A reader writes:

My supervisor was recently moved out of my department and I believed she would be looking for new jobs. Lo and behold, I get an email from an out-of-state colleague saying she has applied for the director position there, and would I be able to unofficially tell him anything about her? He made it clear it would be a respectful off-the-record chat, not a full recommendation.

My problem is this: I think she has a lot of great qualities that would make her a wonderful director for their program: vision, dedication, guts, ability to work well with high level people, etc. But she was also verbally abusive to us, the peons in the department who did the actual work. I don't think she has great people skills at all, but she can write grants like a whiz and is otherwise very competent at big-picture stuff.

So what do I say? How honest should I be? I truly admire her skills and think she would make a great director for their program and would potentially lead them to develop interesting work that would benefit their state. I don't, however, think she should be in charge of people, and if the director's position was very hands-on with project management, personnel assignments, or interpersonal issues, I think she would be just as volatile and problematic there as she was here.

I want to be careful because I will need her recommendation -- currently a raving positive one -- for my future career, and I certainly don't want to scuttle hers either. I would hate to leave out the negative information because it's really important. Do I have to decline to answer my colleague altogether, in some kind of "if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all" kind of way?

First, call him. Don't use email for this. There's no reason to have anything like this floating around in writing.

Then, say this: "How confidential will this be? I value my relationship with Jane and am relying on her recommendation for future jobs, and I don't want to jeopardize that by having anything I say get back to her, but I'd also like to give you candid feedback."

Assuming he promises you confidentiality in a way that you find credible (and generally speaking, people do keep this stuff confidential -- otherwise no one will talk to them), then tell him what you said here. Say that you'd strongly recommend her for X, Y, and Z, and speak as positively of that stuff as you can honestly do ... but also tell him, briefly, your assessment of her as a manager.

The reason you should be candid is because you have the opportunity to save him from a potentially bad hire, save other people from working under an abusive manager, and potentially even save her from a job that she won't be a good fit with (and could even get fired from, if a good manager is above her and sees her managing poorly).

If you're uncomfortable with full candor, then you can use the less direct language known well to reference-givers and reference-checkers everywhere: "I would recommend her for X, Y, and Z. I wouldn't say managing people is her strong point."

Or, if you really don't want to get into any of it, you can decline to give a reference -- but that actually might be more broadly damning than actually talking to him, which would provide you the chance to speak about her strengths as well as her weak areas. Declining altogether sends one strong "no," whereas a conversation allows you to be more nuanced.