Date posted: 27/11/2023 5 min read

Dear Abby

In our new career ‘agony aunt’ column, we ask the experts for help with some workplace dilemmas and challenges.

Got a question for Abby?

  • In her 20 years in media, 'Acuity' editor Abigail Murison has observed and experienced her fair share of workplace and career dilemmas. Send in your questions, and she’ll pose them anonymously to our panel of experts.


  • A friend has asked me to act as a professional reference, but I don’t think they are a great worker. What should I do?

    Recruitment expert Michael Edelstein says:

    My rule in life is that it’s a small world and you should never lie, so keep your reputation and integrity intact.

    If you never managed your friend in a work environment, suggest it’s better for them to find someone in a professional capacity, as your views would be biased and unrelated to their work, and therefore you wouldn’t be a useful or appropriate referee.

    However, if they persist, then you can hint that it’s better they use someone else because you tend to freeze up and say the wrong things when put on the spot, and you would be doing them a disservice. Then suggest a colleague, boss or another acquaintance as being better suited.

    If they want a personal reference, then you could speak as a referee about their positive characteristics and potential.

    HR expert Sharon McDonald says:

    If your friend hasn’t worked for you or with you, simply decline to give a professional reference because you are not qualified to do so. You can offer to provide a character reference instead, based on your knowledge of them as a friend on a personal level (and then, only if you are comfortable doing so).

    If your friend has worked for you or with you, decline on the basis that you believe it would be a conflict of interest for you or it would not sit right with you, because you have a personal relationship with them.

    Suggest that they would be better served to seek references from current or former colleagues or managers. Most employers or recruiters will ask how you know the candidate and will be uncomfortable if they know you are friends. They will likely not take the reference any further.

  • I recently received a job offer for a role I interviewed for. Since signing the letter of offer, I have changed my mind and I don’t want the job. How bound by that signature am I?

    Megan Alexander CA, a recruitment expert, says:

    The job-search process isn’t always linear. For a variety of reasons a candidate can find themselves in a position where they have signed the contract for a job but choose to no longer pursue it.

    From a recruitment perspective only, you may retract from the offer, but you should always act in good faith and have regard to the express terms of the signed contract.

    Professionals might think they would never find themselves in this situation, but going to the measure of withdrawing after signing a contract is usually completely unintentional. The main reasons people pull out after signing include: accepting a better job offer with a higher salary or better benefits; accepting a counteroffer from their current employer; deciding they are not passionate about the role and the work; they have a ‘niggling’ feeling that something about the role isn’t quite right for them; advice from someone who thinks the job is not well suited to them; or some significant changes in personal circumstances that arise between job offer acceptance and start date.

    While going back on the acceptance of a job offer is never going to be the preferred choice, it’s unlikely to affect your career negatively over the long-term, especially if you don’t make a habit of doing it. Keep in mind that employers don’t want new hires who would rather be somewhere else. So, if a job isn’t for you, then you would be doing a disservice to yourself and the employer by trying to stick it out.

    To avoid finding yourself in this situation, the best measure is to consider everything throughout the interview process; don’t wait until the end. Carefully evaluate the position before signing. Look at all aspects – salary, cultural fit, benefits, location and work type. If you have concerns in any of those aspects, talk them through with the hiring manager. More often than not, they can help you find a solution to your query and lessen your fight-or-flight reaction to sign something you don’t want, or to abandon the offer if something isn’t 100% clear. The key is clear and open communication.

    Before signing anything, read the contract. Look for any stipulations about rescinding your acceptance or giving a specified amount of notice should you change your mind.

    If you have a change of heart about the job you accept, tell the employer as soon as possible. While it may be a hard conversation to have, the company needs to know straight away, so it can start the process of looking for someone to fill that role. And remember, be professional at all times.

  • I volunteered to take notes at an important meeting and now I’ve become the unofficial secretary at every meeting. How do I hand back this responsibility?
     HR expert Sharon McDonald says:

    There is nothing wrong with being helpful in a team situation, but setting a precedent is something that we can easily get trapped by. Prior to the next meeting, ask for note-taking arrangements to be put on the agenda.

    At the meeting, lead the discussion on the question of how note taking is best managed. Explain that you are happy to take notes on occasion – or on a rostered or alternating basis with the rest of the team members – but to take notes at every meeting detracts from your ability to concentrate on the meeting and it impacts your time after the meeting by having to type up the notes and distribute them.

    “Explain that you are happy to take notes, but to take notes at every meeting detracts from your ability to concentrate on the meeting.”
    Sharon McDonald, McDonald HR

    Then ask for the team’s thoughts as to the best way to make sure the task is shared fairly in the future.

The experts

Megan Alexander CA is managing director of recruitment company Robert Half New Zealand.

Sharon McDonald is a human resources consultant and founder of McDonald HR in New Zealand.

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