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Crucial Conversations QA

Stuck Between Friendship and a Lie

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Al Switzler

Al Switzler is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.

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Crucial Conversations

Q  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?

Sincerely,

Undecided

A Dear Undecided,

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.

Best Wishes,

Al

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Al Switzler

Al Switzler is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for organizational change. For thirty years, Al has delivered engaging keynotes for an impressive list of clientele including AT&T, Xerox, IBM, and Sprint. Al’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500. read more

6 thoughts on “Stuck Between Friendship and a Lie”

  1. For what I usually find in these columns, I found the first choices listed atypically poor, but felt a little better about the 4th. However, if a person begins with honesty (does not preclude delivering the message privately in a way to be most helpful) I believe it is less important whether the recommendation would be positive or negative. I respond to these requests by explaining to the person what I am permitted to do and generally what I would say so that they can choose if they would still like my referral. Often there are corporate limitations for any referrals that would speak with an official company voice whether I was the direct supervisor or not. If it is a personal character reference, I focus on providing what I have observed firsthand and of course let them know what I would generally be saying so they can choose. Not being honest with the individual is not helping them, particularly if receiving some tough feedback might have opened their eyes to making some positive changes as they embark on a new career. At the end of the day, not being upfront is less about protecting the individual and more about my taking the easy way out.

  2. Without reading your options, I immediately went to the same answer as your #4 and wondered why – 15 years later, they would come to me. I would ask if there’s a reason the person doesn’t feel they can ask someone more current since I don’t feel qualified to respond to the request. I’d offer to look at their resume, as well and see if they want feedback. And, I would let them know I will keep my eyes and ears open for positions that may fit their job search

  3. Option#4 is the best answer is this situation. I believe the person in question might have something to hide. Why not make a request from his most current employer or friends from most recent job? Decline and save your head.

  4. Al, nice reminder about responding to what you describe as the ‘surface challenge’. In my work in schools I come across people who, often with the best of intentions, find it hard to say no to responses such as the one you describe.

  5. I would suggest you provide your leader with details of your accomplishments. This should be for the entire team. Your leaders don’t always have this information available. Providing them with this tool will allow them to acknowledge all members of your team. Communication in both directions is essential.

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