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

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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Posted in People Management


  • Vicki Brown

    Be cautious and do consider having an honest talk with the former employee. Just because she couldn’t keep up with the workload in her former job, doesn’t necessarily mean she won’t be able to keep up in the next job.
    She may have improved since then; the jobs may be significantly different. Or (think carefully) did you overload her beyond her limits?

    All jobs are not equal.

    • That’s true, and a good reason to make sure that you understand what the job is that they’re being considered for (and it’s okay to ask if the reference-checker doesn’t volunteer that).

  • Vicki Brown

    In any case, please Do Not give her a bad reference without warning her.

    I had a former manager once tell a prospective employer that I “needed direction”. No other manager I’ve had has said anything like that about me. From my point of view, that former manager was terrible at setting expectations. I do need _some_ direction. No employee should be expected to mindread…

    I thought he’d be a good reference; instead, he cost me the job.  Do NOT become this manager to your former employee. Better to be honest upfront than to create an enemy for life.

  • I am honest up front with the person about what their strengths and weakness are if they ask for a reference.  And I have been the whole time they have worked with me, so they know I am not the type of give Pollyanna references.  My mindset, which they know, is very much on how we can improve, and everything can.  I also make sure we know what we are doing well, and continue to do those things (and maybe do them even better).

    I am the same when I interview for a job, when talking about myself.  I think honest statement of strengths and weaknesses is actually stronger for anyplace I would want to work (they are not so simple minded they don’t understand weaknesses exist).  But those that want to hide what they know I think of as weaknesses are not going to ask me, which is fine.

    • I agree — I wish more job-seekers would see that an honest conversation about weaker points can be part of ensuring that you’ll end up in a job where you’ll excel and be happy, and not in a job where you’ll struggle.

  • Marion

    Don’t say “Yes, it’s fine” without at least warning the employee. If your reference will leave a bad taste in the interviewer’s mouth, either refuse it, or tell them that it will not be useful to them and that they should look elsewhere – or, you can do what a former principal of mine did. Don’t say negative things, but don’t elaborate positives either, ie, “David is generally punctual. He can be considerate towards his coworkers, and mostly completes assignments on time. We let him go as we no longer needed him” is less damaging than, “David does not make an effort to get to work on time. He shows little regard for his coworkers at times, and sometimes hands in late work”, but says essentially the same thing.

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  • lisa r

    You can ALWAYS spot an article written by an HR professional, as in spill your GUTS in the most unflattering manner possible, and DUMP on others while you’re at it!