Being a job reference

Since I have had quite a few people work for me over the years, I usually get at least a dozen requests for letters of recommendation or calls for job references every year.  Sometimes they come in spurts – like a few months ago when I had a friend here that I think started to not believe how many times I told them it was a reference check!  I received 3 calls in 4 hours.

First, I never write letters of recommendation.  I DO occasionally sign letters of recommendation though.  What I mean is that I always make my ex-employee write the letters.  And I tell them, “I won’t edit it.  Either I sign what you send me, or I won’t”.

This actually forces ex-employees to be very honest – with themselves, mostly.   It’s unusual for me to not sign one of the letters I have been sent – generally I find people get very honest when they know they are being fact-checked.

But only about 20% of the people that ask for a recommendation and are asked instead to write their own, ever send me anything.  Most of them must consider it too much work (but they were willing to ask me to do it for them!)

Find THAT 20% of the workforce for your company – they are people that understand that they are not perfect, they can improve, and they are honest with themselves – in my experience.  And if they are honest with themselves, they won’t be dishonest with you.

I do always grant interviews with a potential employer about a former employee, if they ask.  It normally takes 5-10 minutes…

Unless the people doing the interviews are the FBI or Department of Homeland Security.  I’ve had a couple of those meetings lately.  They take a LONG time.

I remember being at a local coffee shop with an FBI agent and answering the question, “Would you be comfortable with <name> being employed by the FBI?”

I answered, “Hell no – not only would I not feel comfortable with <name> working for the you, I would actually be afraid if he worked for you!”

Just then the waitress had turned the corner and she heard only my response – and she said, “My, aren’t you harsh!”

No, I am NOT harsh.  I was a generous boss.  And I have been generous with my job references.  But if someone lied to me, or cheated in some way – well, then I am harsh.  If someone has a destructive personal life that seems to invade the workplace every day, then I am harsh. If someone promises me something and time and time again fails to deliver, then I am harsh. 

But I am fair.  I see nothing wrong with asking someone to write their own recommendation – I see nothing wrong with asking them to step back and assess themselves.  In fact, I find self-assessment to be a critical aspect in my own life – especially since I don’t “have a boss”.   I don’t have annual reviews. I please customers, or I lose them – there isn’t a lot of discussion along the way!

So if you worked for me, and you want a reference, I suggest you write an honest self-assessment.  If it is really honest, I will sign it.  If it is not, I won’t.

That seems pretty fair to me.


  1. I had turned my adjectives slider down, so correct that and make that:

    What you friggin think ya freakin r? A stinkin 16 yo?

    Late belated father’s day, ya 2 ol’ flks!

  2. @rob: you calling him an old fart? What are you, a 16 year old? πŸ˜‰ πŸ˜›

    Late Belated Father’s Day ya 2 ol’ ppl!

  3. πŸ™‚ OK, I give – I *did* work for you 😯

    Happy Father’s Day, you old fart ❗ ❗ ❗

  4. “who paid your rent, bought your computers, installed the Margarita machine, organized almost every office get together, made sure you had lights on and coffee (and β€˜Ritas) brewing?”

    By puting it this way you made me realize you …. worked for ME!

    You can ask me for a reference any time! πŸ˜‰

  5. @Paul – one thing I learned a long, long time ago – when I worked in Medicine – those who have malpractice insurance get sued. Those who do not, do not.

    As an individual, I don’t feel too much concern about a suit – but certainly – when I worked for a corporation I did exactly as you suggested – I walked the company line and gave nothing but “yes, they worked for me from X to Y” answers…

    But it’s COMPLETELY different when talking to the FBI or DHS – they actually OFFER you anonymity (and I think it’s wonderful that they do – they need the honest answers).

    Ans as for who you worked for – think back a bit – who paid your rent, bought your computers, installed the Margarita machine, organized almost every office get together, made sure you had lights on and coffee (and ‘Ritas) brewing?

    If you DIDN’T work for that guy, then you worked for the wrong guy πŸ˜‰



  6. Rob Rob Rob … your vivid imagination is getting the upper hand here …
    Of course I appreciated your efforts to keep us developers honest by placing those “Inspected by #12” labels on our products, but to suggest that we worked for you … *smile* Why don’t you just, honestly, admit that you were glad to have served us in your QA role?

    And if you can backup your claim that you once were my boss… there are certain aspects about compensation that we need to talk about! Bring “a white crystalline compound, CH3COOC6H4COOH, derived from salicylic acid”!

    Anyway, since you’re handling this many job references (every year), I hope you’re aware of the legal ‘thin ice’ of providing much more than start and end days of employement and job descriptions, when people call for references!
    To give an example: By law, you are obliged to report the “HELL no” referral to the ex-employee involved. And if you can’t back it up with solid evidence, that person is EXTREMELY likely to win a lawsuit! (If this is the case I think you’re referring to, you may have that evidence… I’m only giving an example!).

  7. Sure you did! ALL of development worked for QA – we were just very, very polite about it πŸ˜‰


  8. So YOU costed me my job with the FBI!!

    (Oh wait .. I never worked for you…)