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I used to work with this developer who now wants to join my company and applied online, listing me as the referral (I did not refer her). The VP of Services noticed that we worked in the same organization at the same time and sent me an email asking what I thought of them. While I was there, she didn't really write useful code and generated a lot of bugs and was put on a performance improvement plan which in government is extremely rare. For all I know she is job hunting after being fired and failing that plan.

How do I fairly and professionally tell the VP that in my opinion she is not worth interviewing?

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    Being inexperienced in work matters, I myself am wondering: what is unprofessional about the assessment you have just given? If it is true and correct, it seems like the hiring manager would like to know that? Dec 2 '20 at 16:46
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    listing me as the referral (I did not refer her) This need clarification. Are you saying she claims you referred her to the job (that is recommended to her she should apply or to someone else that she should be asked) or that she gave you as a reference (gave them your name as a person they could contact about you). These are quite different things and I am wondering if there is a mistake in communication by her or someone else at the root of this problem, and nothing more.
    – StephenG
    Dec 2 '20 at 22:48
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    What does the "VP" stand for? #pleaseExplainAcronymsBeforeUse Dec 3 '20 at 11:06
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    @NikolasCharalambidis - OP uses "VP of Services" in the question, from the context it's clear that this is vice president, and even if it wasn't, all that matters is that it's some sort of position in the company, doesn't really matter which one.
    – Davor
    Dec 3 '20 at 11:12
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    How long ago did you work with this person? They might have gotten better
    – gmalenko
    Dec 4 '20 at 22:48
117

How do I fairly and professionally tell the VP that in my opinion she is not worth interviewing?

You aren't being asked if she is worth interviewing. You are being asked for your opinion of her abilities, based on having worked at the same company.

You need to indicate your relationship to her. Just because you worked at the same company at the same time, that doesn't mean you know a lot about her abilities in the role for which she is interviewing. But perhaps it does. Make the extent of your knowledge clear.

Then just state what you have observed. If you know for a fact that she didn't really write useful code and generated a lot of bugs and was put on a performance improvement plan, then state that. If any of those are just suspicions, then omit them. Don't pass off your suspicions as facts.

Don't indicate that she is job hunting after being fired and failing that plan, since you are just guessing.

Stating the facts as you know them is always fair and professional. Going beyond that to speculate that she failed a PIP and was fired is not.

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    And make it very clear that they did not refer her, as that is highly relevant information.
    – bob
    Dec 2 '20 at 19:51
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    State your observations about this candidate's work verbally if you can, rather than in writing (email, messaging). Let the VP decide how much information about this candidate needs to be stored.
    – O. Jones
    Dec 3 '20 at 20:14
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    Sometimes company lawyers have policies about record-keeping of the content of reference checks. (Somebody sues for discrimination, for example, and all the records get turned over in discovery.) My suggestion is to let the person at the highest pay grade take responsibility for that policy.
    – O. Jones
    Dec 3 '20 at 22:29
  • Characteristically great answer. "If any of those are suspicions, then don't state otherwise." Do you mean "don't state those suspicions" or "state that they are just suspicions"? Dec 4 '20 at 7:22
  • I also found that wording hard to parse and not totally clear. I'd recommend editing. Dec 4 '20 at 16:36
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How do I fairly and professionally tell the VP that in my opinion she is not worth interviewing?

Be completely honest and stick to the facts. Avoid giving your personal opinion as you don't want to slander/defame.

she didn't really write useful code and generated a lot of bugs and was put on a performance improvement plan which in government is extremely rare

Based on this, I assume that you never agreed to be a referee, and that's what your VP is asking for. Why give them a reference at all.

You could respond with something like:

Sorry, I wouldn't be comfortable providing a reference for this person.

Your VP will know this means you haven't got anything positive to say. Then it's up to them how they proceed.

(as pointed out by the comments, it may seem strange to your VP that you supposedly referred someone and then wont provide a reference. In which case you should also make it clear that you didn't refer this person)

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    being completely honset would - when VP would ask them - to also include something along the lines of 'Sorry, since I'm actually not her referer as she might have indicated, I wouldn't be comfortable providing any reference for this person.'
    – iLuvLogix
    Dec 2 '20 at 13:00
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    Telling someone she didn't write useful code, created lots of bugs, and was put on a PIP is all a bunch of opinion and hearsay unless OP can document it, which I very much doubt. So if those words ever get back to the person in question, it's a potential slander case with substantial monetary damages. There's a good reason why most companies won't provide references these days. That makes this the only correct answer. +1 Dec 2 '20 at 19:45
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    They'll also want to make it very clear that they did not refer the person in question; they need to do this anyway, but especially if they're going to (reasonably, as it sounds) explicitly decline to provide a reference for them.
    – bob
    Dec 2 '20 at 19:52
  • It's a good point and I've updated. I was assuming it would be obvious they didn't refer them by not wanting to provide a reference, but I guess that's too much of an assumption, and agree the OP should make that clear to the VP
    – flexi
    Dec 2 '20 at 20:47
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    @CareyGregory 1) How is saying that someone was placed on a PIP, when you have direct knowledge that they were placed on a PIP, "a bunch of opinions"? 2) Opinions cannot give rise to a slander claim because they cannot be false. Only false facts can. 3) You can't have it both ways. If these are opinions, they're perfectly safe to give. If they're not opinions, you can't complain that the OP would be giving opinions and not facts. Dec 3 '20 at 16:31
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Be honest but tactful

