Question

I find myself in the position of having to decide whether I should rat on a job candidate. My boss is about to interview someone who applied for a job in our group. I will not be involved. He is a former colleague from my previous employer, where he was a problem employee. He and I had a major falling out because I questioned a bad decision he made and then tried to cover up. It was very costly to the company. It was awkward but I had to “testify.” He got a “black eye” as a result, but the company didn’t know the half of what he had done. I have never told anyone here about it and the former colleague may or may not know that I work here. (Obviously, I didn’t say goodbye to him).

I have a very good relationship with my new boss but am afraid to tell her about this because I fear it may color her impression of me. Should I approach my boss about it? How?

Nick’s Reply

You have two responsibilities to your employer in this matter:

  • To do your job properly for the benefit of the company.
  • To do what you can to promote and protect your department’s and your company’s success.

You didn’t tell me the details of what transpired at your old company, and I don’t want to know them. I have to trust that your position in all this is above reproach. If it is, then I believe you must find the right way to notify your boss because if this person is hired, he will likely affect not only your ability to do your job, but everyone’s.

You need not rat on a job candidate

I suggest you tell your boss you are aware so-and-so may be considered for a job, then add, “May I make a suggestion?”

Stop there until you get the go-ahead to say more. If your boss declines your input, leave it alone. You aren’t in charge, and you’ll have to deal with whatever happens. If your boss clears the path, say, “If you do a careful reference check on this person, I won’t need to put myself in an awkward position by offering information that might seem self-serving.”

Note that you’re not disclosing what happened at the old company. You’re not ratting anyone out. You are making a suggestion to your boss about the hiring process. This may seem like I’m splitting hairs, but I believe it keeps you safe.

If your boss takes this at face value, let it go at that. Say no more.

Let another reference speak

If your boss encourages you to say more, make sure you’re in a private setting, whether on the phone, via Zoom or in person.

“Look, I don’t like to disparage anyone, and I know you can form your own opinion. I worked with him at my last company, and I wish that I hadn’t. I’d just as soon you got the story from someone else at the other company. The last thing I want is for you to think that I go around bad-mouthing people.”

You don’t have to rat on a job candidate. It’s better to let another reference outside your company provide the details simply because they won’t have the same vested interest you do. (You could suggest your boss learn a bit about how reference checking can be a competitive edge.)

If you don’t give your boss at least this much of a heads-up, it could hurt her and the company, and it could put you in the position of having to work with this person again. You’re not nixing the hire. (You don’t have that kind of power.) You’re encouraging your boss to look extra closely at the candidate. In my opinion, this meets your two obligations I mentioned above.

A circumspect reference

Your new boss may give you the okay to spill the whole story. Be careful not to compromise your own integrity as you tell it. Keep it brief and objective. In essence, you are providing a reference, so apply the same circumspection you would if a different employer contacted you for a reference on this candidate. Stick to the facts. Let your boss draw the conclusions, and encourage her to check with other references.

This is unfortunate, but I think you have to address it. I don’t think you’re ratting anyone out. This is business information. If you were your boss, wouldn’t you want to know? I believe my suggested approach demonstrates that, even if this matter is personal to you, you’re doing your best to handle it professionally.

If your boss hires this person anyway, you will probably have some other decisions to make. I hope for the best.

Is this “ratting on a job candidate?” What would you do? Is it possible for the reader to protect the boss’s (and company’s) interests without personal risk? Also, what would you do if you were the boss in this case?

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38 Comments
  1. Nick,

    Tough one this week! As usual, I think your advice is sound. If I were the manager, hired the “alleged troublemaker,” and then later found out my own employee knew they were bad news, I wouldn’t be happy. Or I’d at least question why I wasn’t given a warning.

    It is absolutely a difficult line to walk, but at all times you are encouraging the manager to do her own research and not just take the employee’s word for it. I think this is extremely important. We don’t really know the whole story, and the “alleged troublemaker” might have a legitimate beef with the “potential rat.”

    I have been in situations where I was asked about someone I previously worked with, and I did “rat on them.” Different situation (I believe) because I had a very long and cordial relationship with my boss, and they expected me to be a straight shooter.

    In the long run, I believe you have some sort of obligation to alert your boss in a situation like this. It sounds like it could negatively affect a lot of things, including group morale and even revenue.

