what to do when a potential reference turns you down

A reader writes:

How do I respond to a rejection email from a potential reference? I am a graduate student and requested a reference from a professor I know well. I was shocked when she responded, “You can use me as a reference, but I would have to be honest… if they ask me about your timeliness or reliability for example, I cannot say that it is excellent. That would be quite bad for you so I’m not sure if I’m the right person to be your best reference. I hope you understand.”

I disagree with her appraisal that I am not reliable, and am wondering why she feels this way. I was late with an assignment, and to her class in the beginning of the semester, but was consistently early after we spoke about it. How do I respond?

I answer this question — and four others — over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • Can I shorten my notice period when resigning?
  • Should we re-hire employees who quit and now want to return?
  • How can I help a staff member get better at thinking on her feet?
  • Can I put work on my resume that I can’t verify?

{ 150 comments… read them below }

  1. Long Time Reader, First Time Poster*

    Re: Question 5 (Can I put work on my resume that I can’t verify?) — my resume would be very spotty indeed if I had to only show jobs that were verifiable. None of the startups I worked for exist anymore! Another company I worked for was acquired by a competitor. I put all of it on my resume, and nobody has every batted an eye. One thing I do have is references from most of those gigs — if you have a manager you worked for at the defunct shop still in your network, it would make sense to reach out to her and see if she’ll vouch for you. Good luck!

    1. C. Rose*

      I too had this issue. It was only ever a problem for me with one company I applied to during their background check process. When they couldn’t verify the company/owner, so they requested copies of my W-2 or 1099s to prove that I worked there. So unless you were paid under the table, you can verify it somehow.

    2. many bells down*

      Yeah I’ve worked for at least two places that no longer exist, and my daughter’s first job was with a chain store that went bankrupt and closed all their locations. These things happen!

    3. Lady J*

      I was thinking the same thing. One shelter I worked at shut down, another non profit I worked at restructured and no longer has an HQ in the area I worked and the mission is completely different now.

  2. TooTiredToThink*

    LW4 – as an introvert I sometimes completely freeze up with a question. It drives the extroverts around me nuts because they way of thinking is completely different. Well it used to drive them nuts; I think by now they’ve realized that my brain has about 10 different gears going at once and it can take a minute to answer their question. What also helped was that I found out that this is a common introvert trait and then I was able to start leveraging scripts like “Let me come up with the best answer to that and get back to you.” No idea if that’s what is happening with your employee; but I read so much of me in your letter that I had to bring up my perspective. But yes; scripts (and practice) will help a ton.

    1. Yikes Dude*

      Someone once told me that introverts aren’t bad at thinking on their feet, they’re bad at *stalling* while they think on their feet. It probably takes the new employee the same amount of time to figure the answer out or who to ask as anyone else, the problem is that they’re freezing instead of using a stall script.

      1. AMT*

        Spot on. My favorite phrase is, “Let me find that information for you.” It’s okay for “find” in this context to mean “remember and organize into a coherent sentence.”

      2. Frank Doyle*

        My husband constantly repeats questions back at people, which I guess gives him time to think. I’ve started to do it too, because it is useful (although I find it sorta annoying. Probably only because it’s my husband though, and I have to hear him do it all the time.)

      3. RUKiddingMe*

        For (way too) many years (grad school) I worked at telephone answering services. The old fashioned pull a cord up and plug it into a hole on a board (like you see in really old movies) and say “Doctor Smith’s exchange” type of answering services. When I first started I would freeze. Then, I got good at it. I never, ever (ever!!!) want to answer another phone, even my own, however I can still manage to pick up a call on anyone else’s line and deal with whatever is on the other end…the good, the bad, and the ugly. Why? Practice, practice and time to get used to doing it. OP’s employee probably just needs the time, practice, and experience to get used to improvising.

    2. Anononon*

      I’m not sure how this is an introvert thing? I could qualify as an introvert as I find socializing to be draining, but I have no issues thinking on my feet.

      1. Elaine*

        Studies show that introverts often like to think things through before offering solutions. Not all, though, and not to the same extent. As an introvert, I don’t have trouble thinking fast when necessary, although I’d rather not. But if you want to think carefully first and you know you’re in a situation where you don’t have that luxury, that can raise anxiety and really make you freeze up. Lots of people have made suggestions in the comments on good ways to buy yourself a minute or two, which might be all that is needed.

      2. anoning*

        It’s not. People just like to assume because they do something and are an introvert, then it must be a trait all introverts share. I wish people would stop painting introverts and extroverts with such broad strokes.

        1. Autumnheart*

          Ditto. I can’t stand how so many people are attributing all kinds of maladjusted behavior, and/or deficits in particular areas, to being “introverted”. I’m an introvert, which means I like alone time and space. It does not mean I can’t work a customer-facing job, speak up in meetings, recognize social cues, behave appropriately in public, have acceptable hygiene practices, respond to invitations in a considerate way, follow through on plans to get together, and generally act like a member of a society, and not like a hermit in a Montana mountain cabin. People who have problems with those things are not *introverts*, they have something else going on with them.

          1. anoning*

            Yeah, I think it’s a careful line to cross when people start blaming certain behaviors on introversion and extroversion. It happens in the comments section of AAM a lot and it always makes me wary that people truly justify certain behavior because they think it’s part and parcel of being introverted/extroverted.

          2. Putting the "pro" in "procrastinate"*

            On the flip side, it also doesn’t mean you are deeper, more creative, make more meaningful connections with people, are a more careful thinker, or are smarter than an extrovert. And I say that as a fairly introverted person myself! But the common trope of “10 reasons why introverts are better people than those annoying, shallow extroverts” is tiresome.

    3. Thatlady*

      Your ability to not be quick on your feet has absolutely nothing to do with being an introvert.

      1. DaffyDuck*

        I do feel some people are much better at stalling while they come up with an answer tho. I think a stalling script is a great idea (or even calling them back in a few minutes if the job allows that). Also, Alison’s role playing (or even just a daily/weekly meeting) where everyone can shoot their “weirdest questions of the day and how I answered them” would be helpful for me.

        1. Autumnheart*

          Yes, because it’s a learned skill. Some people are naturally better at it than others, but with practice, almost everyone can become competent at it.

    4. R*

      I don’t think this is an introvert thing either but my favorite line is, “That’s a great question! Let me look into that and get back to you.” I’ve been at my job 10 years and I still use this all the time.

      And really, I think being upfront is helpful – I think you can be upfront with clients and say something like, “Since I just joined the team, I’m still learning all the details and I want to make sure I get you the right answer. I’m going to confirm and I’ll get you a full answer by Y.”

      I think what is really freezing is when you feel like you have to pretend you know all the answers. When you don’t feel like you have to pretend and you own that it’s human not to know everything, then it’s way less stressful.

  3. Sarah N*

    Ooof, I feel for LW1, because that’s got to be hard to hear, but ultimately your professor did you a favor by letting you know their honest assessment rather than just agreeing to be your reference and giving a negative review to the potential employer. I think a key part of what’s going on here is that the person is a graduate student…with undergrads there’s an understanding that these are often young people who have just left their parents’ home, etc. and may need some time to mature/need some coaching around academic norms. But grad students are adults and I think there’s more expectation that you should already have some sense of academic norms/professionalism — turning things in and showing up to meetings/classes on time (or at least letting the professor know in advance if there’s a situation that will prevent you from being on time) are mostly lessons one should have learned as an undergrad and be able to carry over into graduate school.

    I will also add, another component here is likely that the LW is being compared to their classmates in their professor’s mind. Again, this is likely going to be a more selective group than at the undergrad level. In providing a reference, the professor wants to be able to provide a strong recommendation — if you’re comparing unfavorably to your peers, that’s going to hard for them to do.

    1. the_scientist*

      This exact thing happened to me, so I want to reassure LW1 that she’s not the first person this has happened to and that it won’t destroy your career prospects! In my case, I asked one of my committee members to act as a reference for a post grad-school job and she responded by saying that she’d have to decline because she wasn’t overly impressed with my writing ability. To this day, I have serious anxiety/a huge complex about my writing skills, so I don’t know how to help LW1 with that piece of the puzzle, but ultimately it’s in LW’s best interest that her professor declined because she can now find another reference.

      1. RUKiddingMe*

        Absolutely. I had a professor tell me she couldn’t give me a good reference because my absences, due to my disability which she knew full well about, for which I had accommodations, were “concerning” for her. That was a pretty shitty reason IMO even this may years alter, but at least I knew I wouldn’t get a good reference and at the same time my assessment of her character was confirmed by her ableist comments. The thing is…it hurt me not in the least. I was a rock star student (even in that professor’s class) and had plenty more professors who just loved me.

        1. Mockingbird*

          Yeah. Even if it’s for a terrible reason like yours at least there is the warning shot instead of using that person as a reference and then being blindsided.

          (I would think if the person responded to feedback and was otherwise doing well, I wouldn’t hold it against them, but again at least OP knows to ask someone else.)

    2. Coffeelover*

      I once had a professor who I asked to be a reference for a scholarship application. I honestly went above and beyond in her class and thought she had a high opinion of me. Instead of letting me know that her reference would be luke warm (for reasons I will never know), she waited to the last minute to provide the reference (it was a written reference). By that point it was too late for me to ask another professor. I would have much preferred her telling me no rather than torpedoing my chances.

  4. Oxford Comma*

    It’s good that the professor was honest because there are people who will agree to be a reference and then not be a good one for you. I agree with Alison. Say thanks and move on.

    1. Alex*

      Yes! Unbelievable, but this happened to a friend of mine in undergrad. Her professor wrote letters for all her grad school applications. Back then they were given in sealed envelopes to the student and sent out with the application. One came back for some reason and she decided not to re-apply. She opened the letters, which I know was wrong, but found he wrote she was undisciplined and not mature enough for the rigors of a grad program. She was devastated. She didn’t confront him, but she wasn’t accepted into any of her programs either. Wish he had been upfront with her to begin with. She had other options.

      1. Bubbleon*

        That’s incredibly harsh on his part. There’s a difference between not wanting to help someone and actively wanting to derail their goals. Why not just say no, and tell her he didn’t think she was responsible enough? I’m already fuming about this on her behalf.

      2. Alison Green Fan*

        Why is this so awful? The prof told the truth, which is to be commended. Way too many profs write overly enthusiastic recommendations because they are so afraid of being sued. If your friend wasn’t accepted into any of her grad programs, it undoubtedly had more to do with her overall application than just one rogue reference. Attending a competitive grad program is a privilege, not an entitlement. Advise your friend to think about this: her opening up the letter, which was highly unethical, reflected exactly the behavior and attitude the prof referred to.

        1. Name of Requirement*

          I would argue it’s unethical to agree to be a reference for someone without advising them it will be negative.

          1. CEMgr*

            Agreed. “I would suggest you look for a reference who can be more positive than I can.”

            1. uranus wars*

              I said this to the guy who build my last house. I gave him the heads up that sure, i’d be a reference – just probably not one he would find helpful.

          2. Hunterwalicat*

            As a professor frequently asked for letters, I choose to be honest with students about the issues that would prevent a glowing reference (eg. If their performance was mediocre, if they were consistently late with assignments, or if I simply knew too little because our contact had been limited). I then give the student the chance to respond (perhaps there is something I failed to consider) and to decide whether or not they want me as referee.

        2. Oxford Comma*

          If the professor had given an unsolicited opinion, that’s one thing. For instance, occasionally friends who are hiring in our field will call me and ask me about applicants they think I may know.

          But if someone comes to you and asks for a reference, I think it’s a really crappy thing to say, “Sure, I’ll be a reference,” when you cannot be generally positive. The OP’s professor went the ethical route. She said no and then explained why.

        3. greenbeans*

          I think this professor should have told her that he was not able to supply a good reference so she could have pursued other references, if that was an option. If he was her only reference for some reason, and felt so strongly she didn’t belong in grad school, he could have at least been upfront and honest about it. It could have saved her the time and emotional work of applying to programs, waiting, and hoping for something that would likely never happen. I personally would have been mortified knowing someone received such a letter about me. Did this have to happen?

          1. Oxford Comma*

            All of this. If the student was really ill suited to grad school, it would have been kindest to explain that upfront.

        4. EtherIther*

          People are not writing overly enthusiastic recommendations because of fear of being sued, but because unlike that professor, they have the courtesy to not tank someone’s MANY EXPENSIVE graduate school applications with a single opinion. If a person has other options they deserve to use them.

          And please, the notion that opening a letter is some highly unethical faux pas is ridiculous. Ultimately none of this hurts anyone at all, and it also says nothing about discipline and maturity for a graduate program.

        5. Delphine*

          Many careers require graduate degrees. You can’t just decide graduate programs are a privilege when people need them to survive. If you can’t be a positive reference, remove yourself from the process. Why go out of your way to actively prevent a person from getting an education?

          1. old enough*

            Grad school is a privilege, it’s not something that everyone should/can/wants to do, and there are plenty of careers that don’t require it.

            Why write a letter that doesn’t praise a student? Because it’s true; because there are predatory programs, including graduate programs, that would enroll a fish if it had the money, much less a student who is unprepared for/unable to succeed in the classes; because I’m not prepared to damage my own reputation in the field to write a fake recommendation.

            I’m not “preventing a person from getting an education” if I write that they haven’t performed to expectation, that student has limited their own possibilities…and lying to grad schools doesn’t help anyone.

            1. Decima Dewey*

              Telling the student that a reference from you would be a bad one, and why you wouldn’t feel comfortable giving her one would be a help to her, either prompting her to decide to ask someone else or to decide that perhaps graduate school isn’t for her. Giving her a bad reference and not explaining why is the cruel thing here.

            2. Rusty Shackelford*

              Being honest isn’t the problem. Letting the student believe you’re going to give them a positive reference is the problem. (And yes, that is exactly what is happening – when a student comes to you and asks for a letter of reference, you KNOW they think it will be a positive one, or else they wouldn’t ask. And when you don’t correct that misconception, you are lying by omission.)

