when you can’t give a positive reference

I love to serve as a job reference for most former employees. But I’ve also occasionally been asked to be a reference for employees who I can’t honestly recommend. Here are some ways to handle reference requests when you can’t recommend the candidate:

1. Whenever possible, warn the employee in advance that you won’t be able to provide a positive reference. You may still receive calls from reference-checkers who go outside of the list of references provided by the candidate, but this should minimize it.

2. If you get a call anyway, you have the option of only confirming the person’s title and dates of employment. However, be prepared for a savvy reference-checker to ask if this is your policy across the board or just for this candidate.

3. If the employee worked with you more than a couple of years ago, you have an easy out: Explain to the reference-checker (or the employee herself) that you don’t feel equipped to be a reference since her work for you was so long ago and you can’t remember the types of nuances that reference-checkers are looking for.

4. Finally, consider being honest. As someone who has to check references myself, I’m grateful when I encounter the rare reference willing to be candid about weaknesses. After all, reference checking (and the whole hiring process, for that matter) is about finding out if the candidate and the job are a good match. If they’re not a good match and it’s not uncovered until too late, the company will be stuck with a poor performer and the employee will be stuck struggling in the job and maybe even losing it down the road.

However, if you do choose to provide a less-than-positive reference, stick to objective facts you can prove. (Despite corporate paranoia about defamation cases, employers are permitted to provide negative references as long as they’re truthful.)

{ 1 comment… read it below }

  1. Michelle*

    I have been told that I am very professional and do extremely well in interviews. I interviewed at Costo in Kauai to put items in a cart and gather shopping carts. I was immediately not hired. Frankly I personally know it was because I told the truth that I have a harrassment claim against my former employer. You see the truth doesn't set you free. I am 5 times qualified and have a great attitude. I am probably the only person who ever showed up at this Kauai Costco in proper attire, and I was early. It is ironic that a person like me can never find out why? That is the sad thing. Now I will forever be scorned and labeled, because I was sexually harrassed at hands of my former employer and now still feel punished. I think costco should tell the truth as to why they didn't hire me. Instead of the garbage that they found someone more qualified. You put things in a box and push carts? I have 2 college degrees i think i can figure that out?

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