions were good software design. I wouldn't recommend them for anything, and never listed them as a reference.

But combined with #3? That's why you're trying to figure out how to arrange this with Alex. Yet... #1 + #2 + #3 isn't your actual problem.

Your actual problem is that you're got an undeserved elitist attitude and a lack of interpersonal connection.

Your entire question is laced with elitism. Which contrasts quite a bit with the fact that... you don't have anyone to actually give you a recommendation!

Why haven't you forged connections with the people in the business areas that use/consume the code you write? Why haven't you done outside projects with other devs or users that could vouch for you? If you truly warranted an elitist attitude, surely there'd be someone be willing to say, "Oh, Ebosi? Yeah - they're awesome! They're able to quickly dive in and solve problems, and they're great at getting new features rolled out for us!"

And to be honest? If any applicant had a hint of the tone you've got ("Eh, Alex is just an... average programmer (shudder). I hate having to ask them for a recommendation, and there's no way I'd give them one myself".) I wouldn't touch them with a 10 foot pole, recommendation or no.

So, TL;DR :

Instead of worrying how to wrangle Alex into giving a recommendation that you don't care about without him asking for one in return, worry about:

  • How to better connect with the people you work alongside.
  • How to not look down at your nose at people and be a better team player.
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  • 2
    @ebosi - the problem with that is that everything that anyone puts as an answer would be fall in the same boat - every answer on this site is going off what other people interpret from what the OP describes . It's not like someone writing "You should avoid using Alex as a reference" should change it to "The way you describe your issue makes me think you should avoid using Alex as a reference."
    – Kevin
    Nov 2 '20 at 22:01
  • 5
    As for Alex? You've said they're "not particularly bad", that "they filled their duty", and that they "didn't show above-par skills". I'm not sure why you think it's horrible for someone to be a junior for 3 years (I'd probably call that average, tbh) but you're not painting Alex as a terrible coder. Just mundane/average. If you really think Alex is a terrible coder, you should really revise your question to say that.
    – Kevin
    Nov 2 '20 at 22:03
  • 1
    "undeserved elitist attitude and a lack of" is inappropriate
    – Jeffrey
    Nov 4 '20 at 18:20
8

Praise them for something else if asked

LinkedIn references are short and not very detailed. If they ask for one back, you are probably writing 3-5 sentences. Most people have enough good qualities for 3-5 sentences of reference. Did they stay late one night to solve a problem? Did they contribute to office cheer by organizing parties or bringing donuts? Are they outspoken in their technical opinions? Did they learn a lot from you? Are they the diligent documenter? Are they effective at customer support?

None of those praise their tech skills. None of those force you to lie or give a bad recommendation. But there is probably something this guy does competently. Focus on that.

7

tl;dr;

No, I don't think it's a good idea to ask somebody for a recommendation if you wouldn't be comfortable recommending them.

If doing so anyway, there is no approach to avoid being sent a request back, you can't decide what others do, but you still can't be forced into writing one neither. From there you can just ignore and push back, or tell/explain you won't be returning the favor.

Now the long answer...

I think LinkedIn recommendations are too often just an "exchange". It's how it goes and there's nothing you can really do against that except being true to yourself and not play that game. I personally only request recommendations from the co-workers I value the opinion. Hence I don't request it from people I wouldn't myself be comfortable recommending, because why would I value their opinion then? I actually try to request recommendations only after I've myself written a recommendation on that person and usually explain in the request there's no obligation to return the favor (some people are just not comfortable with that...)

When asked for a recommendation, either I give it and I'm not expecting any in return (if it comes, that's a bonus), either I don't give it but explain to the person why I wouldn't be giving one. Assuming this is a close colleague who could reasonably expect a recommendation...some people send requests to their whole contacts list.

When receiving an unsolicited recommendation, I don't feel forced to return the favor, but I'm keen on doing it for some people. You know, the kind of co-worker you wouldn't immediately call to get on your team, but you also don't mind them joining. There must be positive things to say about these people, even though you wouldn't have spontaneously recommended them.

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You are looking at the wrong problem.

A recommendation on LinkedIn carries zero weight. I have received unprompted recommendations based on information that wouldn't apply during the time frame I worked with them.

You are asking them to post a recommendation on LinkedIn that isn't for a specific job search. Normally when somebody is going to talk to the hiring manager or write a letter of recommendation they are providing this at a specific time or for a specific job. They can take how they knew you and mold it to the situation. The generic LinkedIn recommendation doesn't have any of that.

These two things make most people assume that most recommendations are paired. If X says that Y is good developer and an expert in knowing their customers; then Y has to pick two things that X was "good" at.

Use LinkedIn to keep contact with some of your former coworkers so that when you are changing companies they can write a specific reference. This doesn't require you to immediately write a couple of sentences for them at the same time.

Also pick people to recommend you that will honestly say you are awesome. There is no assumption that you have to think they were awesome too. Everybody should have a few people they can recommend, and a few that can recommend them. They don't have to be paired.

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  • I disagree that LinkedIn recommendations carry zero weight. Maybe you don't care about them, but they can be helpful for the person who receives them. They might be used on their website as testimonials or simple to confirm that other people see them the way they see themselves.
    – user70848
    Nov 6 '20 at 20:23
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Q. Is it a good idea to ask someone for a LinkedIn recommendation, when one wouldn't be comfortable writing back something positive?

No because it will create a rejection feeling and it may hurt your relation with Alex. It is better to have a neutral relationship by avoid asking to keep door open to the future.

You can write a recommendation praising his soft skills because you already did it in your post:

if they weren't particularly bad, they weren't particularly good neither and didn't show some above-par skills: they filled their duty ok

Alex was good at something if he has worked with you for a couple of years. At least being present at work and deliver some value or relieve some pain from the team. Else, I expect he would get fired. I propose to write an honest recommendation that praise those skills.

It is possible to find some books with keywords effective phrases or perfect phrases where the chapters are grouped by skills to compliment.

Those books make it easy to write truthful reviews. Here an example:

Alex establishes effective working relationships, keep a positive attitude while under pressure and was reliable. He always striving for continuous improvement and I feel he is a good addition to any team.

Site note about:

My litmus test is “Should I change company and pick my A-team, would I want them on board?” and they wouldn't pass it.

Those employees are often called doers. I personally feel there are undervalued and every teams need doers to balance the tasks force personalities to avoid issue with ego, leadership struggle, anarchy, etc.

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