how to decline to be a reference for a former coworker

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.”

{ 70 comments… read them below }

  1. regugutr*

    Is it ever OK to lie? I had just started a job when I found out a former co-worker had been hired to be the manager. This person makes a great first impression (“Wow, she’s gonna be a hoot and a half to work with!”), but within just a few months, she becomes moody and basically hates everyone and oh boy is it apparent. This has been the pattern with every jobs she’s had over the past 15 years.

    Anyway, I didn’t say anything last time (I was too new), but ever since then, I’ve always worried about the possibility of working with her again. I really don’t have the energy to have her for an enemy (she’s quite vindictive and holds long grudges), so I’d be inclined to lie to her but quietly warn the manager. Yes, I’m a shameful coward.

    1. V2*

      I don’t know that I’d consider that lying, you’d honestly be telling her that yes, you’ll be a reference. You’re not making any commitments about what you’ll say – that’s between you and the hiring manager that contacts you.

      1. V2*

        Err, I think I blended your question and the OP’s and thought that your problem former coworker was asking you to be her reference.

    2. neverjaunty*

      The trick is not to lie, but to give an answer that makes it clear you’re not comfortable saying anything nice. AAM has some good scripts for this above.

    3. Kyrielle*

      You can also tell her you won’t be a reference using one of Alison’s scripts above and still quietly warn the manager. That way you aren’t lying and implying you’ll be a good reference for her, but you’re also hopefully not having to work with her again. Bear in mind that you’re trusting to the manager’s discretion that she won’t find out that you did that, but in most cases I’d expect that to be fairly unlikely.

  2. Ad Astra*

    My overwhelming urge would be to say “Sure, I’ll be a reference” and then give an honest — which, in this case, wouldn’t be complimentary — reference. And then I’d live in fear of her discovering I was part of the reason she didn’t get the job.

    Alison’s way is probably better.

  3. The Other Dawn*

    I think it’s tough to tell someone you don’t want to be a reference, so I’d likely go with, “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.”

    OP is lucky the former coworker asked before she gave out OP’s name. I once had someone give my name as a reference without asking me. I supervised her, but wasn’t her manager. I very loosely managed her day-to-day work and lent support when needed, since my department and hers often intersected. Anyway, I had just started a new job at a bank two weeks prior to a position opening up in her area of expertise (well, really LACK of expertise). My former coworker applied for it and gave my name as the reference. I had no idea until the hiring manager approached me. Even though I’d been there only two weeks, I told him the unvarnished truth: she was great with customers; however, she never fully understood our systems or grasped basic concepts, she continually made mistakes that took me oodles of my time to correct, and she was often seen walking around and chatting or playing on her phone. My former coworker hadn’t given me the courtesy of asking me first, so I couldn’t tell her that I didn’t want to be a reference–she was going to be let go from my previous company, but we ended up folding, so she was there until the end. Since she hadn’t checked with me, I didn’t feel that I needed to sugar coat or demure when asked about her. I wasn’t mean, but I didn’t hold back either. And that’s something her manager never did, so she never had a clue that anything was wrong.

    1. Ad Astra*

      Occasionally I’ll see online applications that ask specifically for “Last three supervisors” and then end up calling them as references. Not sure if that’s what happened here, since plenty of people really do give out references’ information without asking, but it’s happened to me before. I foolishly assumed the ATS was just set up weird, or maybe that they were just using it to verify employment, but I ended up having to give one of my former managers a heads-up instead of, y’know, asking him. We had a decent relationship, but he really wasn’t the best person to speak to my skills, so it was kind of awkward.

      1. The Other Dawn*

        Actually, I talked to the person a couple weeks after that and she says, “Oh, by the way I gave your name as a reference. Hope you don’t mind!” I then told her not to put me down as a reference since I wasn’t her direct manager. She was OK with it. I played the “not your manager” angle, which was true, technically, so I didn’t have to go into how I would never in a million years hire her or recommend anyone else to hire her. She was the epitome of cluelessness when it came to the processing system, which she used everyday for 3 years, and never wanted to clean up her own messes.

    2. Beebs the Elder*

      I had this happen the other day–got a request for a reference when the person hadn’t asked me ahead of time. My standard policy is to tell the caller that the person hasn’t spoken to me so I don’t feel comfortable serving as a reference, but I will be happy to verify dates of employment and job title.

      And I would have given a reasonable reference, so it’s a bummer that I wasn’t asked first.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Can I encourage you to rethink that policy? Lots of places call off-list references, which means that the person may not have even known you were calling and didn’t have a chance to check with you!

