Need advice: Should I tell my boss this?

A couple of months ago, a co-worker with whom I got along well was fired. She had quite a large set of job responsibilities. Everything I needed from her was done quickly and well - I had no problems working with her.

However, she apparently did not perform satisfactorily in other areas. Although I am not a first-hand witness to her failures, I tend to think her shortcomings were real. Also, she had a subordinate who is quite incompetent; I think one reason she failed to meet expectations is because she could not rely on him to get things done in a timely fashion.

She asked me for a reference and I agreed, figuring I could give her an honest reference that was good without being misleading (“everything she did for me was excellent and her work for me involved these skills; I cannot comment on other areas as I didn’t work with her on those activities”).

That worked pretty well, especially as I was given a written form to complete and that gave me a chance to carefully consider my replies. Also, the company that asked me for a reference was completely unrelated to my firm, so I thought it would not come back to bite me in any way.

Unfortunately, she then asked for another reference, from an organization in the same community of organizations with which I work. I said yes, figuring I would do the same as before. However, they called me, and while I did follow the same path, it was much harder to be simultaneously positive yet neutral. As soon as I said “well, I would hire her for a job that involved skills x and y” the woman who called was ready to terminate the discussion - clearly, they wanted confirmation from me because they hoped to hire her.

They also asked why she left and I stated that I didn’t know for sure but that she had had health problems related to the stress of the job, it was too much for her. (This is true but incomplete - she DID get sick a number of times, probably due to job stress, but although I don’t know the precise details of what took place in the HR office, they asked her to leave.)

I also told the person calling for the reference - and this is true - that the job duties of her replacement had been reduced, suggesting that there may have been recognition that she had trouble getting the job done without stressing out because the workload was unreasonable. I added that I had NO inside information on this, but simply knew the job duties had been reduced after her departure. (No qualifications here - that is absolutely 100% correct and I have no buts or caveats to add.)

What worries me now is that she’ll get the job and not be great at it, and the people there will harrumph to themselves “huh, CairoCarol’s office gave her a good reference - what’s with THOSE jerks?”

I feel a little traitorous now. I like my boss, office, and co-workers. I don’t want my employer to look bad if the ex-employee doesn’t work out well at her new job. (Maybe she will, and then it won’t be a problem. But what if it turns out to be a bad fit?)

One last bit of possibly relevant info: I always stuck up for the person who was let go - not in a defensive way, but when her performance was being criticized I would say “look, I know all of you work with her in a different capacity than I do, but she always does her work very promptly and competently for me. Also, her subordinate is totally useless and there is no way she can get the job done while being forced to rely on him - HE’s the one I would target, not her.”

So I don’t think it would come as a huge surprise to anyone that I would give her a decent reference.

Am I under any obligation to tell my boss that I have just given the ex-employee a decent reference for an organization kind of related to ours?

No, you don’t owe your boss an explanation.

In the future, you shouldn’t say anything about someone’s health or reasons they were let go. If they didn’t get a job because of something you said, you could be held liable. It’s best to just state the facts and hang up.

Excellent advice, and I’d follow it in the US. Things are much different in Indonesia, however, and everyone involved in this story except me (and my boss) is an Indonesian citizen. The co-worker had asked me to mention her health problems if I was asked why she left, because that was what she planned to stress when SHE was asked.

I don’t see why should you tell him… isn’t it normal to give references? Only a moron gives a “referee” who’ll give a bad one!

I’d not worry about it - sounds like you did a good job. It’s very difficult giving references for people who are only quite good, certainly a verbal reference over the phone can put you in an awkward spot. If you’re not able to give it 110%, and you’re not talking to someone you know where you can open up a bit, then it’s better to end the call and say that it’s company policy to only provide written references. You can then take up the pen in a considered fashion.

The good thing is that people generally know the score with references - they know that if you have to qualify things like ‘health reasons’ or ‘stress at work’ then they’re getting someone who may not be top drawer. They can then factor that in accordingly - they won’t be thinking CairoCarol didn’t give us the SD here.

