How to Write a Reference When You Have Hesitations

You’re not able to provide a good recommendation or professional reference…now what do you do?  Learn how to write a reference when you have hesitations.

Lisa B. Marshall
4-minute read
Episode #132
The Quick And Dirty

You shouldn't feel the need to say something positive if you are not comfortable with that.  At the same time, you shouldn't feel the need to point out every specific negative.  People who regularly check recommendations understand this. The solution is to let the person requesting the reference know that you are not the appropriate source for a positive recommendation, and that they should seek it elsewhere.

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…

Tip #3: Provide a neutral reference

…you will need to exercise some business diplomacy. Many U.S. companies have policies that only allow you to confirm the title and the dates of employment and you could say that’s your personal policy too.

However, you should be prepared to say something because you may be provided a legal release!  If this happens, your best strategy is to be brief and neutral. 

If the reference isn't glowing, it will be clear to the person checking references that something is wrong.  Every employee should be able to find somebody (really, 2 or 3 somebodies) who can say glowing things about them--if a person can't, then they have a problem. 

You don't have to point out specific problems in your reference  instead, avoid praise and state general recommendations. That's usually enough to indicate to a savvy reviewer that there might be an issue. 

For example, if you said (or wrote): "I would consider hiring Ms. Smith for certain specific tasks."  The listener can draw their own conclusion that there are other tasks you would not ask Ms. Smith to do.  You don't have to say anything further.

Tip #4: Provide a negative or null reference

Of course, you do have the option of providing a truthful negative reference. I’ve read “recommendations” that literally threw the candidate under the bus! 

Warning: In the U.S., if you are planning to say something negative, you must be able to prove your statements.

However, I've also received others that were general and vague...what I call a null reference.  For example: “I'm sorry I don't have enough experience with X to provide a positive reference.”  No concrete information was communicated and I was left to interpret that in my own way.

In either case, it was crystal clear to me that there might be an issue. That's why if I can't strongly endorse someone, I try to tell them so right from the start. It may sting a little, but ultimately it is in the employee’s best interest to find someone who will provide an appropriately positive reference of their abilities


About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.