Tell the VP the truth, while sticking to the facts. Don't conjecture or share hearsay. Only share what you observed. Qualify it as your observations. Where possible try to use the "damning with faint praise" approach, And also allow for the possibility that this employee could have grown in weak areas since you worked with them, so make it clear that your assessment of their performance is bounded to 1) the time you worked with them; 2) the specific project(s) you worked on with them; and 3) only what you observed directly. In other words, you don't have the whole picture, but will gladly share what you observed.

If possible, answer via a phone call, not email

Emails can be forwarded, and your email could get back to the candidate. So if possible, answer the VP over the phone. If that's not possible, try to word your email in a way that minimizes any potential problems for you (social/career/legal) if your email somehow gets in front of the candidate in question. Faint praise works well here.

This includes refuting the candidate's referral claim

You also need to make it clear that you did not refer the candidate in question. You need to clear up what is either a misunderstanding, or possibly (but leave it to the hiring committee to come to this conclusion) a dishonest act on the part of the candidate. Either way don't be complicit--point out the error/lie without characterizing it as a lie. You don't know whether it is, but you do need to make it clear that it is not true. You can and should do so in a way that assumes that it was an honest mistake--give the candidate the benefit of the doubt.

As @Xano mentioned in the comments to this answer, you should start with this step. You may be able to avoid having to provide awkward additional details about the candidate if you first mention that you did not offer a referral and that you're not comfortable making a referral. But if that doesn't get you off the hook, refer to the rest of the answer. NOTE: this is best done over the phone.

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    "Anything you say can and will be used against you.". You want to get out of this without passing any judgment on the applicant that might backfire, whether they end up being hired or not. The good thing is that the applicant already gave you an opening to do so. Tell your company you were unaware of the applicant submitting you as a referee and that you cannot provide a reference, and let your company draw its conclusions.
    – Xano
    Dec 2 '20 at 20:20
  • @Xano That's not a bad option. Though if the VP pushes, OP may still need to provide an assessment. But this could nip the problem in the bud.
    – bob
    Dec 2 '20 at 20:27
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    +1 for not giving the answer in writing
    – Polygorial
    Dec 3 '20 at 9:36
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    @bob "I did not refer this candidate, and furthermore, I would not have made such a referral if asked because of my prior experience working with them." Dec 4 '20 at 0:15
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You're not telling him she's not worth interviewing. You are sharing your direct knowledge of them and their skills, as that kind of information is super valuable when making hiring decisions.

Assuming this is all true, you just say "I know she put my name on the application, but I didn't actually refer her for this position. While I was there and we worked together (explain the work relationship - worked together on the same team is a lot more accurate than "I heard about her from some other team"), from my perspective, for a X developer with Y years of experience she didn't really write useful code and generated a lot of bugs and was put on a performance improvement plan which in government is extremely rare."

This is an opportunity to calibrate your feedback yourself, too - if she was a brand new developer, think to yourself, was she really bad for a newbie or just bad compared to your level? Make sure it's true and not second hand. If you do not have direct knowledge of her work then you just say "I couldn't really speak to her skills, she was on another team and while I never heard anything great about her I don't have direct knowledge" is fine.

Now, keep in mind someone hiring for Services has different criteria than someone hiring a core dev. He will be smart enough to separate that out, you just have to clearly frame your relationship and the context from which your feedback is coming.

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I've been on both sides of this. I've been called up as a reference for someone who I thought was incompetent. I also once asked a professor to write me a recommendation for grad school, and he agreed to, but I didn't realize that he hated my guts because of my political activities on campus, so his letter was a disaster.

My situation isn't an exact analogy, but as a person who once didn't realize he was getting a bad recommendation, I'm sensitized to the plight of the person you're talking about. It's true that it was a bad move for her to list you as a reference without getting your OK, but it's also not going to be good for her life if this situation goes on indefinitely, with every prospective employer calling you up.

You could consider whether she might have improved her skills over time. You don't mention how long it's been since you were her coworker. She might be a good person to hire in a different role. For example, many software teams might need someone who doesn't mind doing aspects of the work that are boring and repetitive.

The ethical thing to do might be to contact her and alert her to the fact that you really can't provide a positive reference, but make it clear that you wish her well in life, etc.

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    Re: "it's also not going to be good for her life if this situation goes on indefinitely, with every prospective employer calling you up" -- this seems entirely theoretical until such time as some non-current-employer of the OP calls them up. Seems most likely this is a one-off as the applicant tries to tailor the resume for this particular job. If the OP ever gets a reference call from another workplace, then that's a notably different issue (at which point they should probably tell the person to stop doing that). Dec 3 '20 at 3:34
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How long ago was it? People can change and improve and deserve second chances. If it was more than 5 years ago and she has a good track record in between why not at least interview her? A tech test will expose any incompetency she might have anyway.