        1. neverjaunty*

          I’ve always had potential employers say “Wakeen listed you as a reference” when they’re explaining why they call – is this not standard? Otherwise I guess I’d probably say something like ‘Oh, I assume Wakeen listed me as a reference’? to make sure this wasn’t some weird sales thing.

        2. KarenT*

          I would think in that case the caller would explain that it was an off-list reference, but I do agree with you.

        3. Beebs the Elder*

          Fortunately, I don’t often get these cold calls. When I do, it’s usually about people that I would not be able to give a good reference to (which I assume is why they didn’t ask), so it actually works in their favor. It’s not really my choice, anyway, as I’m in public setting and all personnel records are confidential. I could get seriously busted for giving out job performance info about a current or former employee without permission. I reached out to the person I wrote about above asking if I could give a reference and never got a reply, so that was the end of it. The other side of my worry is protecting the candidate–how do I know this person calling isn’t a vengeful ex or a stalker seeking information? Sounds unlikely, I know, but I have dealt with people impersonating others on several occasions.

    3. The Babysitter*

      That happened to me too – but a much odder situation.

      I was casually babysitting for this American family – I’m in Australia. The mum was a nurse and the dad in IT; they moved here for his work. The road for the mum to get her qualifications and stuff transferred over to Australia was a long process, and as such, the mum decided she might volunteer at a hospital. I vaguely agreed that sounded like a good first move.

      A few months later, when I hadn’t seen or heard from them at all, I got a call from a doctor at a hospital wanting a reference for the mum.

      I was obviously caught off guard and told him I was only the babysitter but she seemed nice enough but I couldn’t comment on her professional knowledge.

      It was so weird! I texted the mum and she said, oh gosh, so sorry, meant to tell you.

      But still. What weight would my comments have had, as a babysitter?!

      1. CM*

        For a volunteer job, maybe they just wanted a character reference, like yes, I know this person and they are not a dangerous lunatic?

        1. Lindsay J*


          I’m in the middle of a background checking process and I just got a message yesterday that two of my places of employment could not be verified and that I had two choices – I could provide w-2s or paystubs for those jobs, or I could have someone fill out a form saying that they knew me during that time period and had regular face-to-face contact with me (therefor proving I was in the US and not a terrorist training camp I guess).

          The only stipulations were that the person was not related to me, and that they were a licensed anything (examples given were teacher, beautician, accountant, or nurse). I was going to use a friend that is a tattoo artist if I didn’t find my w-2s.

  4. voyager1*

    I think if you are going to give honest feedback on a former coworker to a hiring manager. You need to be respected at least by the hiring person. I am not sure how I would feel about someone telling about an applicant not being strong or whatnot. Part
    of me would wonder if it was just a personal problem or if opposite sex a relationship that maybe soured. I guess what I am saying it would have to clear and specific feedback and it would have not have a touch of gossiping to it.

    1. MK*

      But that applies to pretty much any reference; you can never be sure the one giving it is objective or correct, except perhaps if you know the reference personally. I think references are worth hearing, but they need to be considered as one more factor in making the decision, not taken as gospel.

      1. fposte*

        Exactly. And if you hire somebody who turns out to be a problem, and your employee says “Yeah, I thought she might blow up–it’s happened before,” you’re going to wish the employee had felt comfortable telling you that before you made the bad hire.

        1. Kyrielle*

          Though to be fair, if I thought that and wasn’t comfortable saying it, I sure wouldn’t say “I didn’t tell you so!” after the fact. I’d keep mum and watch the fireworks and feel guilty. (Then again, hesitating to speak my mind when the topic first comes up is not one of my besetting sins, so that’s not a very likely scenario for me anyway.)

          1. Oh no not again*

            For me, it falls under the category of ‘not my business’. It would have to be something extremely serious for me to stick my nose in to give a heads up to management (and it would probably have to be something proveable –like articles about someone involved in a hate group). Otherwise, how could management know whether to take me seriously? Maybe I don’t like this person? I’m not qualified to critique their performance? Soooo many things. Besides, management doesn’t know how anyone will work out until that person has been hired and working wherever for a while. If a manager would question why I didn’t give input, I’d explain why it’s not my place to do so.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              In my experience, really engaged staff members care about making sure that quality people join their team — and they do see it as a team, which is why they speak up. Good managers take it as that.

    2. CMT*

      Wow, your first instinct would be to think that a romantic relationship went wrong? That’s super weird.

