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Short version: I was asked to provide information about a previous co-worker by someone involved in the hiring process at the company to which they are applying, and I am not a reference for this co-worker. Is it ethical to provide information about them?

Long version: I have a friend in another city who is now involved in the interview process at another company (we are both software developers). During normal conversation, he asked me if I knew an individual who he was set to interview within the next couple of days who claimed to have worked at my company previously (which they had). Additionally, if I did know the person, he asked if they were any good.

I did know this individual, and they had been a good developer and co-worker. It's only been a couple of months since they left the company (on good terms). However, I am not a reference for this individual, nor do they even know that I would have been/was asked about them. Is it ethical for me to tell my friend what I know of them?

  • I'm confused exactly what you mean by "I am not a reference for this individual". From your Q, nothing dishonest or shady has happened, and you did in fact work with each other. If you say "I don't want to give any reference" it's like saying "no comment" IMO. On the other hand, if you give your impression of the person (positive or negative) then that is a reference, whether the job seeker asked you for a "reference" or not. - I guess the Q is, what do you want to do in this situation? Do you want to share information about the job seeker and then ask if doing so is ethical in this case? – Brandin Mar 26 '15 at 14:18
  • Another example where the ethics tag just encourages weird questions. – bharal Mar 26 '15 at 22:00
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Yes.

If you have had experience working with someone and are asked to describe that experience - there is no ethnical question to whether it's OK for you to describe your experience. Good or bad - the candidate's actions and behavior towards others in a workplace is something they should be responsible for whether or not they are working with someone who they've asked to be a reference.

This is done pretty frequently - the disclosed references that a person gives in a job application can be assumed to be favorable. No candidate will ask a person who hates them to give a reference. :) Many managers and companies will look for a personal connection in their own network and follow up out of band, figuring that if a person they trust has had good experience with a candidate, then it's a fairly trustworthy hire.

If a candidate doesn't assume that this process can and will happen, I don't know what to tell them - a person's behavior is what builds a professional reputation and over time, this reputation will affect their ability to be hired.


The Small Print on This Situation

When asked for what I've heard called a "back door reference", there are a couple of things to consider when giving information:

  • If this is a friend or close coworker - avoid discriminatory or particularly personal details. Even the stuff you may consider to be very good can be discriminatory, for example "I'm so happy that he and his lovely wife are having a baby, they are going to be great parents!" could lead to an employer deciding not to hire a soon-to-be new parent, for fear that family commitments will distract from work. That is discrimination in the US, but it's extremely hard to prove and prosecute, particularly when a back-door reference points it out. Keep it safe - talk about the professional qualities of the person and their actions in work or a work-like setting.

  • It is OK to be a reference when the connection does not come through a paid position - but it should be doing something that can show some work-like skills. For example - "he's great, we meet up at the park and play frisbee" is not so useful. "We worked in a soup kitchen together, he was always on time, friendly with the folks he worked with and responsible in doing his work" - it really doesn't matter if this a restaraunt job or a software position, those are great qualities in anyone.

  • Avoid hearsay. If you have witnessed poor behavior, say so. But "there were these rumors about him and a female college getting inappropriate in a bathroom" - you didn't see it, you don't know how the rumor started, stay out of it.

  • It's best to know and adhere to workplace rules about references - I'll admit, this is one I don't always follow - I have worked in places that instructed employees NEVER to give personal references for any other employee, the work had had hotline that would verify employment history only and that was it. This is a pretty gruesome rule for a new worker, as it makes it hard to collect references. But... it's also a real risk with your employer that if they find out, you could be in trouble - so at least know the rules before you break them.

  • Be clear about your experience level with the person - "we worked together once", "we were on the same team for 2 years" - are very different.

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The answer from bethlakshmi is good, but I would like to point out a case where it may not be ethical: Many companies have non-solicitation and intellectual property agreements that you sign as a condition of employment. The skill set of fellow-employees is often considered part of this protected information that you may not disclose to another party within the time period of the agreement.

Now, generally I think this is to protect against giving out lists of employees and skills, but you may want to read the fine print if you are covered by such an agreement.

  • I've also found these policies as a scare tactic to try and forcefully retain people. (Similar to the boss who makes it VERY public they're well networked so when people are out looking, they know it) Just keep the interview about the individual, their work ethic, and general competence and you're in safer waters. (Also back everything up with fact, John was tardy roughly twice a week is safe compared to John was tardy a lot) Still use caution though. Defamation laws in the US are rather Vague and while you'd likely win such a case, it'd still be inconvenient. – RualStorge Mar 26 '15 at 20:03

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