Watch that reference you write on LinkedIn and other sites

No good deed goes unpunishedI get requests from time to time to post a referral for someone on LinkedIn. Apparently, headhunters and recruiters like to see these especially for sales professionals.
Written by Brian Sommer, Contributor

No good deed goes unpunished

I get requests from time to time to post a referral for someone on LinkedIn. Apparently, headhunters and recruiters like to see these especially for sales professionals. I’ve done a couple and demurred from doing so on others.

BusinessWeek alerted its readers to exercise caution when doing so. In effect, these are scenarios you do not want to get into:

- Suppose you have an employee that has recently left and they ask you for a LinkedIn reference. If this was a marginal employee, the former employee could use your reference as evidence that they were wrongly dismissed or entitled to a better severance, etc.

- Suppose you asked a poor performer to leave the firm and they asked you for a reference on a social network. That person could also use your online remarks to eviscerate any justification you had for past poor performance. Seriously, how could someone have been as glowing as you made them out to be on the online website yet get such poor reviews at work.

- Apparently, employment lawyers get real nervous if you write these referrals to actively employed subordinates. Think about this folks! If they are a great person, why are they in need of this referral? Are they about to leave your firm? If they’re not so hot, they’re making it harder for you to discipline or fire them. Maybe, just maybe, they’re preparing for that rumored layoff or firing and they want all the ammo they can get for their future employment litigation/claim. None of these scenarios sound like win/win to me.

When people ask you for these referrals, ask yourself this: What do I get from this? If all you get is a nervous feeling in your gut, an increased risk of litigation and a writing homework assignment, then run away from this request.

There are other equally troubling scenarios. For example:

- Suppose a colleague (or several colleagues) writes a referral on a terminated employee. Could those referrals be used as a basis for the terminated employee to appeal a denial for unemployment compensation?

- Suppose you write an online referral for someone and another firm relies on your referral as part of its employment process. Are you now liable, even partially, if the referred person turns out to be violent, harmful, a thief, etc.?

Referrals speak volumes about the person being referred as well as the person writing the referral. When you write a referral you are extending your personal brand to the other person. They can either enhance or detract from your brand. Write referrals carefully and decide carefully whether you wish to do them at all.

Personally, I won’t write a referral for someone that I barely know. If you don’t make the effort to get to know me, why would you think I could or would write a referral for you? I won’t extend my brand, such as it is, to liars, cheats, the immoral, the reprehensible, those of questionable character, etc. I see people fall into three buckets: good, bad and just don’t know. If you’re good, I’ll write the referral, gladly and freely. Otherwise, I’ll wish you luck and leave it at that.

But, whatever you do, try to avoid writing the gag-inducing ever-neutral kind of reference that HR wants you to do. You know the one that simply reiterates an employee’s name, rank, serial number and employment term. That type of reference can do more harm than good. As an employer, I look at these referrals as artful dodging. The other party has knowledge that they possess but will not/cannot share. Alternatively, it shows me that the interviewee was so unspectacular that no one at a past employer is willing to step up and recommend them. I don’t need those potential sub-par employees and their non-reference or absent reference is the key clue I need to pass on them.

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