Should I Give A Reference For A Terrible Employee? columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues–everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

Here’s a roundup of answers to five questions from readers.

1. Should I give a negative reference for a nightmare employee?

I used to serve on the board of a small nonprofit, which I left a year ago. During my time on the board, we had to hire a new executive director. The new hire’s references were stellar and he had a great resume, but there were problems even before he had fully onboarded. In my opinion, he managed “up” very well, but every other relationship was terrible. During his short tenure, nearly all the staff quit, there was a hostile work environment investigation, and relationships with partners ranging from foundations to long-term consultants were ruined. He raised zero money during his time there and we nearly had to fold. The worst part was that, as soon as we hired him, people came out of the woodwork to tell us what a nightmare he was.

He and I had a friendly relationship, but did not keep in touch. He recently emailed and asked me to be a reference. I said yes, but that I could only speak to his performance with respect to the board, which he accepted. But the more I think about it, I want to do what no one had the guts to do for our organization, before it’s too late. What do you think? Should I give a negative reference?

Oh my goodness, yes. He nearly destroyed your organization. You definitely can’t give a reference that leaves out the worst parts.

Did you tell him that you’d give him a positive reference, or just a reference? If you told him you’d give him a positive reference, I think you need to get back in touch adn explain that you can’t (and explain why — it sounds like he needs to get a reality check in that regard). But if you just agreed to be a reference and didn’t get into the specifics of that reference, then I think you’d be doing a public service to just go ahead with that — and be honest someone contacts you about him. (And I know you told him you were just going to speak about his performance in respect to the board, but the board is responsible for the organization and for managing his role — so arguably everything that happened is board business.)

This isn’t “he was great at most of his job but pretty bad at Task X.” This is someone who wreaked havoc across your organization, and I bet you would have been really grateful if someone had warned you when you were doing reference checks on him.

2. My manager wants me do more talking to people in-person rather than sending emails

My manager has often told me to just go talk to coworkers (mostly on other teams) instead of sending emails to get help or resolve issues. This has always made me uncomfortable, because I feel like I’m always interrupting people who are really busy. I myself hate being interrupted constantly throughout the day, and would prefer emails first for issues that aren’t an emergency. Do you have any suggestions how to get over feeling uncomfortable interrupting people all the time?

The first thing to look at is why your manager asked you to do this. Have you been having trouble getting answers from people? Or are things getting delayed too long when you’re waiting on a response to an email? Those are valid, business-related reasons for her request, and focusing on that might help you feel more comfortable.

You can also look at the culture of your office. Do you see other people dropping by each other’s desks? You might be working somewhere where that’s just how people operate, and you need to sync up with those norms in order to get what you need.

Also, when you interrupt someone, you can soften it by starting with “I have a question for you about X. Is now a good time or should I come back later?”  That kind of interruption is less disruptive because (a) you’re telling them up-front what the topic is, rather than asking for their time when they don’t know the topic and thus can’t assess its importance relative to whatever else they’re doing, and (b) it makes it easy for them to tell you to come back later — or to ask you to email them if they prefer that.

3. My team isn’t using the gift cards I gave them

I am a team leader to about 10 staff. I ran a mini-incentive about nine months ago, which resulted in me giving out e-gift cards that I purchased with my own money. I am moving on from that company and will be finishing up in less than two weeks now.

I checked the balance of the gift cards, because I had a calendar reminder set to follow up. Out of the six I gave out, I was pretty shocked to find that only two have been used! It is very demotivating to go to that effort for your team just to find that your effort was mostly for nothing, but there is also the financial investment that I undertook on my own accord.

Should I remind my staff about these before I leave, or should I just wait the three months and if they still haven’t been used spend them myself?

You didn’t say what kind of gift cards they were, but if they were for a specific place, it could just be that not everyone goes there. For example, coffee shop gift cards are popular to give, but plenty of people rarely step in a coffee shop– which means that gift card may go unused, if they don’t think to give it away to someone else. But even if they can be spent on a wider range of places, some people are bad with gift cards and forget to use them. So who knows what the explanation is here.

But as for what to do: Stop checking the balances and put them out of your mind. These were gifts, which means it’s 100% up to the recipient when they use them and whether they use them at all. You cannot reclaim them if they’re unused after a certain period of time; you gave them to people, so they’re no longer yours. This is just a risk you take when you give people things.

4. Why aren’t my applicants including cover letters?

I’m hiring for a marketing coordinator role that is about 60% admin work and 40% content creation. In the job description, we state, “Please include a cover letter that tells us more about you, and why you’d be a great fit for this role.” That seems pretty straightforward to me.

95% of resumes we receive have no letter. No note, not a single sentence along with the resume. My gut reaction is just to delete any resume that comes in without a cover letter because if they can’t follow that simple instruction then I don’t have a lot of faith they are the right person to work for me. Am I overreacting? Is there a better way to get people to write a cover letter with their resume?

Nope, you’re not overreacting. It’s not like you asked for something time-consuming and outrageous; you asked for something that’s a perfectly normal part of the job application process. Rejecting people for not following instructions makes perfect sense.

You’re likely getting people who are just resume-bombing — sending their resumes to every ad they see and not bothering to read closely. Which makes me wonder: where are you advertising? You’re more likely to get a lot of that kind of thing if you post jobs on big job boards. If you go for more niche advertising (for example, Idealist for nonprofits, or other professional-niche-type sites), you’ll generally get higher quality applicants who actually read your posting.

5. How do I follow up on my manager’s offer of professional development?

I recently applied for a temporary manager position in my department and was turned down. My director told me that she really thought it would be me, but they decided to take a coworker with more experience. She told me she still wanted to give me opportunities within the department for professional development, as she wants me to stay here and grow.

I really do want to take her up on the offer of professional development if she meant it. Should I send an email thanking her and asking for a meeting to talk about what that may look like? Wait until my supervisory meeting next month and bring it up again? Or is it a mistake to push it?

Take her at her word! It’s definitely not a mistake to bring it up again. If you meet regularly, wait for that next meeting and bring it up then. Say you appreciated her offer to help you find development opportunities and ask if you can talk about what that might look like and how to make it happen.

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