Skip to content

Could You Be a Reference For Your Best Employee to Go To A Competitor?

September 3, 2013

Rodney, can I talk to you a minute?

Sure, Ed. What’s up?

I need your advice. I’ve been approached by The Mail Advocates to come interview for a position. What do you think?

My heart sank. Ed wasn’t just a good employee, he was one of those people you build a team around. His skills were good enough to be a Prima Donna, but he had a fantastic attitude. He wrote the book on Novell GroupWise. Literally, he’d written at least two books that I knew of. He’d made the switch to Microsoft technologies amazingly fast and dragged the rest of the team with him.

I’d been working for a large non profit in Utah for about a year. On my first day, before I met the team, my boss showed me my desk. As often happens, the previous occupant had forgotten to clean out the center drawer. I’m not sure why that one gets missed, but it does. As I looked through the paper clips and dried out highlighters I spotted an old ID badge. Turning it over I read Ed Richardson. I was a little worried.

Being in the email space, I knew Ed by reputation. As I mentioned, he’d written books on email. If they had Ed on the team, he either didn’t want the manager job, or he applied and they didn’t offer it to him. The first possibility would be fine, if it was the second, I was in deep trouble before I even started. Would I have to convince Ed that I deserved the job instead of him?

Fortunately, Ed knew me by reputation as well. During our first 1:1 I brought it up.

Ed, why aren’t you the manager of this team? You’ve been with the company for years. You’ve got the industry experience.

I was. It didn’t go well. See, I’m an engineer. I realized that all that management stuff. . .going to meetings, doing reports. I stunk at that stuff. It kept me from focusing on the technology. Fortunately they didn’t fire me. They let me go back to being an engineer. . .and hired you.

I’ve always tried to run my teams in a way that would both get the job done, and make the employees enjoy it. I didn’t necessarily try to be everyone’s friend. That’s typically what happened, but it wasn’t the goal. I figured that the manager has a role to play, just as each engineer does. My job was to shield the team from all that management stuff that Ed didn’t like.

It was this open and supportive attitude that let Ed feel like he could approach me with the offer to go elsewhere.

Obviously I don’t want to lose you. But, I think you need to do what’s best for you and your family. At the end of the day, you’re answerable to your wife and kids. We would survive. So, I guess I’m saying it certainly can’t hurt to see what they have to say.

Great. Would you be a reference for me?

Wow. That’s sort of pushing it. I really REALLY wanted to keep Ed. Could I be an impartial reference? I think so. I hope so.


I wasn’t sure how the organization would view Ed’s exploring other options. It didn’t bother me, but I’ve worked for companies where even the hint that you are looking elsewhere will get you a black mark. I didn’t want that for Ed, so we kept quiet the fact that he was going.

A few days after he got back from his interview I got a phone call.

Mr. Bliss, this is Heather from The Mail Advocates. Could I ask you a few questions about Ed Richardson?


We talked about the technical brilliance that Ed had. I described what a joy he was as an employee. I even told her I completely understood why they would be interested in him.

Actually, we are considering him for a management role. Has he had any experience managing other employees?

Informally, he is certainly the technical leader of our engineering team. As for formal management roles, he at one point had my job. He stepped back into an engineer role because he found that’s where he passion was.

We talked for a few more minutes and the phone call ended. I told Ed what had been discussed. It was a couple weeks later that he approached me and let me know that he wasn’t leaving. I didn’t ask if it was his choice or theirs. I was simply happy to not have to replace a senior messaging engineer. And I was happy that I’d given an honest recommendation and for whatever reason Ed decided that working on my team was preferable to jumping ship.

Ironically, I think part of the reason he decided to stay (as far as I know he never applied anywhere else) was that I was willing to let him leave, and help him with the recommendation. It was leadership by inspiration as opposed to intimidation or compulsion. I’m just glad it worked.

em>Rodney M Bliss is an author, blogger and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and thirteen children.

Follow him on
Twitter (@rodneymbliss)
Facebook (
LinkedIn (
or contact him at (rbliss at msn dot com)

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply