Professional referrals need to be accurate, or else they’re worse than useless. Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger Keil Hubert rejects the argument that leaders can get away with subtly nuanced personnel assessments that disguise the truth about an underperforming employee.
Referrals and character references can be great opportunities to make a positive difference in the world of work, assuming that that the person making the referral tells the truth. Unfortunately, the prospect of ‘telling the truth’ makes some leaders break out in hives. I’ve known people who would fold like a tissue stepladder when asked to describe a current or former subordinate. I can’t fathom why it’s difficult to assess the good and bad attributes of a person that you’ve had ample opportunity to observe and evaluate up-close. This is what we do every day! On the other hand, I can empathize with how communicating one’s candid assessment might be unsettling. I get that an employee might be offended the first time that they hear your candid opinion of their work … or their personality.
That being said, it’s a leader’s job to accurately evaluate his or her people and to give them feedback regarding their strengths and weaknesses. That information has to exist. So when an outsider comes asking for it as a result of the employee’s own actions (like a job application), it’s in the best interests of the leader, the employee, and the requesting organisation to disclose it. It’s not like the inquiring organisation isn’t going to find out what the employee’s odious attributes are; they’re almost certainly going to interact directly with the employee. They’ll find out first-hand what the employee is like, either during an interview, or after they bring the employee aboard. Therefore, tell the truth.
This seems like it ought to be obviously in everyone’s best interests. That being said, I’ve seen leaders get apoplectically anxious when an employer, head-hunter, or background investigator asks about one of their people. Many leaders are either incapable or unwilling to respond forthrightly. I sort of get that. On the one hand, I understand the natural urge to be charitable and indistinct when speaking about an employee (especially a current one!) in case your words get repeated back to them. No sane leader wants to generate unnecessary interpersonal drama around the office. 
It’s tough enough getting work done without all the shouting, petty infighting, and vengeful gossiping. It’s rational to want to suppress any sort of new manifestation.
On the other hand, supervisory evaluations, are supposed to be sober, insightful assessments of a worker’s character. That is, they’re a rational analysis based on facts, records, and observations. If a leader is doing his or her job properly, they have a considered opinion regarding each one of the people who make up their first subordinate tier. They also have at least a general impression of the people who occupy the next tier down. When someone asks a leader for their opinion about a person who worked directly for them, they should be able to describe the subject well enough to convey the employee’s work habits, default attitude, personality traits, desires, dislikes, specializations, and quirks. If a leader can’t do that, it suggests that they didn’t invest the time required to know their own direct reports. That’s a clear sign that they’ve failed their people … and their company as well.
To be fair, answering an inquiry honestly is no guarantee that the person you’re informing will act rationally on the information they’re given. People being irrational, flawed, and easily distracted. There’s always a chance that the person listening to your assessment will completely miss your point. Sometimes this is because they have no frame of reference with which to put your remarks in context. Other times, the other person’s contrary worldview makes them either value or devalue attributes such that your praise comes across as condemnation (or vice versa). Sometimes, you find yourself talking at (never with) a complete idiot. Interpersonal exchanges are often a crapshoot.
Nonetheless, I argue that a leader has a moral (and sometimes legal) obligation to be truthful when an outsider asks for his or her opinion. I spent a long time working in the public sector, where security clearance investigators would painstakingly dig into every employee’s background, hunting for signs that the employee might be compromised. When an interviewer asks you about a current or former service member, they always ask if so-and-so can be trusted to handle classified national security information. If you have any reason to say no, you’re obligated to report that … Employees’ feelings don’t mean a damned thing when a poor investment of trust could lead to, say, lost lives.
Most other times, though, the stakes are much less dire and the circumstances aren’t so black and white. Those are the exchanges that test a leader’s integrity. How do you react when you’re presented with a chance to rid your team of a bad employee? Will you lie – claim that the miscreant is a great asset – so that some other organisation will take him or her off your hands? Or will you tell the uncomfortable truth, knowing that the harsh facts will cause you to be stuck with the miscreant?
