Have you ever gotten a recommendation request from a current or past employee whose work you don't feel comfortable fully endorsing? As a CEO, I've found such requests can put me in an awkward position. I always struggle with the question of how to respond. Should I say yes and write something lukewarm, or should I try to duck the obligation entirely?
Recommendations are tough even when you want to endorse a person. Sometimes the employee worked with you many years ago or on a team with a number of others, and you don't remember his or her specific accomplishments. And more often than not, the request comes with a tight deadline. Do you say yes to that request? Do you say no? Or, do you ask the person to write the recommendation for you?
Recently, I got to talking about this problem with another CEO, Josh Sample of Drive Social Media. Josh's company has a great culture and a philosophy about openly transitioning employees to their next jobs that's very similar to the one at my company, Acceleration Partners. When the topic of helping employees find new roles came up, we spoke about how to handle recommendations.
I told Josh that I have sometimes asked people to give me some talking points for recommendations rather than write them out in full, but I've learned that the strategy can backfire. Some employees have real blind spots, and I can end up with material I'm uncomfortable using.
Josh shared how he handles recommendation requests from both current and past employees, and I think his strategy is brilliant.
He asks each employee to send him the recommendation as he or she would write it. Once Josh reads it, he makes the decision to sign and send it or to delete it. There is no middle ground; each person only gets one shot--and knows it from the get-go.
Here's why this is such genius.
It Demands Objectivity
Josh's strategy is very similar to baseball arbitration, where a player and a team each submits a suggested salary for the year, and the arbiter can only choose one of the two numbers. By doing this, each side has an incentive to be reasonable. If one side is unreasonable, the other side will get its number. This process discourages people from embellishing their performance, making the outcome fairer for everyone.
It Encourages Reflection and Self-Awareness
One of the things that has come out of this process for Josh and his company is that people who have taken the time to reflect on their performance sometimes withdraw their recommendation requests. They simply realize on their own that their performance didn't merit praise. This process has led to productive conversations about strengths and weaknesses and to employees thinking more carefully about their next move and where/how they would work best.
It Helps Employees Move On or Transition
If an employee wants to make a change, an endorsement from her current employer can be a huge boost to her chances of getting hired elsewhere. This is one of the real benefits of an open transition policy. Most people looking for new roles can't provide references from their current employer because they don't want anyone in the company to know they are planning to leave.
As a CEO, it's always better to have an open-door policy that encourages people to share their concerns about their happiness. I've found it's best for the company and for the employee if I even help them find something that is a better fit. The challenge has been how to move someone along in this process in a way that is efficient and appropriate to the circumstances.
Now, thanks to Josh, when it comes time to have the recommendation discussion, I have an approach to use that will save me time while being fair and transparent. And so do you.