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Giving a positive reference is easy, you think someone will be a good fit and is competent, you say so, and unless your judgement is widely off, that’s the end of it.

Giving a negative reference/opinion is a bit trickier. “I would toss her resume without interviewing her, if it was up to me”, conveys your opinion in a professional manner, as would “I wouldn’t want her on my team”. Unfortunately, professionalism is not the end of the story.

While conveying your opinion in a professional manner is relatively easy, you also need to consider the consequences and what impact it may have on you. You need to consider two interrelated factors before voicing your opinion (1) will your negative opinion be determinative and (2) will your opinion be shared with others.

If your negative opinion will be determinative, then keeping it professional should be sufficient, but if not, you need to consider what will happen if she is hired despite your opinion. You will have a co-worker that you have disparaged to a greater or lesser degree, if that opinion is shared (verbatim or not), it’s likely to lead to problems. The less determinative your input is, the more circumspect you should be in giving it (one of the reasons why lots of companies want a hire/no hire decision to be unanimous). I wouldn’t say that you should always give a positive opinion, but you may want to limit your negative opinion to “I can’t recommend her”.

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How do I fairly and professionally tell the VP that in my opinion she is not worth interviewing?

You don’t. Expressing a negative opinion about another person is not professional. It might be different if expressing such an opinion is part of your job, but it sounds like it’s not.

In fact, the only thing you should tell the VP is that you did not refer the applicant. This is a statement about you that must be refuted. Everything else has nothing to do with your work, so shouldn’t be discussed at work. Stay out of it and, no matter what happens, you won’t be held responsible.

Like the other answers said, just tell the VP that you are not comfortable giving a reference.

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One aspect of "telling the VP professionally" which hasn't yet been touched on is that your professional responsibility right now is to your organisation. For sure you need to present your feedback in a way which is fact-based and clearly not driven by personal animosity. But you do need to make sure your employer doesn't make a major mistake.

So when it comes to professionalism, it's important that you tell your employer everything. Unlike other answers, I suggest this should also include speculation, where that speculation is well-founded, and so long as you make it clear this is speculation. You can't say for sure that this person failed their PIP, but you can for sure say that you know they were on a PIP and were subsequently fired, and say that your conclusion from this is that they failed the PIP.

Part of "professionalism" is trying to stop your organisation from making mistakes which affect their products or reputation. Technically, that's might be giving useability feedback on an app so that you don't ship something clunky which hurts sales. But in this context, the mistake would be hiring someone who you know is a liability. It's totally possible that this person has put a lot of work into doing better, and they're now competent. But this warning means an interviewer (which should not be you!) needs to see the positive change in their abilities. The interviewer should also be looking for the person to freely tell them about making this positive change, because that's the kind of learning story you talk about in interviews. If they don't mention the fact they were on a PIP, that should disqualify them for being hired because they haven't shown that they've changed.

All of this means that the VP needs to know everything you know.

You don't need to worry about slander or libel, because this information is not being published or passed around more widely. Company-internal information is inherently not public and hence laws like that don't apply. If you're still concerned about this though, consider giving verbal feedback to the VP. Whether they write it down or not becomes their responsibility after that.

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    While I agree that professionalism means providing expert opinions to guide a company to make the best decisions, I would strongly refute that (in general) the opinion of a non-hiring manager on whether someone should be hired is remotely expert. Assessing candidates expertly is an incredibly challenging task and the average employee is not remotely an expert. Providing accurate, objective descriptions of your experience working with someone is one thing. Assessing whether they should be interviewed or hired is an entirely different matter.
    – Dancrumb
    Dec 3 '20 at 19:20
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    All of that is to say that the OP, and folks like them, should NOT be making assessments on what hiring managers should be doing. They SHOULD offer as much objective information as possible. If asked for a subjective opinion, they should limit it to whatever they would feel comfortable to then go on and defend in a roomful of dispassionate strangers. If you don't think you could do that, then keep it to yourself
    – Dancrumb
    Dec 3 '20 at 19:22
  • All speculation does is introduce bias to the process. That is not conducive to the employer avoiding any mistakes. Dec 3 '20 at 19:41
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    @Dancrumb I don't understand why you'd think that. If you have prior experience with them which indicates they can't do the job, you are quite literally the most expert person in your company on that subject. HR and other managers have never met the person and are taking their best guess - and yes, that best guess is hard to do. But if you know for a fact, your opinion is more valuable than anyone else's. Why would you even think otherwise? And yes, I've done this, and have been happy to justify my opinion. And we didn't hire them as a result.
    – Graham
    Dec 3 '20 at 22:50
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    @Graham because the opinion on whether a company should hire someone is based on more than the anecdotal experience of one person. That experience is valuable, but it's not the same as making a hiring decision, it's just one factor and, unless you're a hiring manager, you're probably not privy to all the other factors and, as such, should not be opining on whether or not to hire.
    – Dancrumb
    Dec 4 '20 at 15:42

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