Q: I have applied for a position in a group where a friend previously worked. She transferred because she could not get along with the group leader. She had approached upper management several times to make them aware of the leader's shortcomings.
From what my friend has told me, I believe that I would not have the same issues with the group leader. The position is exactly right for my skill set, and I'm enthusiastic about the company's mission.
My friend endorsed me for the position, and I've passed through the phone interview with HR; the next step is a phone interview with the group leader. Because my friend's endorsement went straight to the leader, I'm concerned that the leader will view my connection with my friend as a big negative. I'm wondering if I should make clear that I would handle certain things much differently from how my friend did. Not by saying that specifically, but perhaps by highlighting how I've handled similar situations in the past. What do you think?
A: This is a great example of how connections and references can work either for or against you, especially in a small industry.
Working for a friend's boss is not unlike dating a friend's ex; it can work, but everyone has to be grown-ups and you need to go into it with a clear view of the reason(s) why your friend is no longer connected to this person.
If the leader wants to interview you despite past conflicts with the person who is recommending you, that's a good sign you'll be judged on your own merits. And your friend, although presumably unhappy about having to leave the group because of those conflicts, is willing to make introductions for you. That all bodes well on the "everyone being grown-ups" front.
Now for the vision check: Does your friend agree with you that you won't have the same problems with this boss? Or are you glossing over those problems based on what you know about your friend? Has your friend told you why she endorsed you to work in a group she saw fit to leave? Did she have legitimate reasons for going over her boss's head, and were her complaints at least acknowledged? If they weren't, are those issues something you have proven tolerance for or experience handling?
When it comes time for the interview, I think you're right to avoid bringing up your friend specifically, although you can use her intel to help you pick scenarios and highlight skills that are likely to impress the boss. But don't forget: You're interviewing the group leader as well. If the leader mentions your friend repeatedly, or even says something mildly denigrating about your friend and then watches you for signs of agreement, you can deflect -- "I can't speak for Friend; I can only tell you about how I work and my passion for this cause, and let you decide if I sound like a good fit" -- and consider that a warning sign.
Just because this group was a bad fit for your friend doesn't mean it will be for you, too. Maybe you're chocolate, your friend is peanut butter, and the boss is mint; you go well with either one, but the two of them together are a disaster.