Anyone who has been in a managerial position knows that there are those employees who are a dream to manage, whose very presence increases productivity (and whose talents you will miss upon their departure). When they ask for a reference, the most difficult task is finding the right adjectives to truly convey how much they contributed to your workplace. And then there’s the opposite.
Deciding whether to give a reference, and especially if the reference is mixed, can be difficult. You can navigate this tricky managerial challenge, though, with a bit of research and preparation.
Here’s what to do when a former employee asks you for a reference (and you don’t want to give it).
Check your company’s policy
Most companies have policies on giving references. So, even if you’re ready to say only good things, it is best to check with your human resources department. In some cases, employers may have a policy that states you can only provide confirmation of employment start and end dates.
Sharon Kolodychuk, consulting services manager for HR consultancy Salopek & Associates Ltd., says you are best to ask what information you can speak about. “If your company policy allows more than just confirmation of employment, get clear on how much and specifically what you as the referee are able to provide to a potential employer,” she says.
HR may even be able to provide you with appropriate wording that is standard for a reference given from the company, or they may refer you to the legal counsel to advise on any defamation issues for risky or more complicated responses. If HR doesn’t have standardized wording prepared, run the answers you had prepared by them and ask for feedback.
Decide if you want to give a reference
You are not obligated to provide a reference, so you are able to say no. If you think you’re going to be negative, though, Kolodychuk says you should consider if you really want to limit this person’s future employment prospects. “Think about whether the positive things you could say about the employee as a referee outweigh the negative, and whether you can directly answer questions about different aspects of their employment history without being hurtful or defamatory,” she says.
In addition to negative impressions of an employee’s work or attitude, another reason for turning down a reference might include not feeling that you know their work well enough. “You may not have had direct reporting relationship, but built a good relationship within the business,” says Kolodychuk. “In that case, you could offer to be a character reference, but be sure to advise the employee that you can’t speak to their work.”
Tell the employee
Again, you’re not obligated to tell the employee why you won’t give the reference, but you will have to inform them, and they may ask. In some cases, the reason you turn them down may be helpful. For example, you could tell them directly that you didn’t feel you know them or their work well enough, especially if you didn’t directly supervise them. If possible, you could suggest another person who is more appropriate.
If your employee knows why it would be difficult for you to provide a reference, you should consider telling them about the nature of the reference you would give. For example, if they had attendance issues but produced good work, you could say you would have to mention both or at least answer direct questions about attendance truthfully. Then they would be aware of the potential conversation.
Special circumstance: your reference doesn’t ask
If your former employee simply lists you as a reference without asking you, the situation can become tricky. Kolodychuk advises against simply refusing, as that could raise a huge red flag with the potential new employer. Even if your reference wouldn’t be glowing, you don’t necessarily want to stand in the way of their career path. As the referee, you’d repeat the same steps as above, consulting your HR and/or legal department for advice in terms of what you can say.
In the end, you want to be loyal to employees (past and present), but you also have a responsibility to provide an honest portrayal. “You want your reference to accurately reflect their time in that position, while not standing in their way moving forward in their career,” says Kolodychuk, explaining that there’s an element of karma at play. After all, the next time you need to hire someone, you’ll want the references you call to be as honest as possible.