I agree with this. Maybe it’s because I worked for the government for a while where all we could do was confirm that someone had worked for us, but I’m very careful about giving references. This is a small place and screwing over another employer will come back to bite you at some point. I also think that although it’s difficult, it’s only fair to come right out and tell the person requesting the reference that they shouldn’t use you as one. Unless there is a specific policy against giving references I wouldn’t tell your boss anything at this point.

No, you do not need to tell your boss about giving a positive reference.

Whether she gets the new job or not is entirely up to the new company. Your reference (should be) only a part of their hiring decision making process. References are “opinions” and any reasonable company will consider that in evaluating a candidate. You were honest in relating your experience of this person, and that’s the most anyone could want from a reference. But your reference alone will not be what lands this person a job.

I think cormac262 has sufficiently covered my opinion to your question.

I did gasp though when you had mentioned health problems. I don’t think that should be brought up in at all. They could ask if her attendance was within guidelines, but that would be for HR to confirm, not you.

I have issue with this due to my wifes experience. She was working for a company that she quite liked when she was diagnosed with MS and was forced to take some time off for health reasons. She was provided a note from her doctor. The company granted her the time off requested. My wife felt that it would be considerate to notify the boss that she was diagnosed but that she would be back at work soon. The boss sent a registered letter stating that she was not allowed back until the doctor could guarantee that the illness would not adversely impact her attendance or performance at work. Basically they fired her, but it allowed her to claim insurance coverage for permanent disability. She would rather have continued to work.

I mention this as your statement could construed as a red flag to indicate that health problems are common and that they would be better off to hire someone else.

Google “job reference giving guidelines” to see what some of the ‘rules’ are.

I always refer calls for reference to HR, but that’s just me. If I can’t give a great reference, I don’t give it and inform the person who is asking me immediately.

That said, you don’t owe your boss an explanation because you were referring her as a co-worker, not as the representative for your institution. HOWEVER, if you were referring her in your company’s name, then go to H.R. and discuss it with them. No reason to involve your boss.

When any company calls me for a reference on a previous employee of mine, I state upfront and very plainly…

“I can and will answer any objective questions you have, but I will not answer any subjective questions.” Liability issues are not a problem with this approach.

Some of the enquirers get what I am saying and proceed with factual questions, like:
How many years with company?
Rate of pay?
Have they received merit raises, and what were the amounts?

Some still try to ask for the subjective:
Do they work well with others? (with other nice people or is your company filled with intolerent assholes? Subjective.)
Can they do certain things on short notice? (1 minute, 1 hour, 1 day, 1 week, 1 month? I wouldn’t know what you consider “short notice”)
How is their quality of work? (What may be a masterpiece to me might be an abomination to you…and vice versa…Subjective)

I do mention to the enquirers that our employees get annual reviews and that they should ask for a copy from their prospective employee. That seems to give them a better feel for who they are planning to hire, and addresses some subjective questions they may have.

Sorry, didn’t notice your location.

Thanks for all the advice everyone … it is unanimous, and consistent with the advice I’ve gotten IRL.

Pretty obviously I’ve been worrying about something I shouldn’t be concerned about, so I’m not going to give it any further thought.

Commenting on a coworker’s health issues is way, way out of bounds and completely inappropriate on your part (not to mention invoking legal overhead in the U.S. depending on the circumstances). You shouldn’t do that. For all you know, it could have been something acute that is under control now. Let the doctors and HR worry about that stuff.

References are not the tool that you seem to think they are. The hiring company has to ask them but they usually know that they are of limited use. After all, the person asking for the reference has already picked the people to give them. I have landed two medium level professional jobs without any references at all. My current job in a mega-corp is one of them. I got hired in a desperate situation within 30 minutes after the first interview and no references could respond that quickly. I got a call from HR 90 days after I started telling me I had to have a reference for my file so I just picked one of my new coworkers and had them fire off a single generic paragraph to go in my file. I did the same for someone else.