How Should I Handle Friends Who Apply for Jobs With Me?

Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues–everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

What’s the best way to handle a friend who applies for a job not just at your company but working with you?

This has come up a couple of times now. In both cases, the friend in question would work with me, so I was involved in the application process, but they wouldn’t report to me. I handled both situations differently, and they both, somehow, turned out to be not ideal.

The first time was a friend I really didn’t want to work with — Jon. I had some doubt about whether he was likely to be successful or a good fit in the open role given his experiences in other jobs. I played a small role on the hiring committee and ended up recusing myself and telling him so. He didn’t get hired (which I believe was the right decision), and he was upset that I hadn’t done more to promote his candidacy.

Now the reverse has happened, and it is also uncomfortable. I wholeheartedly endorsed an application from my friend Katie. (I was comfortable with this because we’ve worked together in the past.) I hadn’t seen the other candidates, but she seemed like a strong contender. The hiring committee, though, wasn’t all that into her application. I wasn’t sure how to handle the situation if she did make it to the final round; now I’m not sure how to handle her frequent requests for updates. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I don’t want to keep her in false hope. I also think we’re making a mistake passing on her, regardless of our personal friendship.

Is there any good way to handle these situations? Should I just have a blanket policy of saying, sorry, I don’t get involved with friends’ job applications? How much is appropriate to push for a friend who would be good at a job?

Green responds:

I don’t think you should have a blanket policy of never getting involved. You want to be able to bring your own judgment to bear, and each case may be a little different. You might think someone would be great for the job, and there’s no reason to keep that to yourself. Or you might have reservations about someone, and the hiring committee should hear that, too. That kind of perspective from someone who knows a candidate personally is really valuable. And it’s in your best interests to provide it, since this is someone you may end up working with.

The key is to manage expectations on your friends’ sides.

A good line to use with everyone at the outset is, “We’ve had a lot of applications for the position and our hiring processes are usually really competitive, so I should tell you from the outset that I can’t make any promises.” Sometimes saying that helps people remember that just because they feel well qualified, that doesn’t mean they’ll be the best qualified (something that candidates often lose sight of), and it can help them temper their expectations from the start.

With someone like Jon who’s upset that you didn’t do more to promote his candidacy, you could say, “Since we’ve never worked together, I was limited in how much I could advocate for you, but I know the hiring committee had a lot of candidates they felt were really strong.” Or “I felt like I needed to recuse myself so I didn’t appear to be biased since we know each other, especially since we’ve never worked together.”

With someone like Katie who’s asking for frequent updates when you’re not the person running the hiring process, you could say, “Jane is in charge of the process, and she’s the one making decisions and getting back to candidates.” If you’re pressed for information on timelines or so forth, you could say, “I’m really not sure. Jane is the one who’s managing all of that.” And you definitely shouldn’t tell her she’s out of the running or give her feedback about how her candidacy has been assessed — that’s info that should typically be controlled by the person running the hiring for that position.

Regarding how much it’s appropriate to push for a friend who would be good at a job … I wouldn’t push at all unless you’ve actually worked with the person and can vouch for their work. If you just know the person socially, you can certainly pass along or flag their application, and you can say something like, “My friend Lucinda applied for the spokesperson position, and I think she could be excellent. We’ve never worked together, but I can tell you that she’s smart, a great speaker, and passionate about the issues we work on.” But that’s it — you can’t really advocate beyond that, because you’ve never worked together and thus your perspective on the person’s work abilities is limited.

If you have worked with the person, like with Katie, there’s room to say more. But even then, you still wouldn’t really push for the person unless you’re on the hiring committee, because the hiring manager presumably knows what she’s looking for, knows the rest of the applicant pool better than you do, and is better positioned to see if your friend is (or isn’t) the best person for the job. Your role is more of a connector (flagging the application and sharing your perspective on the person) and then being available to answer questions if the hiring manager has them — but you don’t want to see yourself as a friend’s advocate for the job, because that gets into conflict of interest territory, or at least may appear that way to others.

Want to submit a question of your own? Send it to alison@askamanager.org.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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