backing out of a promise to be a reference

A reader writes:

How do you renege on a promise? I gave a problem employee a promise to be a reference and even wrote one up for her. I am new to management and came by it unprepared. I became pregnant last year and am now a new mom and running a small retail store.

Last year I hired an employee for sales, all the red flags were there, but I hired her anyway.

Two months ago after several transgressions, I fired her for strange behavior like giving her girlfriend access to my email (her girlfriend emailed me abusive emails whenever I reprimanded the employee), and finally when confronted she raged, yelled and threatened. So, I fired her.

Here’s my dilemma: Out of misguided sympathy for her rough life and dire home situation. I promised her a reference letter. Now, that a week or two have passed, I am not feeling comfortable with this promise. She has since continued raging and escalated to texting my family asking “why aren’t they friends with her on social networks” and explaining how she shouldn’t have been fired.

I am uncomfortable with her behavior in a criminal sense (although I doubt I’m in any danger) but she’s not acting rationally.

How do I renege on such a stupid promise and make my mistake less damaging than it already is!!?

I have received a call already from a employer asking me to call back. I want to speak the truth in a way that will minimize my ex-employee’s reaction and maintain peace as much as possible.

Oh dear. Well, you probably don’t need me to tell you this now, but don’t promise a reference when you don’t think you can be a good one.

In this case, I would recommend contacting the employee — in writing, not via a phone call — and very politely saying that while you wish her the best, you are uncomfortable with her behavior since her termination and no longer feel that you would be an effective reference for her. Tell her that you’re happy to confirm dates of employment, job title, etc., but that you’d prefer that she use other references for more detailed information. If you want to, you can explain that contacting your family wasn’t appropriate and you wouldn’t be able to speak to her professionalism as a result.

Be as polite and nice about it as possible … but also be prepared for her to continue attacking, possibly even more so. It sounds like it’s probably unavoidable; you can’t always get an easy/pleasant outcome, no matter how much you’d like one.

And then stick to that policy if you do receive reference calls. Simply explain to the caller that you’re not able to provide information beyond dates of employment, job title, and responsibilities. They will press you to go further; you are entitled to decline to.

That said, some people might say that you should give a full and candid reference, explaining all the bad behavior she’s indulged in. But in doing so, you’ll be effectively going to war with this employee, and I don’t think you want to do that. I suppose you could add something like, “Her behavior since leaving has made me reconsider my ability to serve as a reference,” and then decline to provide details — but you said you want to keep the peace as much as possible.

{ 10 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    I would do exactly what askamanager says–the employer made a generous offer, and the terminated employee has abused that generosity. The employer should send the former employee a letter informing her that the offer of a positive reference has been rescinded and that only dates of employment, title, and wages will be verified.

    I would also keep records of texts, social networking messages, and email. Talk to the phone company about how to get written records of the content of text messages. Perhaps this former employer won't escalate to the level of physical danger or violence, but already their behavior qualifies as stalking in most states, and the police should intervene. But they will need documentation, so the author of this letter should begin compiling that.

  2. Richard*

    AAM has got it right here on the last point: You are well within your rights to refuse to give a reference when they contact you.

    I would avoid giving specifics as to why – Contrary to popular belief, it's NOT illegal to give a negative reference as long as it is factually correct. However, if you do give a negative reference without the evidence to back up your statements, you open yourself up to a potential lawsuit for slandering the previous employee's 'good' name.

    The safe road is to refuse to give a statement. You previously agreed to give a reference, then the employee decided engage in a campaign of harassment towards you. You are well within your rights to rescind your offer, and tell her potential future employers 'Her behavior since leaving has made me reconsider my ability to serve as a reference.', as AAM put it.

    Personally, even when I have a previous employer who I got on with, who had agreed to give a reference, if I'm applying for jobs, and it's been a while, I will phone them up to a). check that they're still working for the company, and b). still willing to give a reference, which I see as courteous behaviour towards someone who is willing to put a good word in for you. If I've had any bad experiences with a previous employer (thankfully this has only happened once), I try not to use them as a reference when possible.

  3. Frank*

    The former employee has definitely a borderline disorder.

    Those folks need conflict to feel better about themselves, when dealing with these kind of people being nice doesn't work. One needs to be clear and firm otherwise they wont go away.

    They never move on.

  4. Anonymous*

    Why she'd think you'd give a positive reference is beyond me but she sounds desperate and intentionally intimidating. If this happend to me I would refuse any reference altogether and just verify the minimum.

    I would also change email accts, phone and social networking pages to block her completely. Omitting friends of friends if needed.

    To tie up loose ends, I'd draft a letter (company letterhead, or even better, have an Atty draft this) advising the employee that in instances of termination, only dates, position and wages will be verified. The letter should end with 'no further contact about this issue is needed or wanted'. The letter should be sent signature delivery.

    I'd also keep all texts, messages, emails, phone records just in case. Involve the authorities if needed as they may suggest a peace bond if the behavior gets disruptive or outrageous.

  5. EB*

    I think that the situation has escalated past a "problem" employee and into the stalker territory.

    The OP needs to draft a letter with an attorney all right, but one stating that the ex employee needs to leave the OP and the OP's family alone and stop harassing her.

    The OP also needs to look into taking out an order of protection against the ex-employee stating there is to be no contact between the two.

    Furthermore, in the future, the OP should make clear that harassing either management or fellow employees by either the employee or someone on behalf of the employee (spouse, significant other, friends sending angry emails) is a reason for immediate termination.

  6. Anonymous*

    If you continually give her a bad reference on every job she applies to (thus she will likely never get any of those jobs), she will probably stop listing you as a reference and that aspect of the situation might take care of itself. Just another thought, if that is the route you decide to take.

  7. Anonymous*

    The Gift of Fear is an excellent read (hey it's endorsed by Oprah) except the book doesn't really delve into self protection. jmho Anyone faced with a crazy should protect themselves first and analyze behaviors thereafter. This situation has escalated beyond reasonable behavior into crazyland. An employer that fired an employee is still dealing with their rage, threats and menacing conduct extending to her family.

    Enough's enough. Get an Atty to draft the letter and talk to the police about the next move and file a report to get this on record.

  8. Zizz*


    Thank you so much to AAM and to all those who left comments. So far so good. The interview for which I was to give a reference for never happened, she missed the appointment.

    And, I have not heard from her since. I will definitely take all your advice and keep all correspondence on file and I've logged all our interactions.

    I was quite nervous, but I feel that she's moved on.

    Thanks again!

  9. Zizz*

    Oh.. and I should add that since there has been no contact at all, I'm holding off on the letter stating that I will no longer be a reference, for fear of stirring things up again.

    If employers start calling, I'll write the letter then – following my gut here.


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