It's Not Easy Being a Reference
If you don't have something nice to say . . .

By Jeanne Marie Laskas
Sunday, July 15, 2007

The woman on the phone tells me she works in the HR department of a big, fancy-schmancy company. She's considering hiring Candidate X, a person who once worked for me. She wants to know if I can answer a few questions about him.

"I'd be delighted to!" I say, even as quickly as I think: Who? Apparently, Candidate X worked for me a long time ago. An awful lot of people have helped me with an awful lot of projects over the years.

"He spoke so fondly of his time with you and said you might be able to give me good insight into his work habits," the woman says.

"Great!" I say, thinking: Uh-oh. Is this the unfortunate young man who turned out to be bipolar? No, I don't think so. And, anyway, I'm the one with the mental challenge right now. I am flooded with voices:

I need a job! Help me, I'm broke and need a job! (A chorus of young college grads with no experience who deserve a chance.)

If you can't say anything nice about somebody, don't say anything. (My mother.)

It's not nice to talk about people behind their backs, and, if you do, you'll get warts. (Also my mother.)

"Please be honest. We don't want to hire someone who is going to prove to be a mistake." (This is the actual voice of the HR woman.) What, exactly, is the responsibility of the person whose name ends up on a résumé under the heading "References?" Just because someone puts your name there, do you have to say nice things? If you can't say nice things, should you tell the person to get your name off of there? (Yes.) Do you tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, or do you . . . spin?

Now, Candidate X, if I recall, had a problem with multitasking. Actually, the more I think about it, a huge problem in this area. I gave him a long list of stuff, and he performed beautifully on the first few tasks but never quite got to the others. I figured, hey, he's young. Give him a second chance; learning how to juggle tasks is a skill that takes time to develop. Well, the second chance led to a third and a fourth, and pretty soon I was chanced out. It wasn't that he never made it down the list so much as that the list . . . disappeared. Things I thought were happening never happened. We parted ways. He did okay after that, and would report back on various successes at various jobs and would even thank me for some of his early training. It is entirely possible that he has outgrown his multitasking problem, so it is no longer my concern. Right?

Wait -- was he also the kid who ran off and joined a cult?

No, no, no. That was someone else.

"So, would you say Candidate X works independently?"

"Sure," I answer honestly. "When he sets his mind to something, he really pulls out all the stops."

"Are you saying it's difficult to get him to set his mind to something?" she asks.

"To something, no!" I say, honestly. (But to many things? Not so good . . . Do I have to tell her this?)

"Okay, I don't get what you're driving at," she says.

Am I driving? Actually, I'm stalling. I'm trying to figure out which team I'm on. I don't think I quite belong on the Big Corporate Fancy-Schmancy HR team. I'm on the People Team! I'm with the folks who need and deserve a chance. Hey, I'd happily recommend the bipolar kid if he got the right meds, and I wouldn't let a little brainwashing by a cult leader necessarily stand in the way of someone getting a shot at his dream. Would I? Should I?

"What would you say are Candidate X's major weaknesses?" the HR woman asks.

I sigh. I tell her I hate this question. You're supposed to come up with something that sounds like a weakness but really is a strength. Sometimes he's too devoted to his work. Or, I think he needs to spend a little less time at the office and a little more time at the gym, heh-heh.

"Just be honest," the woman says. "Really, I don't want to make a mistake here. Is there something wrong with this guy?"

"Oh, he's so handsome!" I say, cheerfully, because you can always find something nice to say about someone. "Did you notice that?"

"Are you saying there was an incident with intra-office romance or something?" she asks.

"What?" I say. "No!"

"You're trying to tell me he's gay?" she says. "Not that that should enter into this --"

"What? No! Or, actually, I have no idea." We are now, officially, gossiping. I'm going to get warts. Candidate X "was in my employment many years ago," I say, finally. "And I'm sure any small problems I had with him were due to youth and inexperience." (Yeah, but what about the big problems?) I know he went on to have success at other jobs, so that should speak well for him.

"Great," she says. "Then with your recommendation, I think we'll offer him the job."

Great!" I say, while my gut says, "Uh-oh." (Do I have to tell her that?)

Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is

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