Dear Claudia,

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


Dear Looking,

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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The best response I've heard for someone who was surprisingly put down as a referee said "I'd thoroughly recommend (subject A) to my competitors!"
What is this preoccupation with not wanting to burn bridges? We burn vast fields to produce stronger crops so why not test the strength of the structure; if it fails, it clearly wasn't that good.

Tell the truth to their face and stand back - watch the response.

What the hell is it with being "professional" these days? Does this mean that we have to put up with mediocrity because of the possibility of bruising someone's fragile ego?

Leverage strong relationship but challenge the weaker ones; they'll either get stronger or fall off the scale.
A bit of a red flag if she only knows you casually and yet is asking for a reference. Most of my clients only want references from people who have supervised or worked very closely with the candidate. So, there's your out. I'd say something like, "Thank you for asking, but although I think you're great, I make a point of only giving references for people I've worked with directly and whose work I know well. I wish you all the best."
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.

So isn't this just a bit of personal perception from ONE person's point of view and does mean it's a true description of the person who is asking for the reference? I find that my personal opinion is just that, mine. And from someone elses angle, their observation might be completely different. Ask 3 people who saw the same car accident and you'll get three very different stories. And if you like liver and I hate liver, does that mean liver is bad for everyone? I don't think so.

Just the fact that it's a casual relationship (the letter writer never did mention how they are connected to this person which would help tremendously in supporting our comments and suggestions on the scenario), it's a no brainer. No reference. You say no! Can't do that!

If it's as a casual friend whom you have never worked with, then this has an easy out. But if it's someone that you actually supervised or worked with before, then a little tougher on the "out". I agree with the other posters that unless you've actually supervised someone in the past, then why would you give a reference. I wouldn't even call a personal reference because at the end of the day it doesn't mean anything. And even getting a reference from a former supervisor is tough these days. Too liable for the company, so policies have been changed to only verify employment dates and that's it.

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