  2. I was asked once to rat on a lead, my supervisor. Since I was asked a direct question by our program manager, I gave a direct answer. Two words. The program manager took it from there.

    No need to lie awake at night about it. “May I make a suggestion?” Stop there until you get the go-ahead to say more. The beginning, middle, and end of your responsibility at this point.

  3. There’s an old saying “an apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”.
    You have an obligation to do your job to the best of your abilities, give a good faith effort, and deliver integrity. You don’t have an obligation to be your employer’s hiring nanny police. If they hire poorly (as do most employers), and are bamboozled by a charlatan, then that’s on them. Besides, in today’s woke and toxic workplaces, giving employers a heads up can be twisted and back fire on you.
    Caveat emptor goes both ways.

  4. Look at it from another perspective: If I were considering a job offer what would I expect from professional collages who knew it was a toxic environment?

    I had a similar, although revered, situation. Someone who was being interviewed had worked with some people I knew. He had been let go from his last job. The background was the beloved department manager of twenty years had left. This candidate was the best worker on the team. He got promoted to the role with expectorations nobody could fill. On top of that, it was his first management position.

    I was able to discuss this background with the Hiring Manager. As a result, he focused on the pre-management work history, which was stellar.

    And aside: They should have hire the first bum that walked in the door to fill the management role. Take the focus away from looking for a “beloved manager” clone.

  5. I think the second piece of advice being given here is a bit perilous – unless the poster is in an HR or otherwise hiring function, there is no upside to his testifying about his former coworker and it could backfire badly. You don’t know how and under what terms this ‘bad apple’ left the prior company (“a questionable decision that cost the company money” isn’t enough of a standard – companies do this every day), and he very well may have made amends and changed his work habits and ethics since they parted ways.

    Let the hiring manager do their own due diligence. Industry background checks and HR inquiries still work. If the guy is still a bad seed it will show up on its own during a probationary period after hire. If asked for my 2 cents I would then and only then share my verifiable thoughts and experiences but leave opinion out of it.

    • @Bill: I can’t argue with your concerns, but I stand by my advice because it seems hiring this person would likely have a negative effect on the O.P. Encouraging the manager to look extra carefully is reasonable in my opinion, and smart.

    • “a questionable decision that cost the company money isn’t enough of a standard”

      I would have to agree with this. There’s two sides to every story. The question I have is how the decision was made, which we may or may not have insight into.

      This is why I’m often times skeptical of references and companies are afraid of giving subjective opinions. This is even backed up in organizational psych literature, the famous Hunter&Schmidt meta analysis showed that references have a lower correlation to success one would think.

      I would also point out that someone can be a terrible fit in a specific company, department, team or job but be an absolute rock star somewhere else.

  6. Having been in both positions, the hiring manager and former coworker, the employees responsibility is to protect the company. I gave and would expect my employees to tell me the unvarnished truth, no half-truths, no subtle hints.

    Just say what happened and the manager can make a decision. Doing so raises the employee’s value to the company, and does not lower it. The value of their references is increased as the manager knows they’ll tell the truth.

    My opinion is the concept of “ratting someone out” being bad only protects the wrongdoer allowing them to continue preying on others.

  7. My first job out of school was as an auditor and we found one of our client’s employees was writing fraudulent checks. Soon after that, I took a new job and walked in past the security desk my first day – that same person had been hired into the security department.

    He was a really nice guy and I might have let it go, but it didn’t seem a good idea for him to be in security, of all places. Being brand new, I felt extra awkward because they didn’t know me. I found the security manager and suggested he do a more thorough background check on this individual (this is many years ago, it wasn’t all electronic records like now). They did and he was fired. I’ve always hoped he was able to land on his feet after that.

  8. Geez, you’d think the population follows the omerta sometimes. Hail the whistleblower.

    It’s not that hard. The suggestion is great. If you get hurt following the advice, you’re not working for a good company.

  9. Sometimes our biz worlds are quite small. First you may want to make sure she doesn’t know this person personally and invited him to apply. Good luck in this sticky situation.

    • Thank you! I’m surprised it took this long for someone to bring up this possibility. If the new boss and the interviewee know each other, it would certainly not be a career enhancing move for OP to start talking about the past problems with that interviewee.