    3. The Bimmer Guy*

      Well, you wouldn’t say, “This candidate isn’t strong.” That’s for the hiring manager to decide. You’d mention what you know about that person. I like Alison’s idea of simply mentioning that you’ve worked with the person in the past. Then, if the hiring manger asks, you can mention your specific experiences with that person: “Jane had excellent taste in teapot design, but she often left us waiting several weeks past deadlines and wasn’t really a team player.”

      1. voyager1*

        Not a team player is too emotional for me. Not specific or anything,
        pretty much what I was saying . You would need to specific. They weren’t a team player because….

    4. YaH*

      (also, it doesn’t have to be an opposite sex reference for it to possibly have been a romantic relationship that soured.)

      1. voyager1*

        Perhaps…. just depends on how the person came to me and how the impression they made. Call me weird ;) but I would wonder why someone felt the need to tell me why not to hire someone.

        1. Oh no not again*

          Agreed. Hiring decisions are up to the hiring managers. I’d wonder about someone’s motives, too, unless they brought something proveable of serious concern to my attention. Otherwise, what is the naysayer’s motive?

        2. LBK*

          I’m kind of confused by this – isn’t the whole point of calling references to get honest information about the candidate that you may not be able to get from the candidate themselves? If you’re just going to discard or question all negative feedback under the assumption that there may be a personal issue, why even bother? And on the flipside, why assume that positive feedback is more truthful? They could be having a secret affair with the candidate that colors their view in the other direction.

          All feedback from references should be taken with a grain of salt; that’s why you get multiple references and you combine those with what you learn about the candidate throughout the rest of the hiring process rather than making a decision on any single data point.

          1. voyager1*

            Having a someone come to me and say “Hey I worked with LBK and they not a team player” is different then calling a former manager and them saying it. Though yes it all needs to be taken with salt, but someone coming to me is very different then me calling a reference just IMHO.

  5. Anon Accountant*

    I like these 2 the best:

    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.”

    Especially the “I wasn’t a manager” and you can add “this company prefers to speak with candidates former managers before hiring”.

  6. Rex*

    OP, how far in the past were these past performance issues? What specifically leads you to think they might still be issues? I think these considerations are really relevant in terms of taking your concerns to the hiring manager.

    1. fposte*

      I don’t think you need to verify that they’re still issues, though. You’re weighing in with the knowledge you have, not making a claim.

      1. OhNo*

        I think it would change the weight your knowledge carries, though. Telling the hiring manager that this coworker had some productivity issues twenty years ago because they were going through a divorce, raising three kids, and battling cancer has a very different impact than saying this coworker had productivity issues two years ago because they never bothered to learn to work a certain software properly.

        Either way, I do think it’s worth mentioning to the person doing the hiring, just in case it’s something they want to screen for. But the context is important to include, because it will help the manager make the decision.

        1. neverjaunty*

          I would think any reference caller would be asking you “when did you and Wakeen work together?” anyway, so not following why one should make a special effort to highlight that in order to soften negative information?

          I mean, nobody would (I hope) say “Wakeen was a stellar employee, but of course that was twenty years ago when he was young and full of energy” or otherwise try to give cautionary context to a good reference.

          1. AnotherAlison*

            I don’t know. Positive or negative, I think if someone from 10+ years ago asked me to be a reference, I’d have to qualify it that it wasn’t recently, especially if they had been out of the company for a long time since I had managed them. If it was someone who I managed 10 years ago, but worked with indirectly up to 1-2 years ago, I would probably be okay with the reference.

            You ever meet that old friend who you don’t see for a couple years and then find out they had a life changing event, got divorced, grew a Duck Dynasty beard, quit their job and moved away, and are now back in town? It happens. Not that they might not still be a great employee, but I don’t know what they’re like anymore.

            1. Kyrielle*

              Yeah, I think including the time frame is good. I wouldn’t say it the way neverjaunty gave as an example, but just matter-of-factly. “I worked with Wakeen for about three years at Teapots Inc., ending in 2009. He was awesome, always a go-getter and never afraid to really dig into a strange issue – I was sorry I couldn’t bring him with me when I left!”

              Or “When I supervised Lucinda about six years ago, we had some difficulty with her productivity because she had trouble remembering the quality control steps for the spouts, even after a couple of trainings.”

              The “I don’t know what she’s been doing in the last six years” is implicit in the fact that you _don’t_ give a more recent reference, and the reference-checker can give it whatever weight they want.

              1. Creag an Tuire*

                Giving a time frame is also useful if the candidate is George Costanza and had actually listed you as his current manager at a fictitious company.

