Al Switzler is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
Dear Crucial Skills,
How can I graciously decline giving a job recommendation for a former coworker of more than fifteen years ago? I did not supervise this person and have mixed feelings about his job performance. Because we had to work together, I strove to maintain a positive working relationship. I am not certain, but I think he left my current employer under pressure, although I do not believe he was actually fired. I also suspect that my current supervisor has a negative view of this individual. What should I say to my former colleague?
When I first read your question, I asked twenty friends and acquaintances what they would suggest. Though my sample is small, the strategies they suggested not only show several ways to approach your question, but highlight a need to share some advice about how we choose our responses to these kinds of challenges.
The quandary you’ve shared is one a lot of people can identify with. Many of us face challenging situations where we have to determine the following: Is candor more important than courtesy? Do I care more about the truth or the friendship? Do I want to get along or get it right? Should I be honest and mean or dishonest and nice?
So what were the suggested strategies, in order of frequency? Drum roll, please.
Suggestion #1. Tell him yes and then don’t do it. I was surprised that this was the most frequent response. Why respond this way? Essentially, people said that they like being friendly and hate saying no. The easiest way to get out of this dilemma is to agree to the request and then not follow through. One fellow said that it would be easy to forget to do it. Some others said that these job recommendations don’t count for much anyway. Clearly, these people value getting along more than getting it right.
Suggestion #2. Tell him yes and then write only what you can honestly say. The reasons driving this suggestion were essentially the same as in Suggestion #1. People still want to be helpful and yet they don’t see the value in a job recommendation. So they justify writing only the bare essentials like dates, job description, etc. What they are writing is a history, not a job recommendation. These people, too, value relationships more than truth.
Suggestion #3. Just tell him no. Here the suggestions were accompanied by some editorials. Essentially, he is not a friend or close acquaintance. You merely worked together fifteen years ago. So, what’s the big deal in telling him no? In this choice, candor is valued more than courtesy.
Suggestion #4. Be honest with him and tell him nicely that you don’t feel qualified to write a recommendation. This suggestion is the same as Suggestion #3 with added measure of courtesy and respect. The rationale here was logical. You worked together too long ago to write a valid recommendation or recall specific details. Not to mention there are legal requirements that make writing a recommendation seem risky. So tell your coworker from years past your reasons for not helping him out. Clearly, in this choice people value relationship and truth.
Those who suggested the fourth option have not fallen into what we call the “Fool’s Choice.” Instead of seeing the challenge as an “either/or” choice, they reframe the challenge with an “AND.” Instead of thinking, “I can decline giving the job recommendation and lose a friend, or I can give the job recommendation and not be honest with my employer,” they think, “How can I decline writing the job recommendation and keep a friend? How can I give the recommendation and be true to my friend and the company?”
First, I want to make it clear that I vote for Suggestion #4. Second, I want to share an outlying suggestion that humbled me. When I asked one friend what she would do in your situation, this wise and sensitive person responded in a way that helped me see an opportunity for growth. She said, “If someone is asking for a job recommendation from a coworker from fifteen years ago, I imagine the person is pretty desperate to find a job. I’d decline writing the job recommendation and explain that my memory wasn’t that good and that recommendations are best when they are current and from a boss.” Then she said, “Then I’d ask if there was anything I could do to help him find a job. What kind of job was he looking for? What were his skills? What new competencies had he developed?” I, and eighteen others, had answered the surface challenge and assumed we were done. Only one person asked if there was a deeper, more relevant need to be addressed. It was an “aha” moment for me and a good lesson we can all apply.