A Terrible Employee Asked Me For A Reference

Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues–everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

Here’s a roundup of answers to five questions from readers.

1. A terrible employee asked me for a reference

I have received a reference request for one of our former employees. I had told this student that I was not hiring her back because she wasn’t reliable. She would cancel her shifts at the last minute, not making an effort to find a replacement. She wouldn’t do anything unless I told her to. She had good attendance the first year I had her, but wasn’t motivated and had to be reminded constantly. The last semester she worked, she was terrible.

She turned around and used me for a reference where the employer sends you a form asking you to fill out an online form. I have completely ignored both emails because I cannot give her a good reference. I’m stumped by the fact that she thought I would be a good reference, and I was never contacted by her asking to be a reference.

How do other supervisors handle reference checks for employees that you’ll never rehire, etc.? I’m in shock that she thought I would give her a good reference after the talk I gave her.

Green responds:

You have a few options: continue to ignore the reference requests (which sends its own kind of message, although it’s at least somewhat open to interpretation), fill out the reference request honestly (that’s certainly what the employer sending it is hoping you’ll do), or reach out to the student and explain to her that you’re not able to serve as a reference for her and why, and suggest she find someone else.

At a minimum, I would do the last one because it’ll be useful for her to hear that her actions have consequences, and it’s a kindness to let her know not to try to use you as a reference in the future. There’s also real value in providing honest references, so that’s something to consider too.

As for why people list references from jobs where they didn’t exactly shine: some of it, and maybe even most of it, is simple naivete. And some of it is obliviousness, in that they don’t realize just how bad their performance was. (In fact, one question to ask yourself is how direct you were with her about your concerns with her work. Did you tell her clearly and directly that you had serious problems with her work? If not, she may not even realize it.)

2. New hire said I’m too relaxed to be a manager

I recently had four new staff members join my team. I conducted a “temperature check” a couple of months in to ascertain their thoughts on the training modules, their team, etc. Feedback is anonymous, of course, but at least one of my new hires stated that I am “too relaxed to be a manager.”

While I am aware that I am more laid back than some other managers, I have never felt that this has made me incompetent at my job. In fact, I take (some) pride in the fact that staff are comfortable around me and my approach has enabled me to develop good relationships and good work habits from some difficult staff members. However, this feedback has made me acutely aware that a casual approach doesn’t work for everyone, and that I need to demonstrate a more authoritative manner. How should I change my behaviors to be “less relaxed” without micromanaging?

Green responds:

Well, wait. The fact that one person — one new person who doesn’t know you well — said this doesn’t mean it’s definitely true and something you need to change. It’s worth reflecting on the feedback and thinking about whether there’s merit to it, but it doesn’t sound like you’ve done that — it sounds like you’re just taking one new person’s feedback as gospel, and that would be a mistake.

Instead, ask yourself how your current style is working. Do people have clear expectations? Do they get regular feedback, both good and bad? When you have a concern about someone’s work, do you address it clearly, quickly, and straightforwardly? Are problems resolved pretty quickly or do they fester? Do you have frustrations with people’s work that they don’t know about? Does work get done well and on time? What kind of work is your team producing overall and what kind of results are they getting? Are they hitting/exceeding their goals, or coming up short?

The answers to those questions are what will tell if you need to change something.

(And frankly, if someone needs a very authoritative management style from you, they might not be the right person for your team, if things are otherwise going well.)

3. Bragging about disputing unemployment claims

Quick question about something I saw on a LinkedIn profile that disturbed me. I was reading a profile of a VP of HR and saw this bullet point under her accomplishments for a previous position she held as an HR manager: “Successfully disputed over 82% of unemployment claims.”

It struck me as odd that she’d be proudly displaying the fact that she’d fought and beat a high percentage of ex-employees’ claims for unemployment. Is this typically something HR people are proud of? It seems rather vicious.

Green responds:

Yes, it’s pretty off-putting. It’s true that employers want to successfully defend against unemployment claims that they don’t believe are valid — but that’s rarely going to be 82% of them (and if it is, something odd is going on at that employer). So yes, she’s basically bragging that she kept a bunch of people from collecting benefits that they were probably entitled to. And on top of that, she’s tone-deaf about how it will sound, and possibly has only worked places where they’d think this was a good thing. It’s troubling.

4. I got blacklisted from a job after emailing the CEO directly

I interviewed with a start-up company, got great feedback, everybody liked me. After the last interview, the hiring manager said I had to do one more interview with the CEO. I said okay, but then last week they said they were ready to give me an offer and asked for references. I was ecstatic because I thought I was getting an offer without even having to talk to the CEO. I gave them references, they gave me glowing recommendations, and then I got a call from the recruiter to discuss salary and saying he was drafting an offer letter for me.

The next day, the recruiter called me again and told me that the offer has been put on hold because the CEO did not approve hiring someone with my professional background. I was shocked because that was something they could have realized looking at my resume and not after giving me an offer. So I emailed the CEO, introduced myself, explained my background and experience, and asked for reconsideration.

The next day, I got a call from the recruiter  saying I was being rejected and blacklisted from the company because a “subordinate” like me should have never reached out to the CEO and he was really mad about it. I was shocked. Was what I did unacceptable?

Green responds:

Well, yes. You went totally outside of their process and tried to appeal a decision, which rarely goes well. Contacting the CEO, who you’d never even met, to try to address concerns that he hadn’t spoken to you about firsthand would rub most people the wrong way.

It sounds like the recruiter was overly harsh in his response (there’s no need to announce to you that he’s blacklisting you from the company even if he is), but you did err in sending that email.

5. Should we interview an internal candidate we’re unlikely to hire?

I’m hiring for a job on my team. I have two current employees in very similar positions, except one has more hours and some more responsibilities.

The one with more hours is retiring and we are hiring for her replacement. The one with fewer hours has applied, but her application and cover letter were somewhat unprofessional and we have some other concerns about her having so many more hours.

We have four other candidates who we are really interested in. Should we courtesy interview the internal candidate even though we are pretty sure she won’t be the right fit?

Green responds:

There’s an argument to be made that if you’re sure you wouldn’t hire her for the job, it’s kinder not to get her hopes up. But many people feel better about being turned down for an internal job if they feel like they at least were given a shot at it, and it can be really demoralizing for an internal candidate to feel she wasn’t even considered. Because of that, I’d interview her, and even try to go in with an open mind because who knows what you might learn.

But assuming you don’t end up hiring her, make a point of giving her feedback about her candidacy afterwards. That’s always smart to do with internal candidates so they feel they were taken seriously and treated well, have some insight into why you went with someone else, and come away with an understanding of how (and whether) they could be a stronger contender in the future.

Want to submit a question of your own? Send it to alison@askamanager.org.

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