What to Do When You Can't Give a Positive Reference

Oct 5, 2011
4 Min Read

A reader recently asked me:

My former assistant a few years back couldn’t keep up with the workload and I was close to letting her go when she ended up leaving on her own. But since then, she’s told me that she’s listed me as a reference. Fortunately I haven’t been called yet, but what should I do if I am? I can’t honestly give her a good reference.

Well, first, you’re right not to give in and give her a positive reference just to get out of an awkward situation. If you recommend someone who turns out to be awful, it will reflect on you and your judgment, and could harm your own reputation.

Instead, here are four possible ways to proceed:

1. First, make sure you warn the employee in advance that you won’t be able to provide a positive reference. You may still receive calls from reference-checkers who go outside of the list of references she provides, but this should minimize it.

While you might cringe at the thought of having to relay this message, remember that it’s far kinder to warn her than to let her offer up your name, only to have you provide a lukewarm (or worse) assessment. In explaining your decision to her, say something like, “I wish you all the best, but I can’t in good faith give you the type of reference that would be useful for you.”

2. There’s an easy out if she worked for you more than a couple of years ago: You can explain to the reference-checker (or the employee herself) that you don’t feel equipped to be a reference since her work for you was so long ago and you can’t remember the types of nuances that reference-checkers are looking for. This is essentially a “no comment” without the judgment.

3. If option #2 would strain credulity, you can fall back on saying you can only confirm title and dates of employment. However, be prepared for a savvy reference-checker to ask if this is your policy across the board or just for this candidate.

4. Last, consider honesty. After all, reference checking (and the whole hiring process, for that matter) is all about finding out if the candidate and the job are a good match. If they’re not a good match and it’s not uncovered until it’s too late, the company will be stuck with a poor performer and the employee will be stuck struggling in a job and maybe even losing it down the road.

However, if you do choose to provide a reference for a poor performer, stick to objective facts you can prove. (Despite a widespread belief to the contrary, employers are permitted to provide critical references as long as they’re truthful.)

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