How honest are you when someone asks, “What was it like to work at that company?” Do you share the unvarnished truth, or do you keep your personal opinions to yourself?
Carrie used to work for a small team in a large company. For the first year or so, it was her dream job. The people she worked with were smart and creative; she was given the freedom to work on projects that mattered to her; even the company benefits were great. She felt that she made a difference.
But when a new manager came in, everything fell apart. The new manager was capricious, arbitrary, and made poor decisions based on too little data (and usually the wrong data). He didn’t know the technology the team relied on. His management skills were abysmal. He didn’t just fail to offer coaching; the guy actively worked to destroy what had been a supportive, creative team.
Let’s just say: He was awful. Six months after the new manager arrived, Carrie headed to greener pastures.
Fast forward two years. Someone Carrie knows professionally (a casual business acquaintance) was offered a job at her previous company on the same team, reporting to the same manager. Her friend – let’s call him Greg – asked her, “What’s it like to work there?”
What should Carrie say? How honest should she be?
Stop a moment. Think about that. How would you respond?
It’s likely that you have had a job that sucked. It may have been different from Carrie’s tale; it could have sucked differently. But you may find yourself in the same position: someone asking about your experience with a previous employer or a former business client.
There’s no one right answer, of course. Each of us has our own rules for how to respond, and we are influenced by many things. You might give a different answer if Greg is a close friend, or a more distant one. If your job-that-sucked only sucked moderately, you may not feel as strong a desire to save Greg from what Carrie saw as a toxic situation.
But I bet you have an opinion. So, before you keep reading: Answer the poll to tell us all how you would answer.
She Said, He Said
In Carrie’s case: She pulled no punches. She told Greg about the good things about the company, as well as what she thought was screwed up. At least, she thought, Greg should go into the new job with his eyes open.
Some of the information Carrie shared with Greg was personal, in the sense that she identified how she responded in that work environment. She said, “This is what the manager told me; this is what I did.” (The phrase, “It’s okay with me if he burns in hell” may have been used. More than once.) Implicit in the storytelling was, “Your experience may be different. I can speak only for my own.”
Others were primarily data points: The healthcare benefits are outstanding; this colleague is considered an international expert on a particular technical topic; the company is serious about training its staff.
Part of what Carrie told Greg was informational rather than value-based. If Carrie said, “This woman on the team has never been on time in her life,” then Greg could decide if that mattered to him, or at least Greg might bring a book to keep himself occupied while waiting for the tardy colleague. Lateness may be a hot button for Carrie but not for Greg, after all. Whether it is important to him is Greg’s decision; whatever his response, it’s useful information to have, and can set expectations that remove friction (because he does, after all, have a book to read).
The Other Approaches
I told a few people about Carrie’s experience, and asked my own friends whether that response was typical and professional.
Several agreed with the premise that it was important for Carrie to protect her friend from a similar experience. “Honesty is the best policy. Seriously. How could you live with yourself if you lied?” said one person.
A few of my buddies have different opinions, though. One issue is with Carrie’s own reputation. If she speaks ill of a former employer, even to a professional colleague, word might get around that she’s a whiner, or that she is too willing to badmouth others. And that’s a reputation that’s hard to outlive. “If you're worried about future career prospects in an industry where everyone knows everyone, that's an issue,” one friend said.
Plus, they say, people change. “I can only speak to my experiences, and would not want to set up unrealistic expectations – either positive or negative,” that friend advised me. “People grow and change, and deserve a chance to build their own relationships.”
There’s also a middle ground in which people balance their reluctance to criticize others with the desire to help someone else. “It very much depends on how well I know the person asking. Would I tell a good friend? Sure. Would I tell a casual acquaintance? Absolutely not,” one of my friends said. “I might say ‘It was not a good fit for me, due to political issues,’ or something equally bland but informative.”
And many temper their experiences with the awareness that some work problems are a personality conflict. One buddy said, “I give them my honest opinion about how I think they will do with X company. For example, I'd be a bad fit for many places, but a friend may fit the joint to a T.”
Another admits that she’d hesitate to answer, personally; on the other hand, “I do appreciate forthrightness when I'm the one asking, especially if that not-often-wrong sensation in the pit of my stomach says it would be appropriate to ask.” That longtime friend opined, “I figure it's good karma to ask when answered, but I try to stick to specifics and be very clear that Your Mileage May Vary – saying, ‘I found Mr X to need really short, clear statements from me,’ as opposed to, ‘If that jackwagon had cut me off mid-sentence in a meeting one more time they'd have served him in the cafeteria. In bowls.’”
The end of our story? Greg took the job anyway. He lasted only a few months. And he told Carrie afterwards, “You were the only person who gave me negative feedback. I figured that it was a personality conflict between you and the manager… or at least I could deal with him since you had prepared me for what to expect. I was wrong.”
What would you have done? Do you think Carrie responded appropriately? Tell me about it in the comments – and see what others would do.