How to Write a Reference When You Have Hesitations

What to do if you’re not able to provide a good recommendation or professional reference.   

Lisa B. Marshall,
October 21, 2011
Episode #132

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Reader Charlie sent me this question:

“What do you do when asked to provide a reference and you have hesitations about certain attitudes, behaviors, or abilities of the person in question?”


Most professionals are glad to serve as a reference for former employees or colleagues, but this becomes a problem when you have hesitations.  Without a doubt, as your career progresses, you will be asked for references that you may not feel comfortable providing. Today’s episode will give you some ideas on how to handle a reference request when you aren’t able to provide a stellar recommendation for the candidate.

Tip #1: Don’t Volunteer

It may sound obvious, but don’t volunteer to provide references for people you can't honestly and authentically endorse.  

I know, I know, much easier said than done…especially for those managers who feel compelled to be supportive.  But, keep in mind that references reflect on you almost as much as they do on the other person, particularly in these days when social media makes it easy to research and discover professional connections. 

Wisely choose whom you will endorse and what you will say about them. Check out my episode writing a LinkedIn recommendation, just in case you’ve got people you want to endorse.

When I’m asked to provide a reference I can’t support, I usually say something like: "Thanks for asking me.  However, since I haven’t worked with you for that long, you might be better served with a recommendation from someone who has more experience with your work."

If you haven’t worked with the person in some time, another option is to say: “It’s been so long since I worked with you that it would be extremely difficult for me to provide the kinds of details a reference-checker would be looking for. I think you’d be better served by finding someone else.”     

Tip #2: Tell Them You Can’t Provide A Strong Reference

If that’s not an option and I still feel I can’t provide a strong positive reference, I tell the employee exactly that. “You may want to find another reference because I don’t feel comfortable providing you a strong positive reference.” Such a warning is fair to them and fair to you.

In the past, when students have asked me for a reference, I’ve said:  “Well, the most I can say about you is that you were in my class and that you earned a grade of X.  I don't know you well enough to say anything more.  Do you still want me to provide the recommendation?”

Most often they recognize it’s in their best interest to ask someone else. However, sometimes, they might feel they don't have any other choice. In that case…