References, Favours and Judgment: A Cautionary Tale

Self Portrait, Ottawa, May 2015

Self Portrait, Ottawa, May 2015

There are two basic facts to know about the Canadian job market. First, the “invisible market“, i.e. job offers and positions that are never formally advertised, is huge. A second related fact is the importance of the “reference system” and word-of-mouth recommendations.

I can’t stress it enough—having people willing to act as a reference and vouch for your work skills and personal qualities is often the best job-search weapon you can have. As a freelancer, I see it all the time. I think 80% of my clients were referred by existing clients or friends.

Once in a while, you will be in a position where you are asked to be someone’s reference. Be careful. Be very careful. It’s flattering, sure, but it can be a very dangerous exercise because your informed judgement will be assessed. To put it plainly, recommending the wrong person can reflect badly on you and taint your professional reputation.

I get reference or recommendation requests from strangers all the time, usually through LinkedIn. Some want me to sponsor them to immigrate to Canada (of course, random stranger, you can also come and live in our house!), some ask me to help them find a job.

I will not help someone I don’t know get a job. I’m nice, not stupid. Oh, I’ll provide links to job posting websites and share basic information, of course. But I won’t vouch for you because I don’t know you.

In 2009, by a stroke of luck and yes, thanks to a recommendation, I got a job as a translator on Parliament Hill. I was very happy about it. First, I have a French translation degree, Mandarin to French, but by then my English was good enough to work with the in-demand English-to-French language pair. I had been working as a French-as-a-second-language teacher for four years at this point, and I needed a change. My work was becoming repetitive and the pay wasn’t great.

A few months after I started in my new job, another translator position opened. My manager wrote a formal job posting, but she also asked around if we knew someone who could be a good fit. I offered to reach out to my former co-workers, other teachers at the school where I had worked.

One of them was interested. I forwarded his resume to my manager and she scheduled him for a test.

Our work environment on Parliament Hill was fairly unique, flexibility mattered more than degrees and certifications (which is how I landed the job in the first place…). Translations skills were assessed by a test where candidates had one hour to translate a one-page press release. For those of you who aren’t in the field, this is a very short deadline—but it was the kind of deadlines we were dealing with every day. The translation didn’t have to be absolutely perfect (we edited each other) but it had to be completed within the time frame.

So the test was scheduled, and that morning, my manager emailed the candidate. “Ready? Alright, here is the document attached”, she wrote. “It’s 10 a.m., so I’m expecting it back at 11 a.m., even if you aren’t completely done.”

He emailed back, acknowledged reception and presumably started working on the document.

An hour later, no email. My manager refreshed her mailbox compulsively, restarted her computer (she had very little faith in IT in the first place…) and emailed the candidate. No reply. She left a message on his cellphone.

The next morning, almost 24 hours after the test was due back, the candidate emailed her. She called me in her office to read the message.

“I haven’t had the chance to complete the work yet,” he had written. “I’ll finish around noon.”

We both started laughing.

You had one job, buddy: completing a translation within the specified timeframe and email it back. The instructions were clear. Why didn’t you get in touch at 11 a.m. the previous day, as agreed? And why even bother finishing the job one fucking day later? No apologies either, “my” candidate had just come across as a complete idiot, a rude one to boot.

My manager pretty much emailed this, minus the expletive, and his resume ended up in the trashcan.

He had blown his chance.

And I was pissed off at him because his behaviour reflected badly on me. Although I hadn’t recommended him as a translator (I couldn’t vouch for this set of skills), I had said he was a reliable teacher, a calm and kind person who may be a good asset—this much I knew, or at least I thought I knew—from working with him at the school.

And he had just proven less than reliable.

My manager didn’t hold a grudge and this had no consequences whatsoever. But I still felt betrayed.

From then on, I only recommended people I had personally worked with in a similar position.

Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me!


About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


  1. Martin Penwald on

    I don’t understand how people see immigration. Asking a perfect stranger to vouch for you is just rude.
    To get a job, there is the possibility in some fields to just come with a resume and ask if there is a spot available, that is how I got my current and previous jobs. And in my current job, they didn’t even call for references. The advantage doing a shortage-plagued job.