            3. Observer*

              It’s one thing to refuse to provide a recommendation. That would have been ok, whether the professor was objectively right or wrong. That’s not what happened here,though. What happened here is that the professor to the pains to write a destructive letter while PRETENDING to be providing a reference.

              THAT should affect his reputation far more than not writing a letter at all, or writing a tepid one.

          2. Cassandra*

            Because tuition is even more expensive than application fees, and if I am very skeptical that the person will get through the program, I don’t want them throwing good money down a hole, or even worse, getting into debt with no degree to show for it.

            I read apps for admission into the professional program I teach for, and this is the hardest call I make — applicants with their hearts in absolutely the right place, but painfully clearly lacking sufficient preparation or (e.g.) writing skill to make it through.

            Cautionary tale: I once read an app from someone who had left another program in our discipline and wanted a second chance. I recommended admission (lukewarmly, with reservations), and they came here and promptly fell below minimum graduate GPA. I managed to talk the grad school into giving them a last chance to raise their GPA… which they did not capitalize on, and were forced out. I was their advisor. The whole thing was absolutely wretchedly hard on everybody involved. I hate that it happened, and I feel culpable for recommending admission in the first place.

            Shortly after the forcing-out, I started getting requests from other programs in our disciplines to recommend the former student, because they had listed me as a recommender without asking me first. I did the only thing I thought I could honorably do: decline to recommend. Even so, it was a while before those requests stopped.

            1. Natatat*

              In my opinion, this is a completely appropriate case in which you should give a negative reference, even though it negatively affects the applicant. You have clear evidence that the person is unfit for the program. We don’t know the details of the case above mentioned by Alex, but if it were similar to your case, I would agree that giving a bad reference is the right thing to do. A person that struggles that much in a graduate program is wasting their own money and time, as well as the time of the program that accepts them – they are ultimately better off to move on with their life and seek a new direction.

              1. Oxford Comma*

                “If I give you a reference, I would be honor bound to explain that you are unfit for graduate school because of [insert reasons]”

                is very different from:

                “Why yes, I would be happy to provide a letter of reference for you for graduate school.”
                [Professor writes letter and explains that the student is unfit for graduate school].

                It’s really nasty and quite unethical to do the latter.

            2. Observer*

              I think that declining to recommend is TOTALLY ok. You can’t be expected to praise someone who you don;t find praiseworthy. What WOULD be a problem is telling the student that you would recommend and then saying to the school “Yeah, I said I’d recommend but the truth is that this student is a smoking pile of trash.”

          3. MK*

            Graduate degrees are not “education”; they are (should be) training for a specific job. Careers that absolutely require graduate degrees ideally do so because these are jobs that should be performed by people who have a minimum of specific skills. And graduate school should be the way to determine whether the person has it or not.

              1. MK*

                If it is not a professional degree, then not having it should not stopanykne from making a living.

            1. Lunita*

              I absolutely went to grad school to continue my education. I don’t understand why you’d imply it’s not for that purpose.

        6. Me*

          Please do not mistake someones opinion for the truth. The professor told his opinion. The issue is that the professor did not advise the individual that his evaluation was not good. If that was what he believed there was exactly zero to be gained by not telling her. Having that opinion and telling her his concerns would have been helpful and kind even if it was hard to hear. What he did was in no way helpful, mature or befitting someone who is in the field of education. The only thing he essentially talked about a student behind their back. It’s cruel and unnecessary.

          Furthermore opinions are exactly like a certain part of anatomy – everyone has one. Another professor’s assessment may have been similar, in which case the student in question may have been able to do some self-reflection on her path. Or another professor’s assessment may have been completely different and positive! Opinions do not equate to the truth.

          1. Lavender Menace*

            I mean, if that’s the case, you could say that about any reference. Any reference someone provides, good or bad, is simply someone’s opinion. The point, however, is that the folks making decisions value the opinions of people in certain positions – and a professor who has observed your academic performance has an opinion that is valuable to a graduate admissions committee. If someone asked me about a person on my team when they were competing for a job, I’d want to be honest, not sugarcoat it.

            I agree that he should’ve told her, though, as I think that’s the kind and honest way to proceed here. It may help her improve whatever the professor thought was lacking in the student.

        7. Alex*

          Actually, she had a 3.8 gpa, was a member of the honor society and participated in several extracuricular activities. She had high grades in all his classes. The only incident we could figure out to blame was this: She was very open about being emotionally attached to her lab mouse during a training portion of the course. At the end of the class one of the mice was missing. He asked the entire class and noone would admit taking it. You couldn’t tell which one belonged to which student as they all looked the same. He ended up calling her in to question her about it more than once, but she denied it because she didn’t do it. I don’t think he believed her. After graduation we found out who took it. One of the football players admitted at the going away party that he was afraid what might happen to it, so he smuggled it home and kept it. The professor never knew.

        8. Observer*

          Actually, the professor was NOT honest – they did not provide what the student was asking for but used the request to actively tank the student’s chances.

          The student asked for a reference and help. The professor provided neither, which was his right. But he ALSO took the time to bad mouth her, which is just mean. And he PRETENDED to be giving her a reference and help, which is dishonest.

          1. Lavender Menace*

            The student asked for a reference. The professor gave her a reference. It just wasn’t a good one. I’m not saying that it’s right or not mean, but…it’s not dishonest.

        9. boop the first*

          Why is it unethical to open the letters? Why does some random schlub manager get to hear an opinion of you, but you’re not allowed to know? It’s literally involves (general) you.

          1. Lavender Menace*

            Because that’s generally what you agree to when you solicit recommendation letters. That’s why they are handed over in sealed envelopes (or, these days, sent directly to programs electronically).

        10. Lavender Menace*

          I…kind of agree? Like I mean I’m on the fence. On the one hand, I know ideally the “ethical” thing to do is decline if you can’t write anything positive. But on the other hand, I’m wondering why societally we’ve decided that’s the ‘ethical’ think to do. I know the student/applicant wants strong positive references, but on the other side the committee wants accurate, helpful references. I review fellowship applications for a nationally competitive fellowship and the reference letters are rarely helpful, IMO, because they are all so overwhelmingly positive that there’s not much to tell them apart.

      3. Elitist Semicolon*

        This is revolting. The entire point of a letter of recommendation is to recommend the student – it’s right there in the title of the thing! If it’s negative, then it’s not a letter of recommendation. Better to be honest and decline to write, and I say that as both a reader and a writer of recommendation letters. It’s not a pleasant conversation to have, but I’ve had it with students who did not perform well and with students I don’t know well enough to speak knowledgably about. I even had it with a tenured faculty member when I was admin in her lab and she wanted me to send a four-sentence rec for a student. It was awkward af each time but giving a student the chance to find someone who can speak to their strengths and/or contextualize any rough patches is much more professionally appropriate.

        My professional stance on this is somewhat informed by my own experience: I, too, had a program mistakenly return to me my own application packet, and I, too, opened a letter from one of my professors. Instead of talking about my quality of work, he noted that I occasionally wore a jester’s cap around campus and that there was “never a dull moment with [me] around.” Wanker.