If an employee’s attitude was crap before he knew that you thought poorly of him, how much worse is his attitude going to be after he learns that you tanked his chance to leave for a better gig?
There’s no easy answer to this problem. I’ve read essays and business cases arguing both sides of the debate. Some pragmatists argue that it’s morally justified to bend the truth in order to excise a cancerous character from your environment (the caveat emptor rationalisation). Ethical hardliners counter that it’s never morally right to foist your hot mess of a bad employee on some other manager or employer; you own the bad actor, so fix him or her yourself.
I’ve heard several wise and decent people argue that you can satisfy both your conscience and your organisation by telling just enough of the truth in a personnel evaluation to deliberately beg the question  while still being accurate enough to be understood as a negative position if considered in the right context. This rhetorical manoeuvre shifts the burden of proof from the person possessing the relevant evidence to the investigator; for the nuanced warning to work, the questioner needs to be sharp enough to realize that the answer he or she has been given can be interpreted as both praise and condemnation simultaneously. A good detective will recognize is as double-speak.
I tried using this approach shortly after I took over a government agency’s IT department. One of the young firebrands I’d inherited announced that he was ‘done’ with public service. He told us that we weren’t providing him with enough opportunity given his inherent and obvious potential for greatness. The young man –we’ll call him ‘Bobby’  – let his supervisor know that he was going (not ‘applying to;’ going) to a prestigious business school to pick up his MBA before continuing on to a lucrative career in corporate finance.
I’d only known Bobby for about six months, but I’d already tagged him as an arrogant fellow. He had a frustrating habit of alienating his co-workers, ignoring orders, and generally being a pain in the neck. The prospect of Bobby leaving us met with across-the-board enthusiasm. His supervisors begged me to do anything that I could do to expedite his departure. To be clear, Bobby wasn’t hated in the department. He was just an irritating fellow that no one wanted to work with. I agreed to endorse him for graduate school, but I made it clear that I wasn’t about to lie for him.
Bobby’s manager drove me to distraction, begging me to make the kid out as the greatest business genius the world had ever produced just so that we could get him out of the organisation.
A few weeks later, I received an e-mail request from the prestigious business school’s MBA programme coordinator asking me for my considered opinion on young Bobby. It took me hours to strike just the right balance between being completely candid and vaguely supportive.
The school’s first question was an easy one: ‘How long and in what capacity have you known the applicant?’ I had no problem answering that. ‘Since [month, year] when I first took over his department,’ I wrote. ‘I have closely monitored Bobby’s duty performance.’ That was simple enough. Easy statement of fact.
The next question kept me running in circles for a half-hour: ‘What areas of the applicant’s professional character have improved the most in the time that you have known him or her?’ Egad, that was tricky. Bobby didn’t take advice from anyone, ever. Improved? I didn’t want to be so crass as to say that the man had never shown an ounce of improvement … even though that would have been entirely true. I eventually crafted the following response, hoping that the reader would be savvy enough to read between the lines: ‘Bobby has shown progress in learning to subordinate himself to lawful authority. … Bobby, like all young technicians, is being actively mentored to properly understand his operational and professional context.’
I assumed that any reader who had practical experience managing employees would correctly interpret this to mean that Bobby was a conceited and disrespectful junior employee who regularly bucked his chain of command. Since Bobby had applied to a business school, someone on the intake committee had to have been a real manager at some point. Surely this would set off alarm bells.
The third question was worse. The school asked ‘What characteristics do you consider to be the applicant’s principal talents or strengths?’ Bobby was bright; there was no denying that. He was educated, too. Bobby was one of the only techs we had who had completed an undergraduate degree. Still, he never put his education to use in the office; he was a feckless, lacklustre worker who refused to follow written procedures. He was smart enough to know several ways to fix malfunctioning equipment, but not wise enough to fix the equipment in the manner mandated by the national office. I decided to be a lot less subtle with this third answer: ‘Bobby is technically confident,’ I said. ‘He is absolutely fearless when it comes to proposing new technical solutions, and is eager to make improvements throughout our organisation. Bobby strikes me as the ideal MBA candidate since he appears to value enthusiasm over experience.’
