The Unbearable Lightness of Being Nice

Kindness is a virtue, even in business. But when asked to provide a reference, being honest is often more helpful to everyone involved

Shaul Olmert 14:5511.12.17
I am often asked to provide supportive references for former employees, prior or current service providers, or partner companies. My initial instinct is to agree, as it always feels good to help someone, unless you totally dislike them (in which case, chances are they won't ask you to vouch for them in the first place). The challenge is that by agreeing to provide a reference for someone, you immediately undertake the implied responsibility of giving an overwhelming, off-the-charts review. And let’s be honest, it's hard to say no to a reference request, even when it comes from someone you don't hold a 100% positive opinion on.


For daily updates, subscribe to our newsletter by clicking here.


This position is not to be taken lightly, as first-hand testimonials can make or break life-changing decisions. And when we as employers ask for a reference and receive a review that is less than perfect, we'll assume that the subject is mediocre at best. If you called a potential employee’s reference and were told that they are "really good, but after a while became less engaged, had ups and downs but generally performed well," or that their employment was terminated after a couple of years, chances are you won’t hire that person.


Shaul Olmert. Photo: Orel Cohen Shaul Olmert. Photo: Orel Cohen



Demanding perfection is rather strange when in essence, most of us have been fired at one point or another, and most of the people we hire fit the definition of "pretty good" workers who perform well under the right circumstances. You could say that whenever we are asked to recommend someone for a role, we are expected to round up a few facts, touch up the corners and avoid tough questions.


This awkward arrangement is problematic for everyone involved, even more so when we care about both sides. In some cases we simply cannot bring ourselves to recommend someone for a specific position, and worry about our own reputation and our responsibility in case things go horribly wrong.


To help you navigate this delicate scenario, I suggest following these tips:


1. Honesty is the best policy. Provide references only for people you truly, wholeheartedly vouch for. Avoid the others, since by helping them land a job or deal, you're not doing anyone a favor—including yourself. It's like introducing someone to a romantic prospect you don't consider honest; it may result in a short-term win and solo praise for you at the wedding, but will likely lead to much agony during the divorce.


Always remind yourself on how important this information is to you when you have to make a decision, and how crucial it is that it be as genuine and honest as possible. The person on the other side cares a lot about their business, and if you didn't help them make the right decision, you are betraying their trust as well.


2. Nobody’s perfect. Speak in much detail about the issues you've had, and emphasize why you still think the positive aspects are more dominant. Assist in setting proper expectations and help them make an educated decision that is more likely to lead to a successful outcome. If you tried your best to provide a positive reference but the detailed information you gave led the other side to believe it won't be a good match, chances are you actually did well. You genuinely helped to avoid a situation that would likely end poorly. Your goal is not to help seal the deal; your role is to help the decision maker make the best decision under the circumstances.


3. Learn to say no—sort of. If you were approached by a former employee or partner with whom you had a less-than-great experience, and feel that you couldn’t possibly provide a positive reference at this time, or if you simply feel that the position or partnership in question does not suit the person involved at all—don’t do it. To avoid hurting people’s feelings by flat-out refusing to endorse them, try diplomatically detailing some of the things you think are more prominent in collaborating with them, and let them understand your position and decide if they still think you should be listed as a reference.


Being nice is the easy way out of many difficult, interpersonal dilemmas. Avoiding confrontation in the short-term is good, but being honest is more helpful to everyone in this equation: the subject of the reference, the person collecting it, and let us not forget—you.


Shaul Olmert is a businessman and entrepreneur. He is the co-founder and CEO of interactive content creation company Playbuzz Ltd.

Cancel Send
    To all comments