    2. Natatat*

      As someone who has seen the other side of this working at a university, it really is unfortunate. I have never seen an outright “this person is bad” letter but have seem many that are very short (a couple sentences) which really weakens the application (I work in awards so reference letters are given a fair bit of weight). You can tell that the referee didn’t want to write the letter or wasn’t invested in writing a good one. So much better for the student to get a “no thanks” from that kind of referee rather than receiving a poor letter that hobbles their application.

  5. wittyrepartee*

    LW1: I’ve been there! And it wasn’t worded that kindly! It happens. You will find someone else, and also improve your punctuality as time goes on.

  6. Blinx*

    For the person who couldn’t verify employment — I was in a similar situation when I applied to a major corporation. It wasn’t just about verifying jobs on my resume but also on their detailed application. One job that I was at for years was out of business. They were able to verify employment through my tax return/W2s.

    1. Rainbow Roses*

      This is what I was going to say. If all they want is proof that you worked there, dig up pay stubs or tax returns.

  7. Tiara Wearing Princess*

    I’m curious about the other side of this coin: How to ask if the reference will be positive.

    My daughter is graduating from a doctorate program in a health science. It has required multiple clinicals. Another student, who graduated last year, got sandbagged by a reference from their university. In their field, an academic reference is expected. According to my daughter, she was a good student, had good clinical experiences, and the person she asked never indicated that the reference would be negative. The ‘bad’ things they mentioned seemed petty and unrelated to the program.

    My daughter is beside herself worrying about this. I am too.

    So, how does one ask if the reference will be a good one?

    1. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

      Insert the word “favorable” or “positive” into the regular reference request.

      “Professor Cobblepot, I am working on my application packet for the penguin farming program at More Than Llamas, Inc. I am interested in this program in large part because of your wonderful penguin-farming seminar that I attended last semester and would love to be able to apply the skills and techniques I learned from you in the field. Would you be willing to provide a favorable reference for that program?”

      Or something. I haven’t asked for an academic reference in a few years, and even then, it turned out the person I was asking was actually the one who was in charge of the final decisions on the program I was applying to, so rather than write himself a reference that he should accept me, he just decided to skip the extras. (It also didn’t hurt that I had been taking classes in the program for a year and a half already and 4.0’ing them all.)

    2. Sutemi*

      When you reach out to your references, ask!
      “Dr X, would you be willing to be a strong reference for me in my job search?”

      1. Mockingbird*

        This is what I asked if I had any doubts about what the person would say. (I had at least one reference whom I KNEW would give a really good reference based on our previous interactions but the others I did not know as well.)

    3. Safetykats*

      There’s really no good way to verify whether a reference will be good or not. It’s actually (as some people have pointed out) very nice of the reference to warn the student off using them; I don’t think I would have done that. If people ask me if they can use me as a reference I say yes, unless I am actually unable to provide a reference (which would happen, for example, for someone who is not eligible for rehire – in which case I would end up having to refer the request to HR upon receipt).

      I give honest references, which entails covering both strengths and weaknesses. There are very few people I’ve worked with who would get a completely unqualified reference – everybody has weaknesses. So if someone asked me wouldn’t I give them a “good” reference I would probably tell them that if they were really worried about me having an honest conversation with their potential employer an about their capabilities, they should use someone else.

      And really, I think a “good” reference is always an honest and thoughtful reference. Why would you want to be hired for a job for which you were totally unsuited, or where your manager had completely unrealistic expectations of you, based on “good” but inaccurate references?

      1. MK*

        When somone asks if you will give them a good reference, I doubt they mean “practically perfect in all respects”; probably they want to know if it will be generally positive.

        But your comment reveals a further complication: how “good” a reference is often depends on the values (for lack of a better word) and even the personality of the person giving them. Some people are very cautious with their judgements, other are very sparing with praise or express themselves in a more reserved manner; alternatively, some people tend to have a gushing manner or be very laid back and not pay attention to anything other than glaring weaknesses. Hearing “this person is quite good” can be a glowing recommendation from one person and damning with faint praise from another. And even the person who gives the reference is not always able to answer the question accurately.

      2. Artemesia*

        I think that is unrealistic about the nature of the world these students are entering where an ‘honest’ and petty reference detailing their flaws will destroy their opportunities. The honest reference giver tells the applicant when they can’t give a strong reference and the smart student asks them if they feel able to give a strong reference. That is not to say that some mention of flaws is inappropriate, but don’t pretend that you are the voice of integrity in a sea of dishonesty when it just means self indulgence at the expense of someone starting their career. If you can’t give a strong reference, tell the student that s/he or might want to ask someone else. The professor in today’s question is that example of integrity and the student should be grateful.

        1. Ico*

          Safetykats said “I would probably tell them that if they were really worried about me having an honest conversation with their potential employer an about their capabilities, they should use someone else.” You are the one that added words like petty and self-indulgent. No one is owed the reference of their choice – you have to earn that.

      3. Me*

        I think it goes without saying that people are not perfect. No one is going to read a reference focusing on what the individual has to offer and assume the person is friggin Mary Poppins.

        Please rethink your process. I generally call references, but it would be the same if I’m reading one. If I’m asking for a reference and it talks about weaknesses unsolicited, I’m going to assume that they are a big deal, i.e. red flag, that it warrants mentioning. I generally will ask about what the individual thinks are areas for growth for the candidate. Everyone needs growth and development. If I have questions about whether a candidate can perform a skill successfully that wasn’t touched on in your reference, believe me I will ask.

        Why on earth would you consider a reference that only touches on an individuals strengths as an inaccurate reference? If it’s not a major flaw, than there’s no reason to mention it. As I said to someone above, don’t mistake your opinion for the absolute truth.

      4. Elitist Semicolon*

        There are a couple practical differences between references for jobs and recommendations for graduate programs that are important here: because of the nature of the document, there is a fair assumption on the part of the person requesting that a letter of recommendation will be positive, whereas applicants above entry level will know that HR will likely ask about strengths and weaknesses. (New college grads, unfortunately, don’t always know that.) Second, depending on the nature of the job, the reference check may be conducted by phone via a set list of questions that the interviewer asks about all candidates, and not submitted in writing with a more general prompt about the candidate’s performance. Discussing a candidate’s weaknesses isn’t easily avoidable when the question is asked directly, whereas there’s potentially more flexibility in identifying and discussing unspecified/potential weaknesses in writing. So much of writing effective recommendation letters is reading and writing between the lines; a good recommender will ask things like, “is there anything in your record you’d like me to explain on your behalf?” and “would you be comfortable if I mentioned X issue and how you resolved it?” before writing. A good reader will know that “Jimonella had a rough semester a year ago, but was able to get back on track and is now doing quite well” is a statement of confidence, just as a good HR rep will know that “they are sometimes abrasive, but we have discussed the issue and they have been working to improve their demeanor” is a sign of professional growth.