    • @Marilyn: Good point! But what if the manager has concerns similar to the O.P.? I think the right thing to do is still the same, though the outcome may be different! Cf. King Lee above.

  10. Wow, outside of Bill’s cooler-headed and level-headed commentary, “let HR do their own due diligence” (amen), the rest is mind numbing.
    You have an “obligation” to rat someone out? I’d “expect” my employees to rat this person out?
    Ratting out someone at their new position and getting them fired, then “hoping they land on their feet somewhere else”? That’s messed up!
    In an era of gaslighting, moral clap trapping, and cancel culture, your ability to earn a living can be perpetually blackballed simply by being denounced by someone who has/had a personal dislike of you.
    Faced it myself, and known others who have as well.

    • I agree with Based Boomer. Also, that your “duty to the company” is a worn thin one way street. When do the employer ever have your interest at heart? OK, trick question: NEVER. Been there, seen that many times.

  11. If the original questioner has accurately described the situation, this is not an issue of personal dislike, gaslighting or cancel culture, but an entirely different problem. If the candidate did create a “very costly” problem for a former employer, that fact is a relevant hiring consideration, one that managers at the former employer might mention if they were asked for a reference for this employee. So why shouldn’t former colleagues who are aware of the situation do likewise to protect their current employers?

    • Why is your cause to rat out someone, especially when there’s personal contempt and bias towards
      that individual? Again, that’s messed up.

    • @Tim: Wish everyone would note the qualifier I put on this at the beginning. That we assume the O.P. is above board about this story. We have to be, or why talk about it. So if that assumption holds, then it’s not “ratting” anyone out. It’s part of a person’s job.

    • No it’s clearly a question of what I called it out as, despite what the recruiter voice in you is claiming. Who’s to say that this costly mistake was not just that, a costly mistake. But to pin a scarlet letter on this guy for one screw up long ago, and blackball him from getting employed, again, that’s totally messed up.

  12. I would be extremely cautious about this, as I very much doubt you know the *whole story*.

    If you asked two of my “colleagues” and my former manager at my last job, they would tell you I was an awful human being and worse employee.

    If you asked the several hundred other people I worked with, they’d tell you I was great and they were very sorry to see me go (one manager even *cried* when I told her I was leaving).

    What the three people would NOT tell you was that two of then hated me before I got there because I wasn’t the guy *they* wanted in the position, and the one who hated me the most was best friends with my manager’s wife.

    They wouldn’t tell you about their deliberate sabotage:
    –They told me wrong information when they were supposed to be “training” me.
    –They specifically instructed me to break federal law AND endanger the life of a patient (I knew better and refused).
    –They threw me into providing 8 hours of training to staff on complex software I had never seen until SIX WEEKS before with no materials, no course outline, not even bullet points of topics. They didn’t know I was a teacher in a previous life with my MA in curriculum design, so I pulled it off, much to their surprise.
    –One of them literally cornered me in my cubicle with hands flailing, red-faced, SCREAMING at me because I asked her an on-topic question about the software she was supposed to be “training” me on.
    –They repeatedly insulted me in front of my colleagues (“You know NOTHING! You’re not a NURSE!” for an IT job).
    –They lied about me to colleagues and leadership and deliberately humiliated me in team meetings.
    –They bullied me to my breaking point every single day for an entire year.

    I can objectively prove I wasn’t the person or employee they would describe, but if someone talked to *them* first, they’d never even interview me to find out the whole story. Don’t be the person to (inadvertently?!) continue that kind of victimization.

    • @ World’s Worst Employee-
      Watch it sir, critical thinking skills are a no-no with the out of touch, lol.
      You’re spot on right! Setting up people for failure, simply because of malcontent colleagues who hate their very existence, or you were hired over their drinking or golf buddy, is VERY real world! Been there, done that. I know your story all too well, as do others.
      Years ago, I worked with a young man fresh out of college. This guy was an awful employee, and had management put him on a PIP, held him accountable, and managed him he may have proven to at least have been an average employee. I bit my lip for nearly a year, but one day, I’d had enough of his screwing off and aberrant behavior, and I professionally called him out on it. Wrong move on my part.
      Fast forward a few years later. I was unemployed and looking after my employer went bankrupt and closed the doors. I dropped off a resume at a company, and this very guy was an employee there (heard they let him go soon after). He saw me, as I saw him. I later learned from an internal friendly at this place that they were very interested in me, but this guy went into the owner, and he slandered and bad mouthed me. I was of course disqualified.
      Amazing that as you’ve pointed out, some will tear you to pieces, often it’s personal, while others will objectively sing your praises.

