what to do when a bad employee asks for a reference

Most managers love being able to give references for good employees. It feels good to help someone land a job, and to help an employer land a good worker. But what do you do if you’re asked for a reference for an employee who you can’t honestly recommend?

At Inc. today, I talk about how handle reference requests when you don’t have anything nice to say. You can read it here.

{ 34 comments… read them below }

  1. Rat Racer*

    My understanding is that it’s a different ball of wax when a profoundly mediocre employee asks for a recommendation for grad school. Anyone have a point of view on that one? I ended up writing the shiniest review I could without being dishonest – mostly for the selfish reason that her going to grad school would mean that I could hire someone else more qualified.

    1. illini02*

      I think school is very different than work. Mainly because things that may make someone a bad employee doesn’t necessarily mean they are smart and capable of being a great student.

      1. INTP*

        Agreed, and vice versa. I’ve known some great employees I would have reservations about as grad students.

  2. The Other Dawn*

    I once had someone list me as a reference…and not tell me until after she listed me. She never asked if she could, or SHOULD, use me as a reference. Luckily, no one ever called me for a reference. If someone did call and I was caught off-guard, I probably would have just spoken to the good things about her: she’s pleasant to customers. Which isn’t saying much when her job was working in a role that didn’t require a lot of customer service. Playing games on her phone all day: check. Missing lots of important details: check. Not double-checking her numbers: check. Not paying attention to Compliance (a BIG problem in my industry): check.

    1. The Other Dawn*

      Forgot to add that about 6 months later this woman applied for a job a company I worked for. I was only there about three weeks at the time. She mentioned my name as a reference to the hiring manager, who then came to me. I gave a very honest reference, which was not good for her. But to hire her would have been really bad for the company given the role she applied for. I told the hiring manager that future audits would include lots of findings and recommendations if he was to hire her. Her issues were as I stated above, and when it came to the main system we were using everyday, she would need A LOT of hand holding.

    2. Partly Cloudy*

      I had a similar situation. It was someone who had started out as a peer, and then I’d been promoted and supervised her. When she left (voluntarily; moved away), I got a call from a prospective employer asking about her. I hadn’t been surprised to get VOE calls asking strictly about dates & job title, but I WAS surprised at the referenc-y nature of this call. I highlighted the fact that she had great relationships with the field employees with whom she worked and supported, and was candid that her attendance and punctuality were sometimes not great. I didn’t bring up any drama, which is pretty subjective, and just stuck to the facts. She got the job.

      1. Partly Cloudy*


        Not that it’s a real word, but I’m still annoyed with myself that I left off the E.

      2. Liz in a Library*

        For whatever it’s worth, when I was last in a position to call references… We always called previous supervisors for an actual reference, even if the applicant didn’t list them as a reference and only listed the job in their employment history on the application or on their resume.

        1. a*

          I was thinking that might be the case sometimes too. Some job applications that I’ve filled out don’t ask specifically for references, but they do ask for the names of previous supervisors.

    3. Not the Droid You are Looking for*

      I really do not understand people not at least shooting a “hey, I’m looking email, can I put you down” email. I’ve been caught of guard a few times, by reference calls.

  3. Lily in NYC*

    How timely, I’m going through this right now (but I’m not a manager). A coworker was fired and today is her last day (she was given 30 days to stay while looking for a new job). I felt bad because she is actually pretty good at her job, but she made way too many typos (she’s an executive assistant and has to communicate with very high-level people).

    1. Lily in NYC*

      And I hit submit before I finished. She asked for help with her resume and I cleaned up the typos for her. I googled her to see if she had a linked-in presence and the first thing in the search results is her recent arrest for unemployment fraud. She wants me to talk to my former boss because he has a job opening and I agreed before I googled her. Now there is no way in heck I’m going to recommend her to my old boss. Is it ok to just tell her that I checked and they are already in the offer stage? I am not going to tell her what I found.

        1. voyager1*

          I would not tell the manager, she may already disclosed this to the hiring manager.

          1. Lily in NYC*

            Oh, I’m not going to – there’s no point since she already got fired. I meant I wasn’t going to tell my coworker that I found out she got arrested.

        2. Lily in NYC*

          Because I don’t think she would want me to bring up a humiliating episode from her past. She ended up not coming in today so I’m not going to see her again – I guess it’s no longer an issue because I don’t have her personal email address.

          1. 42*

            Whoops I replied to the wrong comment. I think I was thinking that it would be an ok conversation to have with her just by virtue of the fact that you were helping her; that you were closer to her than you actually are. And the logical thing to do would be to give her a heads up ( ie, “You’d probably want to know what I found when I googled your name” -type of thing). I get it now.

      1. Paige Turner*

        Well, good thing you googled her! Anyway, talking to your boss doesn’t equal promising her a job. If it were me, and if she brings it up, I’d just tell her that you mentioned it to your old boss, but that they are also considering other candidates. I don’t think you’re obligated to tell her what you know.

        1. Lily in NYC*

          Thanks Paige, and everyone else for the advice. I guess I will never see her again since she didn’t come in today so I’m not going to fret about this any longer.

  4. Nethwen*

    Or take the route of a big chain home-improvement store and refuse to even confirm that the applicant did work for your company, instead sending the reference checker to some website. I don’t know what this chain tells employees who ask for references, but I feel bad for whoever needs a reference from them.

    1. I'm a Little Teapot*

      I used to work for a company with a policy of not even confirming employment – and they don’t have a way to check via website. I worked there for two years and a lot of what I did there is relevant to jobs I’m applying for now, so they’re still on my resume – but I’m always afraid someone will call them, find that they refuse to even confirm that I worked there, and assume I was lying on my resume.

      1. Not the Droid You are Looking for*

        I am so curious what that logic is!

        I called a company whose policy was to only confirm dates of employment and title, but would not answer anything else — even, “And Jane Smith’s manager was Bob Jones?”

        1. I'm a Little Teapot*

          I have no idea what the logic was. The people who ran the company were quite nice, so it’s bizarre. Especially since so many of their employees are young people for whom it’s their first job after graduation – that’s got to be severely damaging to their futures.

  5. Annony*

    Re: #3: “…or to offer you a release from the candidate allowing you to discuss her work.”

    Sorry if I’m being dense, but what does this mean?

    1. Lily in NYC*

      I had to read that a few times because I was confused as well. My best guess is that it means that if you tell a reference-checker that it’s your policy to only confirm title and dates of employment, to be prepared that the reference-checker might come back and say that the candidate has offered to sign a release saying that she is fine with the reference discussing her work. I think???

      1. Partly Cloudy*

        Yes, this is what I think it means. A document which the candidate has signed “releasing” their confidential info. I usually see these for salaries but I could understand using it in this context too.

      2. Burkleigh*

        Yes, I’ve seen job applications that require the applicant to sign a statement saying something like “I authorize all former employers and schools to release my personal information for hiring purposes.”

  6. S*

    I’m glad there is something in there about being honest DURING employment. I now am in the position of not having references while I job hunt because my former boss said nothing about the ‘problem’ he had with me at any point in the 3 years I was there so I could have addressed it….

  7. t*

    My company has a policy of only confirming employment dates and whether the employee left volutarily or not. If I got a call about someone I didn’t want to talk about, that’s all I would say. If I have a more positive review, I might offer a little more, but I would make it clear to the checker that I’m limited about what I could reveal.

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