        For both many grad programs (and nearly all faculty positions), the absence of a letter from the student’s advisor or a professor in the specific field they’re applying for is a gigantic red flag – are you a good hire for professor of early modern penguin motets if your advisor, for whom you wrote about early modern penguin motets, does not submit a recommendation? For academic programs, that absence is statement enough; no need to compound it by writing something negative.

    4. Yorick*

      The people above have good suggestions for scripts.

      But I think it’s more likely that the other student wasn’t actually as good as she seemed to classmates and got a poorer reference as a result. Sometimes students don’t understand that they shouldn’t ask for a reference from a particular person, especially their professors. I got a request from a student who failed my class. I was just stunned. I never imagined that I’d have to explain to someone that they needed to find references who would have positive things to say.

      1. The New Wanderer*

        I agree with understanding whether someone is in a position to give you a good reference. As an undergrad, I asked one of my professors if she would be a reference for me because she taught a class relevant to the internship I was applying for. She politely declined, saying that she wasn’t familiar enough with my work to be a good reference, which I understand now to mean I didn’t stand out in the one class of hers that I took. That’s totally fair, just not something I really thought about when I asked. It’s not always well understood by students that a reference should be able to personally speak about your best qualities, and “X was a student in my class” counts for less than zero.

        1. Artemesia*

          This is also why the request should be accompanied by a brief reminder of something stellar they did in the class as well as their internships, volunteering or other experiences in the field for which the reference is sought so the professor can surface memories and have something specific to say. Even a pretty good student will not be a vivid memory for the teacher who has had thousands of students.

        2. blackcat*

          Ugh, yes.
          I had a student insist I write for her. I recognized her name, and barely recognized her face. She had never spoken in the (large) class.
          I told her that all I could do would be to verify that she took my class and got a B+, and that that would not be a strong letter. But she said all of her classes were huge and she didn’t have anyone else. I said I’d write, but I also told her that if she wanted professors to write for her, she needed to speak in class/come to office hours/otherwise make her self known to professors.
          She shrugged and said that she doesn’t have time for that and that’s too much to expect from students.
          Then I flat out declined, though EvilBlackcat (Whitecat?) thought about agreeing and simply offering a recounting of that conversation in a letter.
          She was pretty miffed.

          1. Jen*

            It sounds like you made the right call with her, but from a student’s perspective, it does require a lot of extra effort to make those kinds of impressions in a large class. And by the time you realize that you need references and that you haven’t made an impression on any of your professors, it’s probably too late.

    5. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      She has to not worry about what she knows about the other student being “sandbagged” by the reference in question. Every story has multiple sides. Perhaps the teacher is an evil dragon who enjoys scorching references but most likely that student had pitfalls that they do not understand or refuse to own up to.

      In the OP they mention they had issues with time management and were eventually able to adjust, adjust enough that the professor could drop the subject at least. It doesn’t mean that they were still in line with what was truly expected [that you’re there, five minutes before the class is scheduled, ready to listen to the lecture, no fussing with bags and getting your materials ready right as the doors are locked, etc.] kind of thing. That they started asking for extensions with better planning involved instead of the 11th hour kind of thing but you’re still asking for extensions, etc.

      The student that received the poor reference may have through they were hitting all the marks but truly just couldn’t rise to the bar as the professor expected, therefore they were indeed truthful in their assessment. It’s the cruddy thing about having to live up to Other People’s expectations in the end in both academics and work settings.

      I have had employees who showed up but struggled in places that even with coaching and training they got things done but they were only right at the satisfactory line because well…they weren’t costing us lots of money or doing anything truly horrid/wrong that needed to be addressed by firing them. So no, I couldn’t give them a rave review except the old “A for effort” kind of thing or “they’re really nice…they are pleasant to work with but work wise, their work left a lot to be desired.”

    6. BethDH*

      I find it helpful to give an easy out to recommenders too, especially in an academic setting where you often have a choice of people to ask and missing a particular one is less likely to be noticeable. Something like “I understand if you won’t be available during this time” can give an easy excuse to someone who isn’t prepared to be direct about it. That can save you from lackluster, perfunctory recommendations too, because they don’t feel as pressured to do it.

    7. dramalama*

      IMOH there is one good way (good, not perfect) to tell how a reference is going to go: try to ask for a reference in person, or at least over the phone. The immediate reaction to the question can tell you a lot about what to expect. A cold, disinterested, or strangely quiet response should be taken as a ‘no’, even if they say yes.

    8. Perpal*

      Many programs as intense as say, medical school in the US will have advisers; they can help discuss things like who gives good letters of rec. I don’t mean this in a fake way, just they know who tends to write really great letters when they agree to be a reference and who might write short letters or may not be as big a name or whatever. Usually an advisor will sit down and discuss where you are applying, how you are applying, and can answer questions like who at your school you should ask for a LOR, etc.

    9. MeganTea*

      If at all possible, ask in person so you can get a read on the person when they respond. If they hesitate or are not enthusiastic in their response, you might want to walk back your request and look elsewhere.

  8. Hello!*

    LW4: i worked in a sort of customer service role (I worked for a politician fielding constituent phone calls) and let me tell you, they will ask every kind of question you can imagine. I once went from having someone call with a question about a shared sewer lateral to five minutes later being asked to analyze a school funding worksheet for a local district. It was a lot and quite overbearing.

    What I found most helpful, and this may not directly apply to your workplace, but my boss took me aside one day and gave me a “project” to research every single state agency thoroughly. I wrote up a report on each one, familiarized myself with all agencies and what they do and did the same process through some other frequently occurring issues. It helped me acclimate to everything a lot faster and I was able to think on my toes since I was given the time to learn the subject matter.

    I like Alison’s suggestions of job shadowing and role-playing, it really did help me. And if you can make up some “study” materials that would be very helpful for this person as well, and will come in handy for future new hires.

    1. Catleesi*

      I did this same job at one point – and it does give you really good experience in “thinking on your feet.” I think a lot of learning how to do this is just practice, and yes, learning from people that do it well.

      Sidenote: my favorite/most memorable issue I had to research for a constituent was related to their concern about “green burials”. For quite a while after I was worried I’d get a visit from Capitol Police asking why I was searching “Where can I bury a body in STATE?”

  9. Yikes Dude*

    Assuming the employee didn’t leave because of an incident and was genuinely at least an average employee, I would treat them exactly as anyone else in the process until the in-person interview. If that resume line was the same role at your closest competitor, you wouldn’t know if they were average or excellent either. Maybe they had other stuff going on in their lives, maybe they were just stuck in a BEC-feedback loop where everyone needed a break for a while, maybe they needed some training that they didn’t even know existed, maybe they were middling the first time around because they hadn’t figured out their priorities yet. If an employee wants to come back, there is usually a reason they think it will work out better this time around. It never hurts to ask them why they think that.

    1. Artemesia*

      But they are not applying as new hires you don’t know much about. You KNOW if they are excellent or not; why bring they back if they were not excellent or at least very good. Better take a chance on a promising new hire than take back a mediocre former employee who was disgruntled and left.

