An interesting confluence presented itself to me recently. I was reading about how difficult it can be to overcome a bad first impression, which we all know to be true. And then something happened in an online forum to remind me how difficult it is to overcome a bad “zeroth” impression. That is, what can you do if someone (perhaps well-intentioned) says something about you that others take to be negative or untrue? Try as you might, some of the metaphorical mud splatters on you.

I am not going to discuss the online mess I witnessed because, first, I only caught the end of the conversation and don’t know all the details; second, the person involved has already put up with enough; and third, it’s none of my business—nor yours, either. Instead I want to tell you about how something similar almost happened to me.

Several years ago I interviewed for a job as a development assistant or some such title and knew I’d be asked to provide references. There was one person I particularly wanted to use as a reference, because he knew about my only brush with grant writing (as of then) and I knew he would say good things about me; but I also had to be very careful not to overstate my experience to the point of dishonesty.

What had happened, not long before I applied for the job, was that this former colleague’s (we’ll call him Tom, but that’s not his name) department applied for a large federal grant. Being that it was a government grant the requirements were stringent: specific questions had to be addressed and the entire application could not be longer than 100 pages.

Tom called me in a panic on Thursday afternoon. The grant application had to be postmarked by midnight Friday and it was a mess! Among other things, it was about 112 pages long. Knowing that I have non-profit experience and a bachelors degree in English, he hoped I could help. Fortunately I wasn’t terribly busy at my own job, had unused personal days, and could help.

I met Tom for dinner after work. He explained the situation in more detail, showed me the draft of the grant application, and we agreed that I would proofread the entire document, clean it up as best I could, and whittle it down to 100 pages or less. I started reading and marking up the application on my trip home.

I read well into the night at home, on the commute to Tom’s workplace the following morning, during my morning coffee and bagel, and pretty much the whole day. I eliminated some extraneous verbiage, tightened up the section on metrics and evaluation, and succeeded in getting the application down to the required length. By the end of the day my brain was fried.

Tom and I walked to the subway in the early evening—me to go home, he to mail the grant application from the main Post Office in Manhattan, a few hours shy of the midnight deadline.

So why wouldn’t he give me a great recommendation as a development assistant?

The answer is that he refused to say the one thing I insisted must be said: that I am not a grant writer and that whole experience happened over the course of only 24 hours. “Tell them I’m fabulous. Tell them I’m a great proofreader. Just be sure to tell them it was one grant, one day, and I didn’t write it, I proofread it.”

He wouldn’t do it. “I’m going to tell them you’re a terrific grant writer,” he e-mailed me. I reminded him that I’ve never written a grant. He said it didn’t matter; he knew that I could. I agreed, but insisted I could not claim that I had, because I hadn’t.

Another friend got involved. She had worked with both of us and I asked her opinion. She sided with me—Tom could say all kinds of nice things about what I’d done, but he could not give my possible future employer the impression that I had more experience than I actually did. It would be dishonest and it would cause trouble for me later, because I couldn’t live up to the hype if and when I got the position.

In the end I did the only thing I felt was reasonable: I didn’t use Tom as a reference. For all the nice things he would have said about me, I couldn’t trust that he would tell the truth about how limited my hands-on experience was. I was disappointed, because I was proud of that work I’d done (they got the grant, by the way) and felt it reflected well on my potential. But it was potential, not real experience. I couldn’t risk starting a new position with unrealistic expectations about my ability, or being caught out in a lie. Because a lie it was, and the employer would (reasonably) have suspected me of being complicit.

What’s the Takeaway?

It’s natural that anyone would want to help a friend—help a friend get a job, tell someone else how wonderful that friend is, defend that friend against real or perceived slights. Ah, but we have to be careful!

Overstating a friend’s good qualities, or being too aggressive in promoting a friend to a stranger can come across as pushy and annoying. It can also be difficult to live up to if you’re the one being promoted.

Similarly, if you feel a friend has been given a raw deal, you’ll certainly want to defend him or her. But be wary of rushing into a situation with more righteous indignation than diplomacy and common sense. People on the sidelines are especially likely to be put off, feeling they are being blamed for something they didn’t do or say. You also may draw more attention to the initial problem instead of calming the waters.

So before you rush in to defend a friend or promote their cause, get your stories straight. No, that’s not only for guilty parties colluding on an alibi: honest folks sometimes need to make sure they are in sync lest their inconsistencies be misinterpreted as untruths. If you’re going to speak up for a friend, be sure your friend is OK with what you’re going to say.

It’s a fine line you’ll have to walk if you aren’t fortunate enough to nip such unhelpful “help” before it becomes public. You’ll need to apologize to those who were put off and do your best to start over on better terms. “I’m very sorry that Tom said something about me that wasn’t quite true. He’s a good friend and I’m sure he was trying to be helpful. Perhaps he overstated my qualifications.” It’s that “zeroth” impression—the opinion people have about you before they meet you. It can be powerful and it can trip you up if you’re not aware of the reputation that precedes you.

Do you have a “Tom” story to share? Have you been zealously promoted by a friend, to the point that you found it embarrassing or difficult to live up to? Share a comment—and, like me, you don’t have to disclose every detail, as long as you don’t stretch the truth beyond breaking.

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