How Not to Be an A-hole When…

… You Don’t Want to Recommend a Former Coworker

How do you deal with a former coworker who is a super nice person, but not great at their job, asking you to write a LinkedIn recommendation for them?

I don’t use LinkedIn all that much. I haven’t aggressively looked for a new job in a few years, and I’m not totally clear on what purpose it serves beyond that (don’t email me). I do have a profile on there — with an updated picture now, because that head shot from 12 years ago just seems dishonest at this point — and apparently over 300 connections (I didn’t think I knew that many people). I’m familiar with endorsements, but didn’t realize that one could do written recommendations, too. Interesting.

I think recommendations are much trickier than LinkedIn endorsements. Endorsements can be narrowly focused, and one can endorse a person in one area without saying they’d be a great fit for a specific job or even field, depending on the endorsement area. Recommendations in this context, however, require a broader understanding of the person as a whole. Moreover, they are not just an endorsement of the person you’re recommending; they can also impact your own reputation.

How? Well, when I recommend someone for a job, I’m telling the hiring manager that I believe, based on what I know of the job and the person, that they would be a good fit and do good work. If it turns out I’m way off — and in a way that I should have recognized — that could damage my reputation and my ability to make recommendations for other qualified people in the future.

Sure, there are things you just can’t know about a person, but that doesn’t seem to be the issue you here, as you said that they are not great at their job. I’m not clear if you’re saying they weren’t great at their job when you worked together, or if you have insider knowledge about their current position, though, which I think could make a difference. But regardless, if you are concerned about burning a bridge or ending up in a situation where you have to share criticism that you don’t want to share, then I’d offer to endorse them in areas that you can confidentially endorse them in. Perhaps they are easy to get along with, or good on a team, or have subject matter expertise in a certain area. Then leave it at that.

If they push for more, I suggest declining gently. For example (and only use these if they’re true), you could say you only recommend people you worked with for a certain amount of time, or people you still work with, or people you’ve worked closely with, or something like that. Basically, you can find a parameter that is both true and that you can continue to uphold.

Because it would be an asshole move to say you don’t ever write recommendations, and then the next day write one for someone else. It’s fine to not want to write one for your coworker, but you shouldn’t lie to them about the reason why. You can also simply share that you aren’t as knowledgeable about their skills now that they aren’t your coworker anymore, and that you don’t think a recommendation you would write would necessarily be helpful.

Ideally they’ll take that and seek out a different colleague for a recommendation, but if they trust you or have been finding their request for a recommendation unanswered often, they might ask for something more from you. In that instance, it’s up to you how invested you are in helping them navigate improving their work habits.

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