I Wrote a Letter of Reference and Now I Regret It.

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Dear Robin:

About 9 months ago I wrote a letter of reference for a co-worker who I didn’t know very well but who I liked and considered a smart and hard worker.  He was not happy at our company and was looking for another position so agreed to help him (I am not his direct supervisor but I hold a position fairly high up in the company).

Today, I understand why he isn’t doing well at our company.  He is divisive and avoids hard work at all costs.  Chronically late or absent, he is poison to the team and I can’t believe he hasn’t been fired yet.

I heard he is interviewing at a company I am familiar with and have a good relationship with their CEO.  I am considering retracting my letter of reference by calling the CEO and telling him this guy is not what he seems on paper.  What do you think?  Can I get in trouble for this?

“Sarah”

Dear Sarah:

This is a really good question, mostly because I can totally relate to it, and this “helping people through giving advice” thing is really all about me!

Years ago, I met someone who at first blush seemed like a decent albeit not the brightest person.  During the initial stages of getting to know this individual, they informed me they had a very serious legal problem and pleaded for help from me and my family.

I won’t go into details but a letter was written to a judge asking for leniency and vouching for the good character of this person.  In case you think I am violating some sort of attorney-client privilege, I am not.  Neither I nor anyone in my family was this person’s attorney in any capacity.

Before the ink was dry on the letter but after it was on its way to the courthouse, it became clear that this person was unstable, devoid of any sense of personal responsibility, a habitual (but terrible) liar, delusional, dangerous, deeply stupid and irresponsible beyond measure.

Do I regret that letter was written to the judge and that the judge treated this person with extreme leniency?  Yes.

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Was the letter to the judge rescinded or followed up with a “never mind!”?  No.

Instead, I made a mental note the combined size of the ego and ass of the Divorce Lawyer Who Shall Not Be Named (in other words, really big) which read:

NEVER VOUCH FOR SOMEONE UNLESS YOU KNOW THEM VERY, VERY WELL.

While I understand your reluctance to be identified as a supporter of Mr. Wonderful, I don’t advise you to call anyone and try to retract your earlier letter of support.  Why? Let’s do numbers because I am in a rush this morning:

1. You could subject yourself and your company to defamation and other potential claims by Mr. Wonderful.  I am not your lawyer so I won’t say more than that but just trust me, you should resist the urge to give the real scoop on this guy because the negative blowback could be severe.

2. You don’t know if Mr. Wonderful may do well at another company as opposed to your own.  Sometimes people just don’t fit in with certain organizations or people and they react poorly to their work environment.  For example: me, at any company, with anyone.

Perhaps Mr. Wonderful needs a fresh start to become the type of employee you claimed him to be in your reference letter.  After all, there was something about him you admired at one time-is it possible his behavior results from being in the wrong company?

3. If Mr. Wonderful is the shitty employee you say he is, I wouldn’t do anything to screw up his chances of getting another job.  That’s like calling up your alimony recipient ex-wife’s rich boyfriend when you hear he is about to propose to her and saying “don’t do it man – she’s a crazy bitch!”

It’s not in your company’s best interests to prevent him from getting another job so don’t stand in the way of him becoming someone else’s problem.

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4. Rescinding the letter in such an affirmative way doesn’t reflect well on you.  That action illustrates that you give your backing to people too soon and without good reason and also that your judgment can’t be trusted.  You may want to work with this company some day so I’d avoid outing yourself as a bit flakey.

5. Finally, I don’t think this will actually be a problem for you at all.  Here’s why: most companies wouldn’t hire someone based on a 9-month-old letter of reference.

What will probably happen is someone will call you up and ask you about this guy, at which point you can say, “I’m sorry, our company policy is not to give out any information beyond dates of employment, position held, and salary information” or whatever your company policy actually is.

I’m betting it’s something close to that (and as a result, you may have violated your company policy by providing the letter of reference in the first place – oopsie!) because these days most organizations won’t provide anything but the most basic information on former employees or current ones looking for work elsewhere for the defamation reason I referenced above.

My advice may not seem especially helpful to you in this particular situation but if you view it in terms of potential positive outcomes for the future I think you’ll appreciate it more.

“Your network is your net worth,” as some ridiculous business motivational speaker once bleated, and although I find the quote a bit cynical and mercenary I do think it is accurate in that you will be judged by the company you keep and especially the company for which you vouch.

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Robin