              2. neverjaunty*

                That’s really what I meant – that it’s absolutely appropriate to give the time frame (it would be pretty sloppy on their part not to ask, anyway), just that I don’t understand trying to soft-pedal a negative reference by placing special emphasis on the dates, or by adding in personal information that the candidate might not necessarily want a prospective employer to know.

                1. fposte*

                  Right, exactly. “I worked with Lavinia ten years ago, and we had a recurring problem with her eating paste.” Not “Lavinia is totally a paste-eater!” or “I think she may have eaten paste, but I’m sure she doesn’t any more because who keeps that up?”

                  Let the hiring manager put that info in along with the rest of it and figure out how it all weighs up.

  7. Guera*

    I would try to be more nonchalant about it and say something like: “this company doesn’t take references from friends or close acquaintances seriously so it probably wouldn’t help”. Or “This company would only take me seriously if I managed you in another position. They know that references from friends and close acquaintances will be biased”. If you told me that you aren’t comfortable giving a reference I would translate that as “she doesn’t want to help me or doesn’t think I am good enough”. I would definitely think there was more to it. Because let’s be honest; if you really thought she would be great you would probably jump at the chance to be a reference and she knows that.

    1. Kyrielle*

      Except, if you do that and she _does_ get the job, it had better be true that the company views things that way. Saying it that way – if it’s not true – leaves the potential for her to realize you lied, and also realize you probably don’t think you could be a good reference, later. (It’s also possible she’ll know someone else at the company as well, and find it out even if she doesn’t get the job.)

      Unless that’s true for the company, blaming it on friendship or on not having been a manager will be safest if you blame it on your own policy/comfort level with same.

  8. Tiffany*

    I’ve been reading the ‘how to get a job’ ebook and in the reference section, you mention that one way to find out if a reference is a good one or not is to have a friend call and do a reference check for me. I have a manager at a recent job who I have reason to believe may not be the best reference but they have said they are. Normally, I’d just not list them as a reference, but in this town, everyone knows the person, so it’d be easy for them to end up as one even if I don’t list them. So, I’d really like to know for sure if they are giving me a good reference or not. How would having a friend call work? Is there a guide somewhere? I’ve never been a managerial position, so I have no idea how the reference check conversation goes….

    1. Tiffany*

      I realize this isn’t what this post is about, but I thought it was closely related enough that I thought I’d ask. I can totally wait till tomorrow if it’s not okay though.

      1. A*

        I want to do this to check my references, but I’m not sure how it would work out. How does the friend introduce themselves to your references without creating a web of lies? Are they supposed to make up fictitious names for themselves, the company, and the job title? Presumably references expect a little bit of context from the person calling. Do you have a script for this?

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          “Hi, this is (real name) calling to check a reference for Jane Smith. She applied for a job with us and gave your name as a reference. Do you have a few minutes to speak with me about her?”

          In my experience, 80% (or more) of people won’t ask where you’re calling from. If they do: “We’re a small marketing organization (or whatever) and she applied for a job with us doing X.” 99% of people won’t say, “Yes, but what’s the name of your company?” If they do, you can make one up.

        2. Blight*

          Sometimes there are services that’ll do this for free… the local college has an employment centre that will call all your references and let you know who gives the best reference for your job search.

  9. Colin*

    I’ve encountered this situation myself. I remember asking my boss for advice on this one and I’ve completely taken it to heart now. He mentioned that no matter what, say “yes”. Why? Because the person asking you to be a reference clearly thinks you can at least provide insight into their abilities and skills.

    He also mentioned that when it comes time to being the reference, be honest, but also be professional. It’s possible that what you view as weaknesses are going to be things that the potential employer doesn’t care about. I gave a reference for someone once where I didn’t have great things to say about him. I made a point of explaining to the reference-taker what his strong skills were though (he did have some). He ended up getting the job.

  10. L*

    If you can’t be a good reference regarding your past experience working with her and observing her work, then definitely decline to be a reference. But…it also seems mean to then go to a hiring manager and give a negative reference anyway. You didn’t actually work with her at her last job, so you don’t actually how her performances strengths and weaknesses have changed since then. Don’t ruin someone’s employment odds based on assumptions. Let someone from her last job who has first-hand knowledge of her recent performance be the one to tank her.

