Change Whisperer – Gail Severini, Symphini Change Management Inc.


Giving and receiving references, and other online business favours
August 4, 2009, 8:00 am
Filed under: - Marketing, - Professional Development

Old School vs Web Time

It used to be that it was time consuming and onerous to provide a reference letter.  A lot of thought went into ‘how well do I really know this person’, ‘what can I say, honestly’, ‘what will they use this for’, ‘what will the people who receive it think (of them and of me)’. 

On each side (giving and taking the recommendation), the question of using good will arose. Integrity was paramount.  Giving a reference was a reflection on the giver as much as on the receiver. 

In particular, giving introductions carried weight – one drew from the goodwill bank to ask an associate to meet with a candidate.

Is this still true today? With systems like LinkedIn, where a reference is now a paragraph or two, jotted down and published in minutes, much of the structured process that facilitated the consideration process is gone.  The wheels have been oiled into oblivion – there is just motion now.  Has this changed the rigor around references, and other similar business favors? Tempted the bar lower? Should it?

Well, it seems clear that the answer is ‘yes’ – the rigor has changed.  And, I suspect, that there is a strong generational component to the degrees of change in different situations. Like so many situations this has both positive and negative connotations. 

What favors?

There are many types of favors one might ask online, and at least as many formats, technologies, sites, etc:

  • Introductions
  • References or endorsements
  • Knowledge, opinions, resources
  • Research e.g. on products / companies / competitors

Of note, for consultants the latter two are simplex requests – our intellect, knowledge and analytical capabilities are our livelihood.  One must weigh:

  • Who is asking – a prospect, an influencer, a competitor, a neutral participant?
  • Who is lurking in the background, unseen but watching?
  • How must to ‘give away’ as a sample or demonstration

What’s the difference?

Presumably a favor benefits the giver.  However, the ‘costs’ are changing. Consider:

  • Giving a recommendation trades on the reputation of the giver – Consider: How many recommendations is it reasonable for one to provide? The practice of ‘you recommend me and I’ll recommend you’ is shallow and easily visible – discredits both parties but happens often.
  • Giving an introduction translates into withdrawals from the ‘good will bank’ – how many introductions can one make to a contact?  Where there is mutual value this is a win / win however if this is not self evident there are repercussions.
  • Giving information requires time to communicate it properly – often risks of inadequate consideration are not clear in the response
  • Risks to the giver are higher – the favor is often more public, more exposed and there is little real control over how the receiver will use the favor
  • Tolerance for unethical behavior is low – care must be taken to ensure that sharing information cannot be perceived as collusion, insider information, breach of confidentiality

The ease and speed of the online world creates a risk of ‘slap dash’ requests and responses – and the ramifications are not always immediately visible.

Reputations are our Brand

We must remind ourselves that reputations are precious – as individuals, they are our brand.  We should recognize that all online requests are in the public domain – can be seen by virtually anyone.  The lens must consider how such actions could be perceived.

It would not kill us to slow this process down a little:

  • take time to create a draft response, sleep on it, review it the next day
  • consider how it would look to a friend, to a client, to a competitor
  • consider how many of these you will do, how will you respond to the next one(s)
  • how does this favor look to you when you see others execute it, if you have a mentor perhaps ask them how they are handling it

At the end of the day, a favor is still a favor – it is implicitly a trade. Be sure that you understand the value and the costs – make good trades.


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