      1. Spartan*

        Because all you know is they weren’t excellent x number of years ago. We all change. Someone mediocre at doing x 2 years ago may well be excellent at doing y now. If they are interviewing for the exact same position with no record of growth on the resume then yes I would agree with that assessment.

      2. That Girl From Quinn's House*

        You’re also assuming the employer is good enough to be hiring people who are excellent.

        A lot of the places I worked that would hire and re-hire people were doing it with people whose performance was satisfactory at best. We paid below market rate and had cruddy working conditions. Sometimes hiring a known “meh” person into a known “meh” job is beneficial. You don’t risk hiring a dud that needs to be fired, you don’t risk hiring a superstar who gets fed up and leaves pretty quickly, you already know their weak points and can work around them, etc.

  10. Bear Shark*

    #3 is timely for me since a previous coworker contacted me wanting to come back and I’m not sure that management has really changed anything about what drove them to leave. I’m not in management though so I’m not the one who’d be making the decision.

    1. CastIrony*

      I came back to my part-time job after a horrible stint at a full-time one where I felt like I could never do anything right. In my case, I knew that even though nothing changed, that I had found the ONE full-time job that was worse than the dysfunction and negativity my current job has

      It isn’t that relevant, but I wanted to provide some perspective that your coworker may be having.

  11. softcastle mccormick*

    LW1: You thank her for her professionalism and candor and move on. I know it’s tough to be called out like that, and it might not seem like it now, but she did you a favor. By your own admission, you were late in multiple instances, to the point where you had to address it with her–believe me, she could’ve just agreed to the reference and given you a bad one behind your back. I just had a former manager in my company decline to write me a formal LOR for an internal position that ultimately turned out to be a substantial reach for my current experience level. It stung, and was frustrating, but all I could do was preserve the relationship and thank him for his honesty…because ultimately he was right! It’s a learning experience!

    1. Safetykats*

      Yes. I’m not sure what the OP thinks she could or should do – it sounds like maybe she is inclined to go argue with the professor. That is certainly not going to make the reference better.

  12. Valegro*

    LW #1: Be glad they were honest when you asked. It’s really hard to burst a bubble and say that you can’t give the reference the person thinks they deserve. A young woman I worked with was looking for a new job and thankfully never asked me to be a reference. She started out well, then got lazy, accused the staff she was supporting of being abusive for wanting her to work instead of play on her phone and regularly showed up hungover. Unfortunately her manager thought it was cute and never mentioned it would look REALLY bad at a non-dysfunctional workplace.
    She did get a great new job and they never asked for a reference.

  13. Mike C.*

    All else being equal, employers should be thrilled to have former employees looking to come back after some time. Leaving a workplace means going somewhere else and doing something that isn’t possible that that workplace. Coming back means the employer gets the benefits of both that cross-pollination and that the employee already has a leg up with the company culture, procedures and so on.

    Some firms go so far as to treat former employees as alums and reap the benefits of their increased experience and extended professional networks. It’s a mistake to see leaving a firm (or even a team or department!) as some sort of red flag or betrayal or whatever.

    1. Anonym*


      They tend to get up to speed quickly, and they’re informed on the culture – they know exactly what they’re getting into. We see a lot of “grass wasn’t quite so green” returning employees. They come back fast and are happy to be here. And your most regretted losses/desirable rehires will be people who are motivated, but for whom your organization didn’t have the right opportunity when they were ready. It happens – if you can’t retain great talent, by all means rehire it!

      Hire an alum and capture those training investments that your competitors made!

      1. Artemesia*

        I agree that a policy to not rehire is short sighted; but don’t rehire people who were not terrific or very good.

        1. NotAnotherManager!*

          This. Looking at employee departures as a betrayal is something I’ll never understand.

          We will rehire anyone who left in good standing and performed well. We will consider (as part of a candidate pool) anyone who left in good standing and was on the north side of average (because they may have grown professionally when they were away). We will not rehire anyone who was meh (or difficult to work with).

          There is a limit to this, though. If you leave, come back, and then leave again in less than a year, it’d be a harder sell to bring you back again.

    2. Antilles*

      I agree, it’s definitely not smart to assume that anybody who leaves is a betrayal or untrustworthy or whatever. They left for a better opportunity, now they’re trying to come back because you *are* the better opportunity.
      Personally, I view good former employees as effectively similar to a candidate who comes with a strong recommendation from a trusted employee. I’m going to start with a positive impression of you, I’m going to give your resume a much more detailed look, and I’m much more likely to at least give you a phone interview even if your resume alone is good-not-stellar…but at the end of the day, it still comes down to getting the best employee possible, which might be former-employee or it might not.

    3. Burned Out Supervisor*

      I think it’s important to look at how long they were gone and why they left. I’ve had several people attempt to be rehired into our organization and have not re-hired any of them. A few had troubling references from their previous supervisors (people who are not known to lie), one had several write ups and was on a PIP when she left (she was applying to a different department, so I think she thought she was safe), and the last one left the org for personal reasons but then was applying 3 weeks later (not necessarily troubling, but also received troubling feedback from her previous manager).

  14. Watry*

    For LW1: I’m not sure that one late assignment is worth “she had to tell you your lateness was a problem before you fixed it”. LW should still let it go, but if we take LW’s word that it was a single assignment, is giving a negative appraisal of reliability a reasonable response? (Genuine question, I’ve only had a professional job for six months.)

    1. Yorick*

      We can take LW’s word that it was a single assignment, but does “professor had to talk to you about lateness” mean she didn’t turn in the assignment until asked? It also matters if it was super late or just a little late and if she talked to the professor about it or just tried to turn it in hoping the professor wouldn’t notice/care it was late.

      1. Artemesia*

        I doubt I would even remember a single late assignment or showing up late for class or whatever. The fact that the prof remembers as someone unreliable she had to speak to suggests that her memories of this may be not as clear as she thinks or her behavior less professional than she thinks.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Honestly, some professors and managers once you get into the workforce have things that will destroy you to them, even if it’s just one late assignment or just one day you didn’t let them know you were going to be twenty minutes late. It’s harsh and stinks but it’s reality.

      That’s what we get for relying on others to put their reputation and assessment of us in such high regard.

      I had teachers who couldn’t be bothered with me and told me I would amount to nothing in the end. I’ve had interviews with places that automatically took a disliking to me for who knows what reason, I always just assume they hate my face and therefore it’s a lost cause. It’s unsettling at first but once you realize not everyone will have a kind look at you and the next step is to find someone who does think you’re fantastic and wants to rave about you, it’s so much easier to keep a positive outlook!

    3. Sarah N*

      I think context matters a lot here, but the LW also doesn’t say it was just one late assignment. My take on it was one late assignment + rolling in late to every class (or at least multiple classes) until the professor had to let the person know that this was not acceptable.

      Either way, though, it sort of doesn’t matter for the advice. Perhaps the professor reasonably decided that the LW was unreliable. Or maybe the professor is being totally unfair and has unreasonable standards. But whichever one it is, trying to argue your way into a good reference is just not likely to be a successful strategy. Whether the professor’s assessment is correct or not, it sounds like the thing she was going to say to a potential reference checker was “I can’t give a strong recommendation for LW due to reliability/lateness issues.” And LW doesn’t want that reference, so it is much better to be able to ask someone else who has a more favorable opinion to share!

