how can I get out of being a reference?

A reader writes:

I know you tackled the reference for someone when you can’t give a good reference, but I really felt that this might be something you’ve come across and you could provide a bit of insight.

I am a teacher for a local college. I teach part time to professionals upgrading their skills. I’ve had a student in a series of my classes approach me by email demanding (yes, I say demanding because it wasn’t really a request) a reference from me regarding the course. Her wording is as follows: “Would you mind writing a reference letter for me that I can use for any positions I apply for? Please and thank you…” So I feel that this is not really a request at all.

Now, I don’t have a problem with her attendance or her work, but I do have a problem being a reference for someone that 1. I don’t like, 2. that has never worked with or for me, 3. that I don’t trust, 4. that I believe to be a true shit-disturber in every sense of the word. While her class work was excellent, she failed to bond with people in the class and I was constantly receiving complaints about her attitude – she would lie to your face and back stab as soon as you walk away… So for me, this is a really hard thing to do.

I have given references to other students who have excelled in my classes so I can’t even say it isn’t a practice for me – which I wanted to say, but this woman overheard a conversation between myself and a past student who thanked me for the reference so I’m a little stuck.

Her work in the class was good. She was never late for class and always had her homework done…my problems with her go beyond the superficial…I would never refer her for any position because I wouldn’t want what she stands for to come back to me.

I am trying to find a diplomatic way to say that I don’t want to give her a reference – or I can provide a very barebones reference about her attendance and work in class…I just can’t end the reference the way most letters are ended – with those words “I would refer…” or “I would hire…” because truly, I wouldn’t.

You definitely shouldn’t write a reference for someone you don’t honestly feel you can recommend, and an inability to work well with others is a perfectly legitimate reason not to recommend someone. You have two choices in how you handle it:

1. You can tell a white lie: “I’m sorry but I’m overcommitted right now and can’t add anything to my plate.” or “I don’t feel I have enough of a sense of you and your work to write a compelling letter, so I don’t feel I’d be the best choice for this.”

2. You can tell the truth: “Jill, to be honest with you, I wouldn’t feel comfortable writing a letter of recommendation because I heard so many complaints from other class members who found you difficult to work with. I wish you the best of luck, but I can’t in good faith write such a letter.”

Number one is the safer and easier option, of course, and you should keep in mind that if you choose number two, you might have to deal with her complaining to the school administration. But I wish more people would choose number two, because, you know, honesty and all that. That said, I’ve chosen the easy way more than once in this situation.

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  1. Rachel - Employment File*

    How about, “I think you grades speak towards your work in my class. I’m not comfortable giving a reference beyond that.”

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