“Joe Smith. Any thoughts on him?” read the email from Adam, a CIO I would consider a friend. Apparently Joe was applying for a job at Adam’s organization.
While the inquiry may seem simple enough, how I would respond to it wasn’t, as it involved two elements I take very seriously — my desire to be of service when faced with any request from a friend, and my wish to tread cautiously when possibly having an influence on someone’s professional life.
When your feelings about the applicant in question are all rosy, there’s no problem. You get to say nice things and help out your friend at the same time. When the picture is negative, there is little problem as well. You don’t feel compunction because you see the situation quite clearly. But when it’s a mixed bag, the message you give should reflect that, and it takes some thought and careful crafting to deliver your verdict in just the right way.
And it was just this mixed bag I had experienced with Joe, so I took the time to make sure I was being fair to both him and Adam. If I wasn’t honest about what I considered to be Joe’s shortcomings, that wouldn’t have been fair to Adam. If I was too harsh on Joe, that wouldn’t have been fair to him.
My interactions with Joe had come years ago, when it was likely he couldn’t envision I would ever have an impact on his career trajectory. And perhaps just because it was so inconceivable, maybe Joe didn’t always act in the most courteous manner in our dealings. When I sent off the answer to Adam, I made very sure it didn’t bring any baggage I may have had with it.
But it makes one think about how people we are dealing with today — no matter how junior — may have a material impact on our future.
A few weeks later, I was asked by another CIO if I knew someone who was applying for a job at his organization. While I didn’t know the guy personally, I quickly realized I knew someone who very likely did, and so I was able to acquire the feedback requested. I don’t know how much weight these informal references have in hiring decisions, but I’m willing to bet it’s a lot. They say the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, and there’s no better way to learn about it than from references who have not been provided by the interviewee. When investigating your candidacy, people will be reaching out to both those you have worked for and those who have worked for you, as well as people you may have had other types of professional interactions with (like me).
This dynamic should make us all want to go in the extra mile in ensuring we treat everyone in the same kind, courteous and professional way. Reputation should be established and preserved by good conduct. Influence should be exerted with circumspection and restraint. Favors requested by friends should be granted with expediency and sincerity. Following these guidelines should do the trick the next time a decision maker asks around for thoughts on you.