Reference cringe: What to do when you have nothing good to say

By Robert Half on 19 November 2013

When an employee or colleague departs your work environment and asks you to be a referee for future roles, the first question to ask yourself is whether you are willing to be truthful about the person’s behaviours and abilities (regardless of whether they’re positive or negative). If you’re not, then the best move is to say no – not in your own head but to the actual person’s face so you don’t find yourself sitting on a reference list months down the track.

But if you somehow find yourself being questioned on a former employee about whom you have nothing great to say, how do you respond in the most productive and least embarrassing way? Try these tips.

Be honest

In order to be valuable recruitment tools, references need to be accurate and truthful. You don’t want to get yourself into hot water or be morally incompetent by misleading employers about the abilities of potential employees. Don’t underestimate the power of small networking groups either – if you provide false statements now, they could come back to bite you at a later point.

If you seriously feel unable to give a reference, just say so. “I’m sorry. I don’t feel I’m the right person to give Julie a reference at this point.” You’re under no legal obligation to provide feedback about a past employee’s performance.

If a fair interval has passed since you worked with the employee, then time is on your side. “I worked with Bob a while ago now so I no longer feel equipped to fairly describe the nuances of his behaviour.” You’re essentially saying “no comment” without the embarrassing judgement call.

Be positive

Depending on the degree of discontent you experienced with this person, you can always solely concentrate on the positive attributes and leave out the negatives, especially if the cons are not particularly relevant to the actual role. “Sally always managed to meet the required deadlines with her work and attended production meetings every week.” Talk about the specific behaviours that are relevant to the role for which s/he is being considered.

Be non-judgemental

Using facts and behaviour descriptions as opposed to your own character judgements is also a safe way to describe the suitability of a person for a role. For example, describe how the employee was involved in two conflict-resolution situations with other colleagues, not that he’s aggressive. Or that she arrived 15 minutes late once a week but not that she’s unpunctual. Let the recruiter or potential employer draw their own conclusions from your statements and avoid providing an opinion about the suitability of that person for a role. Instead, offer the facts and let someone else can make that call.

Honesty is most often the best policy, however awkward or potentially damaging a bad reference may be.

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