Q: An acquaintance from graduate school asked me to refer her for a position at my company. I’ve only known her in an academic setting—is that enough to base a professional reference on? How should I handle this—or should I avoid it?
A: With the unemployment rate what it is right now, most organizations are encouraging employees to make recommendations for new hires. As that employee, make sure you are aware of the different types of input you could be providing: Are you making an introduction? Making a referral? Providing a recommendation as a reference? Before giving information to anyone, consider how well you know the person and how confident you are in their background and potential fit within your organization.
It sounds like you are being asked to provide a referral, not a recommendation. If you liked your classmate in school and thought she was intelligent, articulate, and a person of integrity, then pass her resume on to a manager or HR with that information—this is exactly how networking works! But don’t be afraid to be open about the situation with your internal contact: “Rachael and I went to graduate school together. I always found her to be very intelligent, hard-working, and conscientious. I don’t have any experience with her in the workplace, but I think she is worth considering for this role.” A referral or introduction is fairly low stakes and as long as you are honest about the level of your relationship with the candidate, that’s good enough.
Before making a referral, you might want to check her out yourself first. If you have mutual friends or acquaintances who have worked with her or have insight to this woman as a professional, ask them if they think referring her is a good idea. If your own unofficial research reveals trusted contacts who think it’s a good idea, then you can feel pretty confident in your decision to move forward. This doesn’t have to be a deep dive, just enough to give you a more solid foundation to refer her.
A recommendation goes a step further than a referral. If you don’t have direct experience with this person’s professional skills and qualities, make sure you don’t allude to them, pretend that you do, or lie in any way—that’s when you get yourself in trouble. You don’t want your unfounded recommendation being part of the hiring selection when you have no idea if the information is accurate. A recommendation is more involved than a referral, and you need to have a concrete basis for it.
If you do have reservations about a referral, you have every right to say no—and you should, no matter how uncomfortable it may be. You can simply state, “I’m sorry, I don’t know enough about that job/manager/department to feel comfortable making a recommendation.” If you definitely don’t like this person, tell them you think there may be stronger ways for them to get in. Let yourself say no when necessary.
So, what’s in it for you? Bringing good people into your organization is always in your best interest. Companies often look for employees to use their network to bring good people in (that’s why many offer referral bonuses!). It’s also good networking karma. At some point, you may find yourself in the same or a similar situation: you might have a third-tier networking connection at a company you really like, and you hope they will get you the introduction you need, whether they are a former classmate, friend of a friend, or fellow book club member.
All you’re doing is providing this person an opportunity—they sell themselves in the interview, and later, on the job. You are just generating the opportunity, not getting them hired based on your word alone. Just be clear about your connection, do some light research, and only provide a referral or reference when you are comfortable.