The boss's incompetent son wants an employment reference!

I got put on the spot and lied for him once, but I can't do it again.

Published May 17, 2007 10:55AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I work at a small non-governmental agency that does social advocacy work. One of my co-workers when I started here, "Chuck," is the son of one of the board of directors' executive members. It became evident pretty quickly that this was clearly a nepotism-driven hiring, as the young man was completely unqualified to do the work. He had problems communicating to the point of becoming almost catatonic if he was under the slightest stress -- mumbling, unable to make eye contact and finally clamming up altogether. In fact, mumbling and inability to make eye contact were standard whether he was under any particular stress or not. He was paralyzed by indecision and lack of self-confidence and had to be hand-held through the simplest tasks. He had zero initiative because of these confidence and communication issues. I felt sorry for the poor kid and helped him out as much as I could, but was hugely relieved when he decided to leave the organization and go back to school for a year.

I was shocked and horrified a few hours ago to get a phone call from a prospective employer who told me that "Chuck" had listed me as a reference on his résumé! He never asked my permission and if he had, I have no idea what I would've said. To make matters worse, he listed me as a supervisor (while I did help and instruct him a lot out of necessity, technically we were at the same level of the hierarchy and reported to the board of directors). I stumbled through the phone call as best I could, trying to highlight his good points. (He would do what he was asked if it was clearly outlined for him, and he was as pleasant as his communication problems allowed him to be.) But at the same time, I have my own professional reputation to think of in this sector, which is quite close-knit, and I had to be honest about his communication and confidence issues. I emphasized that those things may have changed in the year he'd been away at school.

I felt sick at the end of the call. I feel sick knowing he is pinning part of his career hopes on me, not realizing I am going to end up sabotaging his efforts every time to some extent if I can't figure out what to do about this. To make things worse, his father is now the president of our board of directors and my direct boss! So I don't know how on earth I could tell him to stop using my name as a reference without angering his father.

Cary, what on earth can I do if I get another of these calls?

Unwilling Reference

Dear Unwilling Reference,

Having a preference for acting on principle in the workplace, I suggest this: Contact this young man and tell him that you want to help him in his job search, but that he was in error in putting you down as a reference without telling you.

Then explain the correct process. He needs to call the person he wants a reference from, or contact them in writing, and ask if they are willing to serve as a reference. At that time he can answer any questions they might have about what positions he might be applying for, and how he is planning to describe his former duties and their professional relationship.

Tell him that as a favor to him, and out of concern for his career, you handled this call in a professional way. You gave him a reference. You did not want to embarrass him or cause him harm. But make it clear that he put you on the spot. Emphasize that he needs to learn how to go about this in the right way. Remind him that the only way to learn these important business lessons is by doing.

Tell him that you are not mad at him or trying to make life difficult for him. You are trying to show him how to do it correctly. Then, having said all that, tell him that as a consequence of his having gone about it in the wrong way, you are not going to give him any more references. He is going to have to start over from scratch with someone else.

He may conclude that you are a very mean person and should be fired. So before he has a chance to tell his father that you are a very mean person and should be fired, contact his father yourself and tell him in confidence what has just transpired. Say that you gave his son one reference out of courtesy but that, out of principle, you won't be able to give him another one.

Sure, you're taking a risk. But acting on principle puts you in a position of relative power. And, although you're omitting some crucial information, you're not really lying. If someone asks you point-blank for your opinion on his performance, simply explain that the only reason your opinion would be relevant is if you were offering him a reference for a job, and you have recused yourself on principle from that obligation. Ha! Take that! That's your story and you're sticking to it!

There are other choices, of course. You could continue to lie. You could do lots of things. You could do nothing. But this choice is my favorite. It's the one choice that offers some clarity and the prospect of real positive change.

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