    • WWE: The original questioner gave us his version of the story in the context of asking for advice. Any advice given here was predicated on the assumption that his story is true, just as you might reasonably expect your readers here to assume your story about your former colleagues is also true. What would you do if one of those former employees turned up at your current workplace looking for work?

      • @Tim: Thanks again for emphasizing that we start on the same ground or there’s nothing to discuss. If it turns out there was some misunderstanding or incomplete info, the candidate should be able to balance the input with solid references.

  13. Companies don’t give information beyond what dates someone worked there or if they are employed currently. In our litigation oriented culture, no one says anything bad, rather they say nothing. I believe one should attempt to talk to the hiring manager at your current job if they are willing to listen. And if the company culture is valuing and respecting others. If you work in a company where everyone is jockeying for power, this is where it might just bite you. Be care what one says while knowing no one gives a bad reference these days. No company is going to say why someone is not eligible for rehire – the fancy phrase for being fired. I’ve seen poorly skilled people hired on the basis of friendship and managers creating their own kingdoms. I’ve seen a popular with management but terrible manager who did no work get rehired based on good looks and charm. Only to then get fired when they couldn’t do the job they were rehired for. If the company doesn’t value you, your information will likely not be valued. So in some ways this sets up an honest and loyal employee to take a fall in sharing information about a potential hire. Depends on the background of how they hire and do they care about your opinion or information. And who in the company might actually want this potential employee to be hired.

    • It depends. While most companies don’t give out such information, some do. I had a client who lost his dream job and lost the chances of being interviewed for others because a manager who disliked him badmouthed him to employers.

  14. “No one says anything bad”. Yeah right. I’ve personally heard with both ears former employers “bad mouth” and viciously slander ex-employees over the phone when a background check is called in. Two of the people had been stellar tenured employees who voluntarily resigned.

  15. I would keep my mouth shut or just say “He/She and I didn’t get along when we worked together”, don’t feel the need to elaborate more than that unless the person was involved with serious/criminal misconduct.

    I feel that following Nick’s advice in this case would still come across as backstabbing or passive-aggressive ie not coming out and saying what I think but leaving just enough clues to get the manager interested.

    No need to go the extra mile to ding or blackball someone and mess with their bread just for past grievances or conflicts of personality.
    I may not want to work with this person again (or have a former manager I disliked hired as a manager in my current employer) but to rat them out or sabotage them in a roundabout way is not something I would be comfortable doing.

    • @G.D.: In my multi-step advice I make it clear that the O.P. need not provide ANY details. Just suggest in-depth reference checking and eyes-open is a good idea. Has it gotten to the point where honest references are to be avoided entirely? While I know back-stabbing goes on, too, it’s up to the manager to figure it out. Why should the manager hear only the positive side from third parties? References must count for something, or scofflaws get away by crying “Unfair! You have no right!” Every manager has a right to make judgments. In fact, an obligation. All she needs do is compare the O.P.’s suggestion to references she checks. If there’s a problem, comments will match. If not, then hire the candidate. I don’t buy the idea that providing comments makes the commenter an executioner.

  16. There’s something odd in the writer’s story. Regarding the person’s boss who was considering bringing in this bad apple from his former life.
    In my boss day’s, I kept a cc of everyone’s resume in my desk, and hence knew their backgrounds well. If someone hit my radar screen who worked at the same place as someone in my team, & I was considering even an interview, my 1st stop would be to my team member. If they never heard of them, quick chat. If they knew them I’d get their take. If I didn’t like what I heard, we’re done. No interview. If I was slow on the uptake and an interview was scheduled before I talked with my team member, I’d still be much better prepared & be positioned to explore questionable risky hire areas. (no I wouldn’t cancel the interview..we didn’t do that)

