To give–or not to give–an honest reference?

Mala, about 24 years old, came to our firm for an interview. She was interviewed by Anil, the hiring manager in question. She had been referred by Anil’s neighbour’s friend’s friend, or something like that. Though Anil had initially made no promises, he was very impressed with her knowledge (she had excellent academic credentials too) and he hired her as a trainee in his department. She would be monitored for three months and, if found suitable, she would be absorbed as a regular employee.

Mala used to join us at the lunch table quite often. She said she had quit her job at Infosys upon being asked to move to another city, because she had wanted to remain in Bangalore. [One of the other girls immediately told me in private that she was very familiar with Infosys’s procedures and placement policies, and that Mala’s story was a lie. I didn’t think too much about it then.]

On another occasion, Mala mentioned that her mother was due to undergo ear surgery because of a nagging problem–the entire family had been injured, to varying extents, in a car accident two years earlier. She said that her parents, both seated in the front seat, had not worn seat belts. She proudly added, “Even now, my father never wears a seat belt; he hates it. Even I never do.” [Of course, I promptly told her that I never let people ride in my car–even in the rear seat–without a seat belt.]

She had terrible breath and an all-pervading stink–not just simple perspiration, but like someone who had not bathed in days. And she seemed clueless on how to use the toilet.

Over the next few weeks, everybody noticed–and commented in hushed tones–that she was always on Facebook, or on a lingerie website. One day, she sat next to me and did exactly the same. I felt it was none of my business, so I said nothing to her or Anil. The next day, Anil rebuked her for not having produced anything; when he asked her why, she said nothing.

When such incidents began to occur frequently, I decided to share my observations with Anil. He said, “I know; I too have noticed this, and many people have told me about it. It’s just that she has these flashes of brilliance–just when I think I should ask her to go, she comes up with some brilliant question or analysis. I’m hoping she’ll stabilize to be serious about her work. I’m trying to be patient and sympathetic — after all, she is the only breadwinner in her family–she has a younger brother who is still studying; her mother isn’t working, and her father died in that terrible accident two years ago.”

A chill went down my spine. In that one accident, the girl had lost not just her dad, but her head too.

Sadly, Mala remained as irresponsible at work, and Anil and the HR had to ask her to go. Even on that day, she did not understand the import of what they were telling her. She giggled, went back to her desk, continued browsing Facebook and the lingerie site, and then left, still giggling.

The next day, and a couple more times, her mother called Anil (and even came over to the office) demanding to know why he had terminated her daughter’s services. He talked about her attitude to work, but he felt it was irrelevant to mention the inconsistencies in the stories she was telling people.

A few months later, she was interviewed at another firm, where she said that she had quit our firm because of the very long hours that her manager had forced her to work! The HR of that company contacted our HR (who, in turn, double-checked with Anil) to ask if this was true. All of us knew it wasn’t, and our HR told the other HR so. I have no idea what reason our HR gave them for Mala’s cessation of employment with us, or if the other firm hired her. Sure enough, HR established that Mala had never worked at Infosys.

The entire episode left me feeling very sad. Here was this girl who had her flashes of brilliance and was capable of contributing richly at work. Yet, she was of slightly unsound mind, possibly because of some brain damage caused by the accident (or so I think from reading Dr. Daniel Amen’s books). By giving an honest reference, we would ruin Mala’s chances of employment. By giving a polite one, we would give her a chance, but we might make the new employer suffer.

How would you have handled this whole situation, and what would you tell someone seeking a reference about someone like Mala?

[Names have been changed. Image source:

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