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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!

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