Friday, January 15, 2010

Finding a job as an intern: knowing when to say when

I recently blogged here about getting a job as an intern in this economy, and in that post I alluded to the idea of asking your friends if their firm or another firm is hiring. Your friends are good contacts, and you can be a good contact for your friends as well. This is especially good when you have friends that are bright, motivated, and capable--good employees are in short supply, sometimes even in a bad economy when only the not-so-good people have been laid off and cast into the employment pool. Advocating for good new hires can also make you look good: like it or not, we are known by the company we keep, so being in (and bringing in) good company only improves your standing at work. An extreme example of this actually happened to me. Several years ago, I was the mentor for a high school student who worked at our office for high school credit. She later went to undergrad, then grad school, and then into the workforce. She dropped me a line a couple of years ago: she was looking for a change of firm and pace, and was my firm hiring? We met for lunch, and even after all those years she was still brilliant, talented, motivated, and a positive thinker. I mentioned her to our office manager, and I described how fantastic she had been as a high schooler and was even now. After four rounds of layoffs at our office, she--and I--are still employed. My colleagues rave to me about how fantastic she is to have on a project and thank me for working with her years ago and advocating for her hiring more recently. (I don't think I can actually take credit for her professional success in the least. She was sharp when she hit the doors, not because of anything I did.)

But if we are perceived favorably by bringing in good people, we can also be perceived unfavorably by bringing in not-so-good people. If a friend with a less-than-stellar work ethic, abilities, or attitude asks you to vouch for them, think twice. First of all, would you want to work with this person? If not, there's a good reason not to advocate for them. It's okay to give an alternate but legitimate excuse for not putting in a word for them: our office only goes by professional references and not personal ones; you and I didn't really work that closely together/work together that long so I'm not really the best person to give a reference for you, etc. If someone drops your name to a manager without your knowledge and you're asked about them, be honest but not rude. A good friend of mine once gave the following description to his boss about a friend of his that he went to school with and worked with for a year: "He's a good guy overall: he knows his stuff, and he knows how to put a building together, but he can be kinda flaky. He's a designer at heart, and he has a little of that kind of ego and attitude."

That's a pretty precise description of someone, providing both good and bad qualities (which we all have) and showing an honest assessment overall. And therein lies another pitfall of recommending a friend for a job: how honest are you about this person? How well can you see their qualities and flaws? If you find yourself saying something like "He's not so bad once you get to know him" or "She's kinda misunderstood but she means well," those should be red flags for you to reconsider recommending them for a job with you. Teams have to gel pretty quickly in the workplace in order to get things done, and if my colleagues have to "get to know you" so that we're not constantly "misunderstanding" you, that's just too much work.

I witnessed this scene a few years ago when a coworker recommended a friend of his for an intern position at the firm for which I work. My coworker was a bit prickly himself, but he knew his stuff. His friend, however, who had just been fired from another firm across town, was a different matter. No one knew if he knew his stuff because he rarely got much done. He was constantly taking smoke breaks or chatting with other coworkers or instant messaging someone on his work computer. He was fired after about six months, and my coworker was furious. He saw his friend as a victim, having been treated badly by one more person or entity in life. "He's a good guy, he's just kinda different! Not everybody gets him right away, y'know? They never gave him a chance!" Yes, they did give him a chance--they gave him six months, and that's enough. About a year later, my coworker was part of the first round of layoffs--while his output was still pretty decent, his attitude had soured because he couldn't see his friend's performance in the way that the business--and all his coworkers, including me--could see him.

Bringing in friends to help at your office can be rewarding and fun. Not only can you help someone get a job, but you can make your workplace more enjoyable and more efficient. Just be sure that you exercise caution and only advocate for people in whom you can really trust and in whose work you really believe.

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