      1. Kate R*

        That was my take too, that it wasn’t just a late assignment, but also enough habitual tardiness that it warranted a discussion with the professor. It’s also possible that these were not the only factors that led to the professor’s assessment. It seems like those were the examples that jumped out at the OP, but the professor didn’t really explain why she felt that way. Either way, it’s a kindness to let the OP know she wouldn’t be getting a glowing reference from this professor so she could try and find someone who would give her one.

      2. Dust Bunny*

        Also, this was a GRADUATE STUDENT. Well past the age where one shouldn’t have to be told to hand in assignments and show up to class on time and prepared.

      3. CupcakeCounter*

        That was how I saw it too. If this was undergrad I would think most professors would roll their eyes but as a grad student you should be more serious about your area of study and discipline to your field. A professor having to talk to a grad student about (what I read as about to be chronic) lateness is a BIG DEAL.
        I once had a professor who on the first day informed the class that they lock the door at 5 minutes after the scheduled start time and no one was allowed in after that. It was shocking the number of people who were pounding on the door on day 2 absolutely incensed that they weren’t allowed in. And this wasn’t at 6 or 7 minutes past the start time, this was at 15 or more minutes after the 60 minute class was supposed to start. One moron decided to call campus security and the dean and their response was along the lines of “why are you so late to class?” He dropped the class. Professor was fantastic

        1. Grapey*

          That’s kind of dumb in my opinion.

          Seems like more a distraction to look at the clock than to just let students potentially miss important material they paid to access unless it was like a science lab where timed steps were of utmost importance. My high school teachers had antics like that and I’d consider it a huge negative if a GRADUATE professor thought that was acceptable.

          (Said as a habitually early person whose cab got stuck in traffic due to a collapsed bridge one time and would have been pissed if I got a finger wagging because of that.)

          Did he make the kids (cause that’s how they’re being treated) raise their hands if they wanted to go to the bathroom, too?

          1. Lavender Menace*

            Students rolling in late to class is disruptive and distracting. I wouldn’t necessarily lock the door, but I’d expect students to show up on time. The students are paying for the opportunity to learn, and they have to do the work in order to make the most of that opportunity.

    4. Falling Diphthong*

      I had to reread to catch this: LW says it was one late assignment AND being routinely late to class. And that LW started showing up to class on time after the professor explained that this was an expectation.

    5. Former tacher*

      For grad school, having your professor have to talk to you about anything is pretty bad. I honestly wouldn’t expect a professor to do that past *maybe* freshman year of college. A lot of classes may only have a small number of big assignments that get graded, too, so this could be one assignment out of three or four.

      I have agreed to recommend people who put me on the spot with their request (still–it was my responsibility to say no and I recognize that) and I regretted it later. Good for this professor for being honest.

    6. Samwise*

      If it’s grad school there may be only one assignment (gigantic paper at the end of the semester for instance). So if that’s late then yeah, one late assignment is worth “she had to tell you…”

      1. blackcat*

        Yup. Most of my grad classes have had only 3 or 4 assignments. Some only one paper or exam.
        Doing it late could be a Big Deal.

    7. Observer*

      She handed one assignment in late and was ALSO late it sound like more than once) to class.

    8. Grapey*

      “A single assignment” in graduate school is often a complicated multi faceted project that could take months, or have multiple people involved that would be badly affected by one person’s irresponsibility. (Group projects in grad school tend to be a lot more rigorous than undergrad where one good student could carry a group of slackers.)

      For example in one of my computer science classes, a ‘single assignment’ was to write the proposal for the final term project including a mock up of all the components and test cases. We had a two month deadline (for a two semester course). This proposal was something that needed to be approved by the professor, so if you submitted it late/kept asking for extensions the professor knew that you would be limiting your time spent on the actual project.

      tl;dr yes I think it’s reasonable for poor reliability on a single assignment to tank a recommendation.

  15. Laughing Alone with Salad*

    #4 – Improv classes. Your description of your coworker sounds a lot like me several years ago. Taking improv over a period of time helped so, so much. I agree that role-playing is a good idea, but for me, role-playing within the context of work would have still had my brain going on unproductively about ‘doing it right’ instead of doing the work I needed to do to loosen up, be flexible, and access the information I needed in a timely way and convey it appropriately for the situation. In an arts context, you’re free to just exercise the skill of being on the spot – that is a HUGE component of improv as a practice – without having to relate it to anything with actual workplace consequences. It helps get over the fear factor that can make us freeze, and to build confidence and muscles in answering on the spot, that can be reinforced with work-related role-playing, job shadowing, and actual practice. I loved doing improv despite my original apprehensions about it, and have seen the effects spill over into so many areas of my life in only positive ways.

    That said I totally recognize that telling an employee or colleague they have to sign up for a full semester or more of arts classes is not exactly reasonable. But I wanted to share how helpful it was to me in the spirit that it might help someone else.

    1. Tinker*

      It’s also not exactly a practical suggestion necessarily, but I’ve gotten a similar set of benefits from doing larp. My playstyle is still such that I don’t tend to get a lot of practice directly with the sort of immediate-intuitive-response thing that I gather improv focuses more on, but I do get a lot of practice at productively handling the state of not having an immediate response to hand — that is to say, things that might be more like “I don’t know this, let me look it up”, “I’m sorry, I don’t quite understand your question, could you explain further what you’re looking for?”, or “That’s not something I can do, but maybe I can do something else that will help you.”

      If this person has a lot of difficulty doing the quick-processing thing, in addition to practicing that they might also want to work on tools to manage the case where they end up being flat-footed despite their best efforts — IME at least that’s often both useful in itself (in that you arrive at the same place with not necessarily that much delay) , and it also takes some pressure off the immediate response because I can have it in the back of my mind that I can always fall back to the escape hatch strategy.

      And yes — it matters a lot who you do this sort of thing with. Part of how I got to where I did by playing larp was being in an environment where I could learn to trust the people around me in a way that is quite often not feasible at work even with people I like — that I don’t have to manage a “professional” image and am not in fear of getting a “well you have to give Boss what they want or you’ll be out the door” sort of response with my income at stake, for instance.

    2. RUKiddingMe*

      Oh yes improv or any kind of thing where you must speak in front of others. I took four years of drama as an elective in HS. As an adult I have never, ever had an issue speaking in front of groups, even very large (multiple hundreds of people) groups. It is all because of those drama classes, which naturally included improv, because before that even speaking to a couple/few people would make me literally shake.

  16. ClumsyCharisma*

    I had someone ask me if they could use me as a reference while I was firing them for excessive absences and low work quality. I explained I would have to give an honest assessment of his work and unfortunately I didn’t think that was a good idea.

    1. Shell*

      Some years ago, a student asked me for a reference. I said, “No, I can’t do that. You failed the class because you plagiarized.” He seemed surprised that I would consider that a good reason not to recommend him.

