“Hey man, this is Ty*, what’s happening?” roared the familiar voice in my Bluetooth earpiece. It was a voice I knew well, and briefly brought a smile to my face. After exchanging pleasantries and catching up a bit, Ty revealed the real reason for his call: “Say, dude, I’m looking for a new job, and I was hoping you’d write me a letter of recommendation.”
In the past, Ty and I had known each other reasonably well, having spent a good deal of time working shoulder-to-shoulder on some very difficult projects many years back. Although our careers had taken different directions and led us to different geographical areas, we had loosely kept in touch over time, so I had a rough idea of where Ty was in his career (and vice versa). I knew him to be an entertaining and interesting guy, never without a story to tell to help pass the time.
Unfortunately, I also knew his professional demeanor. His often-jovial mood could turn sour in a second, both in private and in front of others. He was frequently bitter for no good reason, talked sharply to end users he supported (reaching outright beratement on a couple of occasions), and was largely unmotivated to do any more than was absolutely required. While his technical skills and aptitude were above average, his inability to retain a professional composure limited his effectiveness as a technologist.
Lending a Hand
I love to see people do well in their careers. Specifically, I like to see eager newbies get engaged in something that they’re passionate about, and progressively work their way into senior-level (or even management) roles. Just as enjoyable is to observe a seasoned professional make a career change that allows them to use their years of experience in different ways.
I’ve had the privilege of helping a small number of people in their journey of career progression. Whether it was lending my experience in resume preparation, offering to provide a job reference or letter of recommendation, or just offering counsel to them as they prepared for a job change, I was honored to help out fellow professionals in whom I was a lot of potential. After all, I was the beneficiary of much of the same kind of help as I was getting started, an was glad to have the opportunity to pay it forward.
It’s a Small World, After All
So it’s a no-brainer when one is presented with the opportunity to help out someone with obvious potential. Things get a little trickier when dealing with someone with whom you have a friendship when you have observed that person demonstrate a significant lack of ability and/or professionalism. On one hand, it’s natural to want to help out a friend even if you have reservations about their suitability. However, the world – and the SQL Server community in particular – is very small. The last thing you want to do is to put your stamp on someone (friend or otherwise) whom you know to have serious career-limiting issues. After all, it’s bad for you, bad for their future employer/client/partner, and inevitably is probably bad for your friend as well.
Let ‘Em Down Easy
So how do you turn down a request for a reference/recommendation while preserving the relationship? It’s not an easy thing to do, mind you. The exact response depends on how strong a relationship you have with the person, whether or not you value that relationship, and how open the person is to critical feedback.
There are several different things you can do to avoid a blunt refusal of a questionable request for endorsement:
- Use time as a buffer. Has it been many years since you worked with this person? If a significant amount of time has passed since you knew them professionally, you could politely decline citing that you don’t feel comfortable giving a recommendation because of the length of time since you’ve observed their work habits and skills. Over time, people can change: a motivated worker could become burned out, and conversely, an immature employee could see the error of their ways and get straight. If it’s been many years since you’ve dealt with them, it’s probably not fair to assume that he’s still at either end of the spectrum, whether he was a superstar or slacker.
- Shoot straight. Do you value this person’s friendship and want to see them improve? Is your relationship such that you can give them honest feedback without setting them off? If the reason you hesitate to offer your endorsement is an attribute that someone could reasonably be expected to change, level with them. Tell them the potential you see in them, but that you’ve got some reservations about putting your name on the line for them. This approach is not without risks, so proceed with caution. However, for the right person, this might be just the right thing to put them on the right path to a successful career.
- Help in other ways. Remember, they are asking for your endorsement. It’s not a demand; you have the right to say no. You could simply reply that you don’t feel comfortable offering your recommendation, but offer to help in other ways. Does their resume need a touch-up? Maybe they could use a mock interview to prepare for the job hunt? Are they lacking a specific technical skill that you have? There are many ways to help that don’t involve a formal recommendation, and one of these could allow you to provide assistance to your friend without risking your own street cred to do so.
In my case, I simply declined Ty’s request for a recommendation letter. It had been a long while since we worked together, I replied to him, and I didn’t know his current skillset or demeanor and wouldn’t feel comfortable offering my recommendation. Had we been closer friends, I’d likely have worked with him to help him understand the concerns that I had about his interpersonal interactions. But in this case, I just politely declined and left it at that.
So how do you handle these cases? Have you had to turn down a friend that requested your endorsement? How did you handle it?
* Not his real name