Why you should sometimes say “no” to a reference request

Are you feeling uncomfortable about an employment reference request? Sometimes it’s better to say “no”.

To be honest, Prisha was relieved when Barry handed in his resignation. He’d seemed a good employee at first, but he simply wasn’t getting the work done that he’d been hired to do.

Prisha, who works at a busy events company in Melbourne, spoke to CVCheck on the condition that we used a fake name. “Barry was a nice guy, but he wasn’t delivering at anywhere near the level we needed him to. It put pressure on the rest of the team and projects were falling by the wayside. It got to the point where I was strongly considering letting him go, but he resigned before I had a chance to start the conversation with HR.”

A few weeks later, Prisha thought she’d seen the last of Barry, but was taken aback when he emailed her a reference request. “Normally I’m happy to give a glowing report to help former team members land their next job,” she said, “but Barry’s request put me in a difficult position. Of course, I wanted to help him, but I couldn’t put my reputation on the line by giving a reference to someone who wasn’t a great employee.”

Prisha ended up calling Barry and – over the course of a difficult five-minute conversation – explained why she didn’t feel comfortable providing a reference. Barry was offended, but in the end Prisha felt she’d made the right decision. “It’s a small industry and I know most of the other large event companies in Melbourne. I didn’t want to damage my reputation by providing a reference for a poor performer… but I still feel bad about Barry.”

Don’t do this

Don’t lie: While you may be tempted to use a white lie to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings, it is best to tell the truth about why you won’t be providing a reference. Remember that people aren’t entitled to a reference, and while the request is often framed as a small favour, it’s actually a big ask. You’re being asked to put your reputation on the line, and future employers will rely on your word to make an expensive hiring decision.

Don’t provide a reference out of guilt or pity: Don’t make the mistake of providing a reference out of a feeling of guilt. It’s understandable if you’re feeling sorry for an employee who has been fired or lost their job due to a redundancy, but don’t let emotions cloud your judgement.

Don’t say “yes” then provide a bad reference: Every now and then, recruiters and companies like CVCheck come across a referee who speaks badly of the candidate. While some may do so out of vindictiveness, the more common reason is that they didn’t know how to say “no” when they were asked to be a referee. Rather than damaging the candidates’ employment prospects in this way, it’s preferable to withhold a reference entirely. After all, if you can’t say something nice, it’s better to say nothing at all.

Don’t provide a written reference: Things change. People change. Perhaps the person you gave a glowing (written) reference to back in 2005 has committed fraud since then or committed some other type of crime. Would you really be comfortable with them using your name as they look for employment? Providing oral references means you can change your mind and avoid anything going on permanent record.

Three reasons for saying “no” to a reference request

  1. You don’t know them well enough: Tell the candidate that you didn’t work together close enough (or for long enough) for you to be able to give an honest review of the quality of their work.
  2. They weren’t a great employee: Inform the employee (politely but firmly) that you’re not the best person to provide a reference. This is a way to let them down without going into detail about their performance issues.
  3. Company policy doesn’t allow references: In this case, simply explain that your hands are tied and you don’t want to go against company policy.

Soften the blow by wishing the former employee good luck in their job search. You could also ask if there are any other ways you could help them such as by giving feedback on their CV.

CVCheck takes the pain out of reference checking

Reference checks are essential if you want to avoid a known risk to your business and personal reputation. The problem has always been that employment references are extremely time-consuming.

CVCheck’s pre-employment reference checks have helped companies all over Australia and New Zealand become more efficient when it comes to obtaining a candidate’s references. Our 100% online reference checks save you the expense of hours of admin time and follow up calls to referees and candidates. Learn more.

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