    As to “ratting out”. 1st, I believe that everyone has a basic job…to make the organization successful. 2nd, I believe an organization is only as good as the people in it. 3rd, to make the organization successful everyone has to have the boss’s back and they have to have yours. Even if that boss is the role model for the world’s biggest assh..e. 4. I had a rule, of never BSing my boss or up the line.
    But above the aforementioned noble philosophies, one has to look out for #1. You want to succeed? Try it in an organization that’s going down in flames because your bosses are busy shooting themselves in the foot, with bad hiring decisions among many other reasons. In the example given by the writer who possesses solid info, standing quiet with mouth agape not only increases the risk to their career but to those of their boss and team mates. If you think it’s not a problem because you won’t work with that person, forget it. It’s a small world inside organizations, and you’re never far from the impact of a poor performer. And the higher up in food chain that crappy hire is, the more it will hurt you. It is in YOUR best interests that the company hires good people, especially in the organization of which you are a part.
    So yes, in this situation you brief the boss, inclusive of your role in the events. Hiring is always a risk & any 1st hand info is useful…And the same holds if the person was a rock star where you came from. If a boss blows you off, so be it, you’ve done your job, with the side benefit of a learning more about who you’re working for.

    Don’t play woulda coulda. Just do the right thing. The scenarios are endless. Including this one. You say nothing. The person is hired. After which they find out you work there. And you know all about their issues, & they know you know. Like I said you just puked in your back yard and likely made it less habitable.

    Here’s an example. I voluntarily changed from Company A where I was a Sr Mgr, laterally to Company B. For all practical purposes it was a start up inside Company B. My boss told me he had an application from a Sr Mgr in my former Company A to head up his Software Dev Unit. A step up for the guy. We were former colleagues & butt heads often. He asked me my take. I did not see his application, letter etc. My take was there’s no way I’d hire him for a # of key reasons. I knew if he joined this team, there would be no way but down for all of us. And the boss could do a lot better. I did not lose any sleep over it.

  17. “While I know back-stabbing goes on, too, it’s up to the manager to figure it out”. Huh?
    Problem with out of touch analogy like this is that most managers can’t nor do figure it out. I’d submit some of the real world commentary that’s been posted would indicate this.

  18. I would definitely say something to the boss in this case. Someone whom one had a previous falling out with over a legit work-related problem in the past is not someone I would want to work with. The relationship with the boss is good, so do the boss a favor and let them know what happened. It’s not Boy/Girl scout behavior but who’s keeping track?

  19. I wasn’t happy about doing it but I have warned management against hiring someone. A co-worker at a previous employer has been fired because of an incident that resulted in the loss of company financial data (a botched upgrade without doing a proper/validated backup) after which this person /refused/ to explain what he had done, etc., basically not willing to ‘fess up to his mistake. (I still wonder whether he’d have been laid off if he’d simply explained his mistake?) A year or so later, he applied to a position at my (then) current employer. While I only vaguely recognized the name on the resume that was passed around (I wasn’t going to be directly involved in the interview process) but when he showed up for the interview I recognized him immediately and tracked down the VP of IT and offered my $0.02. I hate being someone involved in blackballing a candidate but felt that this one was justified.

  20. All this relativist commentary speaks loads for watching who’s toes you step on, intentionally or unintentionally. You never know what vindictive or pugnacious type may be lying in wait to disqualify you.

  21. @SR-
    Lol! Something tells me the sisterhood and these pencil necks aren’t going to make much headway trying to mob or cancel a poster like you.
    I’m 64, and I too remember when men and employers either worked it out, men walked, or men were kicked to the curb (as has been my case a few times, but kept my privates intact, bit my lip, and moved onto the next “job”, sometimes for an extended search).
    Maybe sometimes the system does work for what’s right, and there are those on the side of the system like you that have the kahunas to do what’s right and take down these oligarch unchecked managers and employers.
    I raise my glass to men like you, those “who aren’t afraid to speak their minds”.

  22. When I was in a position to hire contractors, I did a version of what Don Harkness did, though I wasn’t as methodical. While perusing a candidate’s job history, I’d try to find someone who’d known her or him at a former company and get a read. Just one more data point, as it were. And when asked by a different hiring manager, I’ve always given my opinion. (I have generally worked within smallish teams, where we were collegial – very few where there was a strict “I’m the boss, and you aren’t.”)

  23. Wow, the old insurance investigator’s posts were removed! That stinks. He spoke the truth. That really stinks.

    • That is correct. Rude, aggressive soap-boxing, insults and back-handed insults, and attempts to intimidate others are not welcome here. It’s no way to get hired, either.