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A colleague of mine has potential job offer from another team, which I have worked for in the past. Somebody from my old team has asked me what I think about him.

To be perfectly honest, I think he is a horrible co-worker. He is a a skilled developer, but has a very arrogant personality. His code works well, but is an unmaintainable mess that anybody other than him struggle to change. And even if they do change it, he will revert their changes quietly, and rewrite the change himself.

I would like to be honest to my old team, but I feel that it might be unprofessional to say bad things about him. However, I feel that they will find out how bad he is anyway, and so if I give a good review, my reputation will be tarnished. He mentioned to me that out of all the job offers he has, this is the one he is most likely to take.

What should I tell my old team?

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    "skilled developer" and "unmaintainable mess" don't sit easily together... but then presumably it's your management's choice to stick with him. – Julia Hayward Jan 12 '15 at 12:01
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    @Guest I have found that it is almost never a good idea to bad mouth anybody. I am sure he has some good qualities so speak to those. To be professional make sure you speak to some very explicit facts that give them a good idea of what they are getting into. Point out what the audit measures are and where he scored. If they ask you about measurable things that show him in a bad light then emphasize that. I would avoid words like "unmaintainable" and "arrogant" as those can be highly subjective. – maple_shaft Jan 12 '15 at 12:28
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    People are fairly decent at reading between the lines. If you express reluctance to contribute your thoughts, odds are, they are going to suspect that you don't want to rock the boat. – Lynn Crumbling Jan 12 '15 at 18:04
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    Do you have concerns that the problems that he has would slip through the vetting process for that team? If so, do you think he would be worse than some random candidate? Most developers I know are the exact same as what you described, except that their code doesn't work either. – corsiKa Jan 12 '15 at 21:59
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    Talking trash can do you no good. If you're not paid to have official opinions about other people's work go with something like "I'm not in a position to comment on {name of co-worker}'s work. Talk to {name of manager} about that". The manager in question may really like the guy and may want to hang on with all 20 claws; on the other hand, the thought of getting rid of Ol' Weird Harold may send the manager into paroxysms of ecstasy. Especially in the case of a "difficult" co-worker, let the manager be the Source Of All Information. – Bob Jarvis Jan 13 '15 at 17:43
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You don't have to badmouth him. You can be honest and still express concerns. For example, tell the interviewers:

  • Ask to see his code samples - check that they're up to the standard you expect.
  • Talk to him about code reviews and how he handles change-management.
  • See how well he will fit into your existing team. He has quite a strong personality.

Now, will this level of "constructive criticism" get back to your colleague? Possibly. Why haven't you raised this directly with him? Or his manager?

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    I have raised it with his manager. To be honest, I think his manager is just relieved to be possibly getting rid of him. You make a good point about asking to see code though. – Guest Jan 12 '15 at 11:16
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    Of course, the upside of taking a hit to your reputation is that you don't have to work with this guy :-) – Terence Eden Jan 12 '15 at 11:24
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    Terence's advice is bang-on. Don't give your own opinion but rather highlight particular areas that they should take a look at when they're deciding. – A E Jan 12 '15 at 13:34
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    Politics... the art of saying something without actually saying something. – WernerCD Jan 12 '15 at 20:11
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    If I knew a job candidate knew someone with the firm, but did not explicitly use him/her as a reference, that would be a red flag. – user8365 Jan 13 '15 at 14:35
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Your managers predicament is exactly why I never expect an honest review from the current manager. There is incentive to want to keep good employees and get rid of bad employees. Your situation is that you don't want to hurt your reputation with the old team. Telling the truth will keep a bad developer on your team.

You best option is either to say that you haven't worked with him enough to be able to definitively say, or to only point them in the direction of potential areas that need closer review.

Unless you have been there a long time you may not know why they don't react well to code changes. I worked at a place where there was a history of blaming the original writer of code even when the problems were clearly the result of changes by others. It wasn't uncommon to see the developers that had been there a while spend time each week reviewing all code changes to make sure that the new changes were not destroying old functionality.

I would be hesitant to make any recommendation to the old team. Many corporations will only state that a person has worked for the company during a defined period of time. They will not comment on how good of an employee they are. They don't want a current or former employee to be able to say that they told lies about them.

If I worked for the hiring company I would not hesitate to tell the hiring manger what I thought about a person I worked with in the past. I have done so in the past and would temper it by saying it was several years ago that I worked with them. But I would not feel comfortable about telling a former company about the performance of a current coworker.

If the coworker find out you didn't give them a good recommendation, I would expect that that any hope of a good working relationship with them was gone. You could also open your current company up to a complaint from the employee. They were trying to avoid by the situation by only giving neutral facts, but you didn't follow that guidance.

I would push the old team to contact the current manager, and leave it at that.

7

I would politely decline to give a recommendation. Not only is it way outside of your remit as a colleague of his at a different business, but they will also be able to interpret your lack of enthusiasm as precisely the message you wish to send.

