Someone I know pretty casually asked me to be a reference in her job search recently. Although I like the woman, she’s not someone I would ever consider hiring: she’s self-absorbed, gossipy, and goofs off more than she actually works. To be fair, she’s also very likeable and a pretty decent salesperson – when she does focus, she gets a lot done. I sidestepped the question with her once before, but I know she’s getting ready to ask again. I’m afraid that if I’m not honest with the employer I could damage a possible client relationship (you never know where future business will come from); and if I am honest, she won’t get the job and I’ll end up looking like the bad guy. How can I handle this without burning professional bridges?
Looking for an Out
Thanks for writing from the minefield, my friend. Under the circumstances a glowing reference doesn’t sound reasonable, but it seems to me that you do have some options: provide a neutral reference, or opt out entirely. Both have positive and negative consequences so it all comes down to a basic question: what do you most want to achieve in this situation?
Speak the Truth
Is it most important for you to say what's on your mind, even if your opinion isn’t popular? Then pick door number one, my friend, and provide a neutral reference that lets the employer decide what constitutes adverse impact in his or her organization. Everyone has things they do well, and things they could do better – and the most valuable reference you can provide is one that is balanced and thoughtful.
There is an art to delivering a neutral reference. Focus on behaviors that you personally
have observed, and never, EVER pass on hearsay…a bit like being a witness at a trial. In preparation, think about the skills that she excels in and those that need coaching for improvement; clearly identify behaviors or specific situations that support this list. Then ask yourself, “How would I present this information if my casual friend was listening?” Stick to the facts, and deliver the message respectfully. As you did in the letter above, balance negative feedback with positive, and let the hiring manager decide what will fly and what won’t in their environment.
Win Friends and Influence People
If it is most important for you to keep and leverage strong relationships in the workplace and your industry, then this may be one invitation that you consider declining. Saying no is quite simple, actually: “I’m happy to verify the dates that we worked together, but more than that I can’t provide.” And if pressed for why, smile and repeat yourself. It’s nobody’s business why you will or won’t act as a reference, and no explanation other than “I just don’t go there” is required.
In my day job, I’m the Head of Products for Improved Experience, where we help employers use feedback to measure and manage quality in hiring and retention. Learn more about us here
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