  11. VictoriaHR*

    I wish people had been upfront about giving me references when I asked. I was diagnosed with Asperger’s as an adult and I’d made many mistakes (mostly due to misinterpreting social cues, poor interpersonal skills, etc. that are a part of that) and lost a job. When I asked coworkers from that job to be references, they were all like “sure” but then when I tried to follow up to make sure I could use them, they’d stop answering my messages. Since I can’t read into things or read between the lines like other people, it was extremely frustrating. I wound up defriending some of them on FB because of it. Honesty would have been much more preferred than awkward silence.

    1. Little Teapot*

      Oh, that sucks. Can you be direct with your friends? Perhaps sharing some important details like, ‘You may have noticed I struggle with (insert specific things you struggle with, ie reading between the lines) so it would be fantastic if you could be straight with me’ or something to try and aide that?

  12. Not So NewReader*

    I got burned a few times giving references for people, then decided NO more.
    The stellar employees around me seem to have no problems finding references. They actually don’t need my reference, it just comes under the heading of “nice to have”.
    When someone asks for a reference, I just tell them that I don’t give references for anyone any more. This is not totally true, once in a great while, I will be a reference, but it is rare enough that I feel comfortable telling the person that it’s not personal, I just don’t do references.

    I am willing to do other things. I will point out job openings, give rides etc. It does not seem to be a big deal in the long run. But reaching the conclusion of very seldom giving out references was a tough for me.

  13. Mando Diao*

    Would it be bad to agree to be a reference, but then tell management the truth at the reference stage? References don’t always have to say positive things.

    1. Colette*

      I can’t imagine a scenario in which you’d do that to someone you liked. The most likely scenario is one in which you want to deliberately scuttle someone’s chances at a job. That’s not emotionally healthy for you.

    2. Zillah*

      While I do think that there’s value in giving an honest reference, that doesn’t seem fair to me. If an employer calls you either because they’re going outside the list or because the person put you down without talking to you, sure, but not warning someone that you won’t be a good reference when they ask doesn’t seem fair. It’s not unreasonable that they’d want to list their best references rather than just three random ones, and it you actively conceal that you don’t fall into that category… yeah, it just doesn’t feel cool to me.

      1. Charityb*

        That’s kind of my thinking too. The preferable option is to decline the request gracefully. If you’re backed into a corner and can’t do that, then it might be OK to use the whole, “well, I never said that I’d be a GOOD reference,” dodge, but it’s still the less honest approach.

  14. Long Time Reader First Time Poster*

    I think the OP needs to be prepared for the friendship to end if they flat out tell the reference seeker no.

    However they explain it, the reference seeker will almost certainly feel rejected and betrayed by the OP.

    Losing a job is a very tough thing to get past. Believe me, the reference seeker knows how hard it is to get a good reference after that happens, and she is counting on her past relationship with the OP to help her get past that unfortunate point in her career. She’s hoping to leverage the fact that she and the OP had a more-than-just-colleagues relationship to get back on the road to employment.

    The reference seeker might totally suck and might be a terrible, awful, no good employee, and obviously nobody is required to give anybody a reference. But just to be clear — if the OP gives ANY sort of excuse for not giving a reference, the reference-seeker is going to see right through that and know that know that the OP doesn’t want to give her a reference. It’s hard to come back from that in a friendship.

    Fair? Probably not. The reference seeker is absolutely putting the OP on the spot.

    But when people get let go they *already* feel rejected and betrayed. When a colleague that was viewed as an ally and friend says no to a request like that, it’s pretty tough to take. So, OP, do what you need to do, but be prepared for the fallout.

    1. Colette*

      Personally, I’d be ok with losing the friendship of someone who wanted me to jeaporadize my standing with my employer to help her get a job she wasn’t a good fit for. I also think that telling someone you can’t be a reference gives them an opportunity to find someone who will speak well of their skills.

      1. F.*

        A “friend” who asks me to lie for them (whether by commission or omission) is not my friend. I would never ask them to do the same.

        1. T*

          But you’re assuming the former coworker knows she has issues and is expecting the OP to lie for her. I suspect it’s just the opposite – she thinks she’s a great employee and that the OP would have no problem confirming that.

  15. Blight*

    I don’t think people ever find out that the friend reference is what screwed up their chances – unless of course that friend suddenly gets super weird or confesses to giving a bad reference.

    I am always willing to give my friends references, even if I hate them. If the boss ever bothers to ask me (many times he never bothers) I give him honest feedback about how I feel they’d be in the position. I also always add to him (if it is a bad reference) that they probably think I have given them a glowing one so to not even mention me if they speak to them in event they do not get the job. But like many, my boss doesn’t justify his choices to rejected applicants.

    If my friends ask me I only mention the positive points I brought up and that the boss has some pretty strong candidates to consider.

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