  17. Akcipitrokulo*

    OP4 – when I started in customer service, part of the training was how to say hold on while I find out. Having – and practicing – some go-to phrases such as “would you hold for a moment while I find out for you?” so that they come automatically is likely to help.

    1. nnn*

      Yes, that’s what I came to post. En route to learning how to think on her feet, having an established protocol for what to do when she has to find out an answer would be very helpful.

      Also, her ability to think on her feet may well naturally improve as she gains experience. Having to solve a problem that’s unprecedented is difficult, whereas having to solve a problem that you’ve done a dozen times before, or is very close to something you’ve done before, is far easier to improvise.

  18. Aggretsuko*

    On a related note, someone I know was asking for a reference and a letter of recommendation from a supervisor who’s retiring, and the supervisor said that she won’t write letters because too many people fake those.

    Didn’t know that was a thing.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Well people fake references too. They give you friends or such and say they’re former supervisors. That doesn’t stop a person from still offering references because of others being shady. How strange.

  19. Pescadero*

    “First and foremost, you should be striving to hire better-than-average employees (you should never be actively looking to bring on someone middling). ”

    Welcome to Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.

    I think it’s important to be realistic – employees, like most everything in nature, are going to fall on a normal distribution. 68% or so are GOING to be middling.

    1. fposte*

      Sure, but the distribution of that 68% is not going to be equal. Some places are going to have more of the top 10%, some places are going to have more of the bottom 10%.

  20. Half-Caf Latte*

    I think I’ve shared this here in the past, but I have had a student who I caught plagiarizing who then asked me for a reference. I gave a similar response as in the letter, and the student was really flabbergasted, truly shocked. I got the impression she thought that references were … automatic? Like not just that it’s understood that faculty will need to write references, but that I would have to give her an enthusiastic one by virtue of being her instructor.

    When I gently suggested she look for other faculty, she told me she thought we had the best relationship. I was floored.

    1. Thursday Next*

      Yikes. That request would be so flabbergasting it would be difficult to come up with an appropriate response.

  21. Beth*

    One of the people I asked to write me a letter of recommendation when I applied to graduate school, years and years ago . . . I wish he HAD turned me down. Instead, he stabbed me in the back. I was rejected.

    He didn’t realize that his letter would be returned to me when my application was rejected. I read it, a few years later, and knew why I hadn’t gotten in. Also knew just what kind of a person he was, although I had been figuring it out by then.

    The funny thing was that his assessment of me (he damned me with faint praise, very slick) didn’t resemble me in the least. All my supposed faults and flaws that he sadly remarked on . . . were his faults. Not mine.

  22. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    For rehiring I have seen it happen so frequently I can solidly agree with Alison’s response.

    If they’re great and left for a different opportunity or to go to school or even if they had a difficult relationship with someone but structure has changed, you bring them back in. You don’t have much to lose, even if they leave in a couple years. They don’t require the same training and instruction a brand new hire, who you have no guarantee of working out or being around for any set time. It’s a no brainer

    However I’ve seen average workers brought back and it’s a drain. Same ol same ol, unless they gained more experience and better skills while away, they’ll just be average yet again. They’ll probably need training and refreshers regardless. You’re better at trying a new hire in that case. Unless your pool is poor quality, then it’s worth it in that sense.

  23. Observer*

    #1 – Your professor is right. You don’t understand timeliness and reliability. You shouldn’t need to be told that coming late to class is a problem. So, the fact that you pulled yourself together once she spoke to you is good but that does not make you someone who is “excellently” reliable. People who excel KNOW that they need to be where they are supposed be without having to have a separate conversation. eg If your hours are 9:00- 5:50, you need to know that you actually need to be there during those hours unless told other wise. And if are told to hand in report by COB 3/31, then you should not need to be told separately that you actually need to hand in THAT report and that it actually needs to be handed in by the deadline.

    1. MommyMD*

      Agreed. My SIL could never understand why her bosses were upset bc she was always “only five or ten minutes late”. Everyday.

  24. MommyMD*

    First impressions count and there can never be a do-over. This is the first impression LW made on Professor and Professor is just being honest. Even if she cleaned up her act.

  25. Someone Else*

    For #4, I agree that shadowing and role play will help, but I’ll also say I have trained A LOT of people at this sort of thing and one month in, based on what you described (they know it but they’re not connecting well live on the fly) is totally normal and a reasonable learning curve. The best people in my experience often took 8-12 weeks to really click and from there were excellent. If the learning curve in your environment is usually more like 4 weeks then maybe I’m off base, but it sounds to me like you have someone who gets it, will get it, and needs more practice. If the issue were the person didn’t actually know the answers at this point I’d be more concerned, but it might just be a bit early. I wouldn’t be worried yet.

  26. Cows go moo*

    #1: Even if you argued with your professor and convinced her she is wrong about your timeliness and reliability, there may be other reasons why she can’t give you a positive reference. Your professor told you explicitly that she cannot recommend you to another employer. Reasonable people typically don’t give that kind of response unless they think very poorly of that person. Whether she’s right or wrong about her assessment of you, she did you a favour by letting you know not to use her as a reference. Best to move on and find someone else.

  27. Edith*

    #4 I would recommend her to try impro, preferably separate from work so she can be more free to play around. You learn how to think on your feet, and to be less embarrassed if things don’t turn out perfectly. Its super fun and dosn’t focus on handeling this problem at work, that are just great sideaffects. Maybe the company could pay for a few classes. Although it would have to be 100% volontary.

  28. Former Professor*

    When I decline to give a positive reference for a student, it’s usually because I don’t remember them at all or because there’s a pattern of multiple problems. Unfortunately, professors–like managers in the private sector– aren’t always effective at delivering criticism, and students sometimes mistake serious criticism as just suggestions. (I’m not saying either of those things are true in this case. But they are both common).

    There are two additional things I would tell the letter writer to keep in mind:

    1) If you’re truly blindsided by the response an thought you had a good relationship with the professor, I think it would be reasonable to reply with something like: “I appreciate your candor. I will find another reference. Honestly, I thought I had improved on [being on-time/working independently/name of skill or habit]. Just so I know moving moving forward in my future work, can you provide any feedback on additional areas that I need to work on?” The faculty member may or may not respond, but it’s not going to burn any bridges to ask.

    2) The situation of a professor refusing to provide a reference gets a bit messier for masters or doctoral students if the faculty member in question is the student’s thesis/project advisor or committee member, because of the professional implications involved. If they are declining to be a reference after a student has graduated, there’s not much that can be done about it and the best the student can do is to repeat #1 above. But if an advisor or committee member is refusing to be a reference during the process of coursework or a thesis, that raises the possibility that the student needs to have a difficult conversation with the faculty member in question. Again, the point of the conversation should not be to persuade the faculty member to change their mind, but rather, to ask (a) “In what areas do I need to improve as a student?” and (b) “Do I need to make any formal changes to plan of study or thesis plan?” [This is the grad school equivalent of trying to improve before it turns into a formal PIP from which you can’t recover].

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