Yes, I know that this is how Dot Com cultures typically do business, but it was NOT meant as a compliment. Consider the epic graveyard of bankrupt Dot Coms as exhibit one for the defence.
I realised that my phrasing might be easy to misinterpret. As a glance, my words sounded like I admired his enthusiasm. High praise … if you’d never served in a leadership capacity before. A seasoned manager would understand that passion and ambition are great attributes in a worker, provided that they’re tempered with respect. Bobby’s open contempt of regulated business practices made it darned near impossible to get any meaningful work out of him. If Bobby didn’t agree with a standard procedure, he’d either refuse to do the work, or else he’d ignore the mandatory process and do things his way. That made him more of an active detriment to our organisation than an asset.
In the evaluation’s fourth and final question, the school asked: ‘What do you perceive to be the applicant’s weaknesses?’ I pushed my chair back and walked away. I really wanted to help Bobby move on so that we could get him out of our hair, but I didn’t want to screw over some future business. I eventually came up with this: ‘Bobby’s natural enthusiasm and naked ambition frequently come across as disrespectful arrogance to his supervisors and his peers. Although his behaviour is normal for a young man of his age, and although his behaviour would likely go unnoticed in some corporate settings, it’s disquieting to senior leadership in our organisation. Fortunately for Bobby, his chain-of-command recognises the problem, believes in Bobby’s long-term potential, and is resolved to teach Bobby better ways to express and to conduct himself in a government office.’
I worried that I was being far too blatant in my language. Surely anyone who read that passage would understand that Bobby was an unmitigated git. Surely they’d realize that he was a complicated young fellow possessing both raw potential and sharp edges. Surely the screener would want to hold a more candid and detail-focused conversation – a two-sided one, at that – to assemble an accurate profile of Bobby’s character so that they could make an informed decision.
I filled out the rest of the ratings section and submitted my evaluation. I’d walked the thin line between transparent and deceptive as carefully as I could. The graduate school had my e-mail address, phone number, and mailing address. If they had any doubts at all whether or not Bobby was an appropriate student, all they had to do was ask for clarification. I’d been forthright in describing his attributes – both good and bad – but I’d also been nuanced enough in my descriptions that a halfway-competent reader would appreciate that there was more to Bobby’s story. Anyone with a rudimentary level of detective skill would be inspired to dig deeper into the story and learn the truth.
‘Freeze this guy’s application! My instincts tell me that there’s something suspicious about this endorsement!’
Of course that didn’t happen. There was no follow up. Bobby got accepted into his prestigious business school and finished his MBA a few years later. Last I heard from one of his mates, Bobby bounced from one job to another: eight different corporate positions in five or six over ten years. I’d love to think that business school helped Bobby sober up (metaphorically) and become a humble, empathetic, and valuable team player. I suspect that Bobby simply went on being Bobby: conceited, entitled, and insufferable.
I tried using indirect language for a few more employees’ school and job inquires, noticed that my message was consistently misinterpreted, and finally gave the practice up. The next time a recruiter came around asking about one of my awful employee’s suitability for an upper management job, I responded bluntly that the man wasn’t fit to supervise a pallet of paving stones. My assessment may have been harsh, but it was absolutely true … and it couldn’t possibly be misinterpreted.
To that end, I think that honesty really is the best policy when it comes to assessments. If there’s any chance that a subtle, nuanced assessment can be misinterpreted, it will be. A responsible leader shouldn’t rely on an investigator to draw the right conclusions. Just say what needs to be said. Don’t use a weak or misleading referral as your alibi to shunt your problem child onto some other organisation.
 The key qualifier here is ‘sane;’ most offices have what we call ‘drama generators.’ These are unstable, anti-social people who crave the emotional rush of interpersonal strife, and will deliberately create some anytime that the office calms down.
 In the original sense; not the modern. That is, asking a question in such a way that the question itself assets that the intended conclusion is true.
 Nowhere close to his real name, obviously.
Title Allusion: Sue Grafton, A is for Alibi (1982 book)
POC is Keil Hubert, firstname.lastname@example.org
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.