  • Been there, done that. The guy also had a lot of very well-placed friends. My answer was "umm, umm", look at floor, shuffle feet. Then the new boss (an old friend) asked, "well, would you give him this job?" and I just said, "umm, no. No, no." and backed away. "Ah", he said, "right, understood". – RedSonja Jan 14 '15 at 12:43
  • @RedSonja Haha somehow I can picture it :D – Lightness Races in Orbit Jan 14 '15 at 14:05
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Rather than telling that your colleague is arrogant (which is not a fact, but rather it's an opinion), tell them the chain of events that makes you think he's arrogant. Stick to the facts, and only the facts, and nothing but verifiable facts. Resists making judgmental opinions, they are very subjective and such opinions are hard to defend. It's not your job to judge your colleague, let the hiring committee's decide for themselves whether or not how the hiree handled situations is a suitable fit in their environment. What you consider arrogant in your current team, might be considered as independent thinking by the other team; what you consider a major deal breaker might just be a minor issue with the other team. You don't know what the hiring committee is looking for.

If they ask you to make a judgmental evaluation, politely refuse and emphasize that you will only state what you and other team mates know to be true.

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    I can't agree with this. The OP is being asked for his opinion, because the team knows him and respects his opinion. – Lightness Races in Orbit Jan 13 '15 at 2:47
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    It's better to state the fact and let the other party form their own opinion than state the opinion and then have to defend the opinion with facts. Defending the opinion can be distracting because it takes everybody's focus away from what he did to defending the opinion. – Vietnhi Phuvan Jan 13 '15 at 18:28
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Stick to the facts, stick to what he did: "He is a a skilled developer, but his arrogance makes it difficult for any of us to work with him. His code works well, but is an unmaintainable mess that anybody other than him struggle to change. And even if they do change it, he will revert their changes quietly, and rewrite the change himself." And tell the facts. Nothing but the facts. Nothing but what he did.

Badmouthing anyone is indeed unprofessional. But you owe it to your colleagues to tell the truth and give a straight answer to a straight question. The truth is ugly - that's just too bad, not your problem. It was and is Mr. Prima Donna's choice the act the way he did. Neither you nor anyone else put a gun to his head and made him act the way he did. As the Bible says: "You reap what you sow" Say what you need to say to the colleague who asked you the question and be done with it. There is nothing unprofessional about telling the truth about what he did.

The downside of telling the truth is that you'll be stuck with Mr. Prima Donna. You'll probably are going to have to find a way to make him walk the plank.

Don't say something nice just so that you are rid of Mr. Prima Donna. Because someone may return the favor to you.

  • "Stick to the facts, stick to what he did". "His arrogance" does not fit in that. – Nicolas Barbulesco Jan 15 '15 at 15:06
  • @NicolasBarbulesco I couldn't find a more objective word to describe his attitude, and I still can't. However, his attitude is definitely part of the problem. – Vietnhi Phuvan Jan 15 '15 at 16:01
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The applicable maxim here is "Damning with faint praise". Or, as I was told over and over growing up, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything."

I think it is a mistake to say anything more than a few truthful positive facts; the fewer the better. Even in today's litigiousness world, I don't think you can be sued for what you don't say. If you are not comfortable making negative remarks to the person's face, and most of us aren't, then saying them behind their back is not exactly fair or truthful either.

During a reference, you hold someone else's fate in your hands. Do you really want to be responsible for someone not being able to find a job? None of us are so good that there isn't someone who resents us. Someday you may find yourself on the pointy end of the reference stick.

On the flip side, I once offered a reference for a very capable friend. In order to distinguish him with a really strong refernce, I gave extensive examples of his abilities. For example, "He is so bright that his managers have no idea how under utilized he is."

The feedback from him was, "My God what did you tell them? That I was the Second Coming." Did I mention that he is also funny?

He got the job and everybody was happy.

1

Note: Software Developer (Programmer) with Human Resources Skills here.

Quick and Short Answer

Yes, you should give an honest (impartial) feedback about a colleague's qualities.

When applied to recruiting, is OK to mention bad qualities ( "Things that can be improved" ), as well that good qualities.

But, is important, the way you tell the recruiter about a coworker, to make a difference between an honest, impartial review with a bad result, and plain badmouthing.

Long Boring Extended Answer

Yes, you should give an honest (impartial) feedback about a colleague's qualities.

But, there is a difference in how you explain to a recruiter, how your coworker, performs, whether is explicit badmouthing, impartial review with bad results, and, the worse type: the "hidden" badmouthing (that looks like impartial review ).

In the "other hand", there are a lot of poor performance managers / developers who started as programmers, that conflict with their coworkers performance, because the employee (s) who promote them did not consider their bad features, whether, were informed or were not informed.

There are a lot of Human Resources Recruiters that see any bad comment from others, as a sign of badmouthing, which I believe is a mistake.

So, your concern, about getting into trouble, and being mistaken, as a "workplacer badmouther", is very legitimate.

And, companies, who want to get rid off an employee, but, doesn't want to get into trouble, and just "help" other companies to hire them.

Anyway, I have seen several companies, whom explicitly hire employees, with "caveats", because, they just require them.

Human Resources and Recruitment is, in deed, a complex difficult, job. Subjective opinions become objective opinions, and vice versa.

  • What a non-sense mess ! The last sentence sums it up all. – Nicolas Barbulesco Jan 15 '15 at 15:22
  • @Nicolas Barbulesco I totally agree that the original, question, my answer, and the subject, are all of them a mess :-s – umlcat Jan 15 '15 at 17:09

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