    • References aren’t always checked, it’s true, especially if you come at the right place, right time and meet the right person. Is there still a shortage of truck drivers? How do you explain it? (genuinely interested here! in the explanation, not in driving a truck…)

      • Martin Penwald on

        In North America, railroads have been abandonned since the 60’s, but more and more freight has to be moved, leaving only trucks to do the job.
        I think the development of infrastructures (the Interstate system has been created under the presidency of Dwight Eisenhover) has helped create a strong road economy instead of a railroad one.
        **** slight digression here, but I want to make a point ****
        The truck is more flexible than the train, and from the 70’s I guess, industries have taken full advantage of it, lowering the exploitation costs. Basically, transporting the same quantity of goods by train is cheaper than by truck, but all the logistics around rises the costs, and slow down the move. Think of this stupidity of Just-In-Time  : as soon as goods have been manufatured, they are loaded in trucks, one at a time, which then deliver it in the next transformation step factory, reducing the need for huge stockage area.
        To reverse the situation, states need to invest massively in railroad and logistics hubs near big population and industrial centers, leaving only the last kilometers to local trucks, lowering the need for drivers. But it is costly and need a political investment and a long-term vision. When elections happen every 4 or 5 years, let’s say I highly doubt it will be done.
        **** End of digression ****

        At the same period, the farmer productivity has hugely risen, the countries (U.S.A and Canada) needed less farmers to nourish their population.
        A lot of farmers’sons had to find another job than farming, but being accustomed to heavy machinery, a part of them have become truck drivers. Long haul truck drivers (from whatever background) were attracted by the liberty of the job, especially in these times without cell phone not satellite tracking. If you can find it, you could watch « The Convoy » from Sam Peckinpah ; it is fictionalized, but still, it gives an idea of what it was.
        But these drivers are now retiring, with nobody to replace them, because, in part, the emphasis on family, especially in North America, is now stronger than in the 70’s and 80’s, and long haul truck drivers have a hard time conciliating work and family (lot of divorcees and singles here).
        The freedom of the job has been in part lost because of cell phones and satellite tracking. I was talking with a driver yesterday and his company (a big one in U.S) think of installing a camera in the cab recording what happen in the front (it can be useful) and in the same time recording the driver (No way I let a camera filming me all the time : I don’t have anything to hide, but I refuse to be infantilized).
        Moreover, the pay hasn’t followed. In the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, a long haul truck driver was making a lot of money compared to the average worker, so it was a trade-off being way from home, but big companies don’t pay as much as before. And by the way, big companies didn’t really exist before the 80’s. So there is no more financial incentive choosing the job.
        And law enforcement is somewhat stricter than before, which is a strong repellant in the U.S mind. Give me a brand new truck and a flawless driver, and I will find something wrong and ticketable.

        • Martin Penwald on


          Another point is lack of formation, it is sometimes frightening how new drivers are ignorant of basic rules. The majority of trucking is done by truck pulling dry box trailers, which is, like I’ve said previously, not the best paid job. Older and experienced drivers move toward better paying jobs, where there is a lack of experienced drivers. Where I work, on a small company of 20-25 trucks, there is only 4 drivers willing to pull big heavy loads, and I am the youngest. One of them is over 60 and the two others over 55. But you can’t ask a beginner, even the best one, to drive oversized loads. For my position, I’ve seen companies asking for at least 10 years of experience. And even if I enjoy what I do, there are a lot of constrains that a lot of drivers don’t like (curfews on big cities, weather dependant travel, holydays restrictions travel, etc).
          Same kind of problem with tankers and livestock haulers : additionnal constrain on the job that discourage beginners (no way I’ll ever deal with a livestock load, even if the pay is good).

          Maybe I am wrong in some point, but I think it can give some hints about this shortage.

          • No, this is fascinating and I think (as an outsider) that you are probably right. I know that being a truck driver must be hard on family life. Does it attract more young kids, like those who are willing to go to Alaska for a few months/years on crab fishing missions? Maybe not. I rarely see very young drivers, come to think of it.

            Curfews on big cities??

            In Europe, many drivers are, from what I’ve heard, from Eastern Europe (cheaper labour). Is there an equivalent to that in North America…?

          • Martin Penwald on

            When you pull an oversize load, it is very common that big cities forbid movement during rush hours.

            The problem in Europe is a little bit different than here (I hate this ultra-liberal version of Europe), because foreigners can do a local move (let’s say from Nantes to Lille) and they are paid the standard wages in their country, they cost 2 to 3 times less than a French driver.
            Here, a Canadian driver cannot pick up a load in U.S to deliver it in U.S, and a U.S one cannot do the same inside Canada (There is a gray area for loads coming from or going to another country through a U.S port — I’ve already pick up a load from Mexique in Laredo to deliver in Phoenix, AZ, but it is not very common).
            However, in Canada, you can hear drivers complaining about Pakistani or Indian (from India) drivers/carriers who alledgely cut down the rates.

