When asked to serve as a reference, one of my mentors would respond, “I’ll be for you or against you, whichever helps the most.”
It is a good line and I’ve used it myself on occasion. One of the lessons this individual taught was how to put forward your thoughts in a way that has an impact.
I am not shy about giving recommendations and advice. This blog has recommended readings for books and recommend selections of music, although some may decide they don’t want musical advice from anyone who can recommend the ethereal VOCES8 version of Lully, Lulla, Lullay one week and Margo Price’s dark DUI ballad It Ain’t Drunk Driving if You’re Riding a Horse the next.
Recommendations tell us as much about the person making the suggestion as they do about the individual or thing being referenced. With that in mind, let’s consider integrity, bias, knowledge, and intent as important aspects of both the giving and receiving of recommendations.
Your word is all you have
Early in my professional career, I had a bad experience that shaped my thinking on recommendations of all types. After receiving a strong reference from an applicant’s most recent employer, I hired that individual only to find they were not up to the job. I subsequently discovered that the former employer had actually let this person go as well.
The integrity of your word can be so easily lost when you make a recommendation that does not align with the truth or your experience. With referrals, one can demur or highlight both strengths and weaknesses in order to ensure that your references are made with integrity.
And if you decide to include someone as a reference on a job application, common courtesy and common sense suggest you first ask their permission.
Watch your bias
Job referrals are, of course, a more serious topic than my book or music reviews. Let’s admit up front that some groups are especially privileged when it comes to professional references. Women and people of color in general have been badly served through the decades by hiring practices that sought out applicants who looked, thought, and behaved just like the overwhelmingly male and white hiring managers. Through the years I came to realize this pattern of injustice, but reflect on my own role without much pride. I worked to change, but was clearly a latecomer to the process.
Consider the source
When my grandmother would hear something that sounded off, she would say “consider the source.” That’s good advice when pondering any recommendation or referral. When we solicit recommendations and thoughts only from people in our circle of acquaintances, we often forget this counsel and overlook their lack of expertise on a subject simply because we know them. That can easily lead straight down the good-old-boy-network rabbit hole and of hearing just what you want to hear. We can all do better in checking sources that go beyond our personal electronic rolodex and our level of comfort.
When we seek out a referral from someone we don’t know, it should push us to research that individual to determine what she knows, appreciates, and has accomplished, just as we should see if the book reviewer who takes a strong stand for a new work has experiences that would lead us to trust his judgement.
Check your motive
In an earlier post on feedback, I suggested that one should stop to think about why you believe it is important for you to impart some of your wisdom on another person. When our advice comes “free of charge,” we may believe we have the best of intentions. The one receiving the input may have an entirely different take on the conversation.
When at my best, I work to consider the other person in both professional and personal situations. Will this position be a good fit? Will this book have meaning to others? When a long-time and very thoughtful friend told me that her husband was reading Democracy in Chains based on my online recommendation, I felt secure that I had fairly conveyed its value and that my motive was clear. After slogging through the occasional dud of a book, I generally don’t post a review. On the other hand, my Weekly Reader and Saturday Soundtrack sections have an aura of “buyer beware” that floats over those offerings. They won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.
Recommendations are one way we represent our standards and values to others. Don’t be afraid to tell me what you think, but make it clear and reflective of who you are. If you happen to be a bluegrass-loving, classical music fan, I’ll think you’re amazingly open-minded. But then, as grandmother would say, consider the source!
More to come…