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How to avoid giving a bad employee a reference

When there are not a lot of good things to say about a former employee or colleague, it’s more than a little awkward when they come to you looking for a reference.

As the boss or a line manager, it feels good to be able to give someone a good reference. It means you helped play a part in their professional development, and you’re happy to see them moving up the corporate ladder, achieving what they wanted.

But when you were glad to see the back of someone, and they come back to you looking for a reference, it can be hard to turn them down – even though you know you can’t comfortably recommend them for a new position.

It’s not easy, but there are a few ways you can handle this difficult position.

Verify the facts and nothing else
This way, you can still provide a literal reference to certain information about the employee, but you don’t have to give your personal opinion. You can confirm dates of employment, employment history, projects they worked on, etc., but then feel free to say that company policy doesn’t allow you to say any more than that.

It’s tricky – and someone calling you to find out more about a former employee will probably try to weasel more information out of you – but it means you aren’t going to feel forced to say things you don’t want to say.

If time is on your side, use it
Sometimes, someone will come looking for a reference or call you to do a check a couple of years down the track. If a poorly performing former employee pops back up again, but it’s been a few years since he or she worked for you, great! You can basically avoid giving a reference by saying that it’s been too long since that person worked for you, and you don’t feel comfortable talking about their capabilities, as they may now be out of date.

Or, you can say it’s been so long and you simply can’t remember.

Be honest and decline
Ideally, you should have always been honest with an employee about their performance, and they will have a good idea about whether coming to you for a reference is a good or bad idea. But in the off chance that someone clearly didn’t read between the lines, you can always just be honest. Try something like:

“I’ve thought about you asking me for a reference, and unfortunately I won’t be able to give you one. I realise this is a little bit difficult, but I don’t feel as though I am in a position to give you a reference that would help you. But I wish you the best of luck.”

It’s to the point, polite, and let’s them know not to bother coming back to you for any other references in the future. Ultimately, most people will appreciate your honesty, but you may find some people get a little hurt. Don’t worry too much – they will get over it and hopefully have enough references from other employers to fall back on.

At the end of the day, giving an employee referral not only affects how likely that person is to get a job – it also reflects on you personally.

If you bite your tongue and give a positive referral where one really isn’t due, your credibility and ability to manage people could come under scrutiny when their new employer finds out what you told them isn’t exactly true.

If you’re still not sure and find yourself in a tricky spot, remember the old adage – “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all”.

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