            Ah, I forgot, the trailer of « The Convoy »

            By the way, I was thinking that the solidarity between drivers, like shown in this movie, has been lost during the 80’s, when big trucking companies appeared. Like in every other group, it is highly probable that there was a conflict between small companies/owner operators and big companies drivers, and a big part of the truckers culture has been lost : up to the 80’s, maybe early 90’s, it was common that drivers spontaneously start driving together, up to a few days, even if they didn’t know each other, communicating through the C.B radio. Convoys of 10 to 20 trucks (sometimes more) formed spontaneously, and C.B channels were busy.
            Now, there is very little traffic on C.B, and all the vocabulary and expressions used at the time hasn’t been transfered to the young generation. I never heard someone using it, except sometimes the 10-4 for ackowledging a message.

          • Regarding solidarity… that’s too bad. You’d think and expect that in a job where, like you mentioned, it’s difficult to have ties somewhere and a family life, other drivers are like family. I guess I’m naive… I had always pictured drivers like backpackers, independent free-spirit folks who help each other and share the road and a meal whenever they feel like having company and stay alone the rest of the time, no commitment, no excuses needed.

            Since we’ve been chatting, I always keep an eye on trucks and their drivers here in Ottawa. I still think it’s a fascinating world, both from a mechanical perspective (they are huuuuuuge! les camions, bien sûr, pour le reste je ne peux pas dire :lol:), the job requires excellent skills, like driving long distances in harsh weather conditions, and commitment.

          • Martin Penwald on

            There are still drivers considering the job like that (don’t need to worry if I have to wait for a load or stuck in the traffic, I can stop when I wantand sleep there, I’ve always have canned food in the truck) , but less than before.
            That’s why I’m thinking to quit my current job, because I only left for 8 to 10 days habitually, a round trip to Texas. I’d like rather when I worked for dry box company, out of my terminal during 4 to 6 weeks (and up to 12 weeks one time), but pulling dry box is boring at the end.
            I’m trying to have some insights about an heavy haul company which has terminals in Surrey, BC and Montréal, QC, but it is not always easy (I don’t like to call, and I don’t find any address on their website).

  2. Oui on m’a posé la question récemment aussi. Une pigiste que je gère. J’ai accepté, mais comme back-up, car elle en avait donné plus que nécessaire. Je n’étais pas trop convaincue de ses qualités et j’ai regretté d’avoir accepté. Mais je trouve ça délicat de refuser aussi, alors je sais pas trop… En tout cas tu as raison pour le marché caché. Mon chum a obtenu une recommandation dithyrambique d’un de ses superviseurs pour son premier poste, et il a été appelé plusieurs fois par la suite alors même qu’il n’avait pas les diplômes. Les recruteurs lui ont dit qu’ils préféraient se fier à quelqu’un dont un confrère (c’est un petit milieu) vantait les mérites humains et professionnels plutôt qu’à un inconnu qui, sur le papier, avait plus de compétences.

    • Je trouve ça très délicat de refuser quand c’est quelqu’un que je connais bien qui me demande. Quand je me suis installée à la pige, pas mal de connaissances m’ont sorti des trucs comme “ah, donc tu cherches des fautes dans des textes? Je peux le faire aussi, j’étais bonne en auto-dictée en CE2!” Mouais, j’en doute pas, mais c’est quand même un métier… qui s’apprend, certes, je ne suis pas élue de Dieu hein, mais tu t’improvise pas traducteur ou réviseur.

  3. That was hilarious, I mean at least reading it now is hilarious, although it would have been quite embarrassing in that moment.

    You this is more of a global situation. Weirdly coincidentally I was thinking about a very similar thing. Something I experience on monthly basis. I meet new people as a part of my job and I do what I do, but then everytime there is someone who hands me over their resume 🙂 just like that. I have received resumes of cousins, girlfriends, boyfriends and uncles too. If I could I would help them and I do try, although to their disatisfaction I offer them only guidance and not a job offer. I know what works here and what doesn’t, I am yet to meet that person who would listen.

    We don’t have a very alive reference system, at least I have not heard of that here in India.

    Please excuse me, I am still laughing at what you wrote. Pardon my insensitivity.

    • lol, I was reading my comment, when I said cousins, girlfriends, boyfriends, uncles; I didn’t mean mine, I meant of the person I had just met a day or two ago, and whom I won’t be seeing ever again.

    • Laugh away! I was laughing too, writing this. I can remember how I felt… I was like “dude… what the hell??” 😆 It felt out of character for him too, that’s when I realize that I wasn’t necessarily a good judge of character 😆

      I wish people who send me their resume when they ask for a reference, at least I would be able to assess… something. But nope, most of the time it’s just “get me a job, okay thanks”.

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