A reader writes:
An old coworker of mine recently got let go from her job. Back in the day, we used to be good friends. She is applying to my current employer and asked me to be a reference.
I am hesitant to be one, as I know of some past work performance issues that are likely still present from when we originally worked together. Said issues may also be the reason that she was let go.
To make things more complicated, I see this person often. Also, we both work in the same industry and I don’t know what connections the people who hire at my job might have with my previous work with this individual. If this person was let go for what I have heard through sources, and via my own intuition, how do I politely tell this person that I cannot be her reference?
A few different options:
* Be honest: “I know you struggled with X and Y at Teapots Inc. I also know those may not be issues at other jobs, but it means I can’t be a really strong reference. I’m sorry I can’t help with this!”
* Say you don’t feel like you can speak to her work since you didn’t manage her: “I don’t think I’d be a great reference since I wasn’t in a position to really see your work the way a manager would be.”
* Attribute it to the friendship: “I’m not comfortable giving references for friends, since I know that it biases me and can potentially harm my credibility.”
* Be vague: “Hmmm, I don’t think I’d be the best person for that. I’m sorry!” or “I’d love to help you in some other way, but I don’t think I can be a reference from our time at Teapots Inc.” (With these, you’d want to be prepared for her to ask why. If she does, you could then use one of the other options on this list — but not everyone will push back and ask why, so it’s possible this could get you off the hook.)
To complicate this further, even if you’re not a reference for her, since you know she’s applying for a job with your current company, you might have an obligation to discreetly give the hiring manager a heads-up about what you do know of her work. Particularly if your company is a smaller one, a lot of hiring managers would be rightly pissed off if they ended up hiring someone who you knew from firsthand experience wasn’t going to be right for the job and you didn’t share that with them ahead of time. That’s not always the case, but if your company is small or you know/work pretty closely with the hiring manager, at a minimum you probably need to say, “I used to work with Jane Smith, who’s applying for your X role. Let me know if you’d like any information about her.”