Most managers love being able to give references for good employees. It feels good to help someone land a job, and to help an employer land a good worker. But what do you do if you're asked for a reference for an employee you can't honestly recommend?

Here are five ways to handle reference requests when you don't have anything nice to say.

1. First and foremost, whenever possible, warn the employee in advance that you won't be able to provide a positive reference. You may still receive calls from reference checkers who go outside the list of references provided by the candidate, but this should minimize it.

Sometimes managers agree to be a reference in a moment of weakness--they're caught off-guard by the request and agree because they don't know how to politely decline. If you've done this, you can go back to the employee once you've had a chance to think the request through and say something like, "This is a little awkward, but after you asked me about a reference, I thought about it more and realized that I wouldn't be able to be a great reference for you. I'd rather tell you now than not have you realize that you shouldn't send reference checkers to me."

2. There's an easy out if the employee worked for you more than a couple of years ago: You can explain to the reference checker (or to the employee herself) that you don't feel equipped to be a reference since her work for you was so long ago that you can't remember the types of nuances that reference checkers are looking for.

3. If the employment was more recent and No. 2 isn't feasible, you can fall back on saying you can only confirm title and dates of employment. However, be prepared for savvy reference checkers to ask if this is your policy across the board or just for this candidate, or to offer you a release from the candidate allowing you to discuss her work.

4. Consider honesty. As a manager yourself, you probably rely on references to give you the inside scoop on candidates, and if you've been hiring for long, you've probably received information from references that helped you make better hiring decisions. Consider returning the favor. After all, reference checking (and the whole hiring process, for that matter) is all about finding out whether a candidate and the job are a good match. If they're not a good match and that's not discovered until after the person is hired, the company will be stuck with a poor performer and the employee will be stuck struggling in a job and maybe even losing it down the road.

Of course, if you do choose to provide a reference for a poor performer, stick to objective facts. (Despite some managers' concerns about defamation cases, it is legal in the U.S. to give negative references as long as they're truthful--but that means you should stick to being objective and factual.)

5. Last, while you're still managing people--long before they ask you for references--do your best to make sure they know where you stand on their work. If you're doing your job as a manager and giving clear and regular feedback, most employees will leave your team with a good understanding of what kind of reference you'd be likely to give them, and it shouldn't come as a surprise when you explain you can't provide a good one.

Published on: Jun 18, 2015
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