A reader writes:
I review intern applications in my university’s department A. An intern in department B, Jane (not real name), said her boyfriend Steve is interested in an opening in my department. She approached me to ask how Steve should submit his application materials. Jane then emailed me, saying she personally recommended Steve for the position, talking about his previous experience, and saying she wanted to make sure his name stood out.
This struck me as weird and unprofessional; I’d note that Jane has not worked with or supervised Steve before. If anything, Jane’s proactiveness makes me question Steve’s judgment. I know people can personally recommend candidates for openings, but I’m curious if is what Jane did considered normal in the “put a good word in” process? More generally speaking, is it appropriate for someone to recommend his/her significant other? Would you consider the situation different if Jane were recommending her friend Bob, rather than her boyfriend?
I agree with you that it’s bad judgment, but I’d attribute it to the fact that she’s an intern and thus (I’m assuming) is fairly inexperienced in how this stuff works.
But yes, you’re assumed to be biased where your significant other is concerned — far more biased than you’d be with a friend — and as a result, you really can’t serve as a reference for a significant other, even if you worked with them or even supervised them at some point.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with saying, “Hey, I wanted to give you a heads-up that my boyfriend is applying for X and I think he could be a great candidate” … but you really can’t push beyond that without making everyone uncomfortable. That’s where your intern veered off course.
A version of this is true for platonic friends, as well. If you’ve never worked with a friend but are suggesting them for a position, you need to state clearly that you’ve never worked with them. You can mention why you think they’d be well-suited for the position, based on your non-work knowledge of them (for instance, you might note that the person is smart/well-connected/diplomatic/a great writer/fantastically knowledgeable about X/or whatever else might be relevant), but you should always be clear that you don’t have experience working with them … and again, you can’t be pushy without making everyone uncomfortable. But you do have a bit more leeway with recommending a friend than a significant other, simply because there’s not the assumption of blinding bias.