How to turn down someone's request for a reference

·Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
·4-min read
A bad or unfavourable reference can be damaging to someone’s career prospects. Photo: Getty
A bad or unfavourable reference can be damaging to someone’s career prospects. Photo: Getty

You’ve been asked to provide a recommendation letter and you’re not sure about it. Maybe the person in question doesn’t work well with others, or isn’t as good as they think they are at their job. It could be that you don’t know them well enough to endorse them, and doing so might be risky to your professional reputation. Either way, you’re uncomfortable being their reference.

However, it can be difficult to say no to someone who has asked you to recommend them. So how can you politely decline without hurting their feelings – and when should you do so?

References help employers get a better sense of whether an applicant will be a good match for the job, in terms of their skills, experience, strengths and weaknesses. Although your CV and cover letter might be the first thing recruiters see, a solid reference matters more than you might realise.

According to a 2019 survey by the global staffing firm Accountemps, senior managers reported they remove around one in three candidates (34%) from consideration for a position after checking their references.

Not all references are equal, though. Quick, non-specific references don’t always add much to a candidate’s application, unless the reference is simply to confirm they worked at a company at a certain time. A bad or unfavourable reference can be damaging to someone’s career prospects. And as long as it is accurate and the person has reasonable grounds for that belief, it is legal.

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Read more: How to give feedback or criticism without hurting someone

So while it might be tempting to just fire off a quick recommendation for someone, it might be better to say no – and suggest they find someone more appropriate who can be a better, more helpful reference.

Victoria McLean, founder & CEO of the career consultancy and outplacement services firm City CV, says there are several reasons why you might turn down a request for a reference.

“It could be as simple as you don't know the person well enough or haven't worked with them for long, but it could also be that you weren't impressed with their performance, work ethic, or their ability to work in a team, and you know they're not a strong candidate,” McLean says.

“It can feel uncomfortable to turn down a request for a reference, particularly during times when it's more difficult to get a new job. However, if you feel that you can't provide a reference because you don't know the person well enough or you simply can't give a positive recommendation from your experience of working with them, it's ok to say no,” she adds.

“Bear in mind that if you say yes and then provide a less-than-glowing reference, you might be damaging a person's career options. Of course, some businesses don't allow you to provide references at all, so it's always best to check with your HR team.”

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If you are going to turn down someone’s request for reference, it is best to be positive.

“If you don't know the person well, it's ok to say that you feel you haven't worked with them for long enough to provide a detailed reference,” says McLean. Tell them you don’t want to jeopardise their future by writing a lukewarm reference and that it would be more beneficial to them to ask someone who knows them better.

When you need to decline a request for a recommendation, try to do so as quickly as possible. Saying no can be difficult and it’s tempting to put it off, but it is more considerate to give the person as much time as possible to find an alternative reference.

“If you do know the person but don't want to provide a reference, you could tell them that you don't think you're the right person to do so, and perhaps recommend someone else,” says McLean.

Telling the truth might be the admirable thing to do, but informing someone you don’t think they’re good at their job can be more hurtful than helpful. If necessary, a little white lie – “I’m not sure I have time at the moment” – might be the kinder option.

“Whatever your situation, it's best to respond quickly and be gracious in your response - after all, you may cross professional paths with this person in the future,” says McLean. “Be as clear as possible, so they understand that you won't be their referee and don't try to change your mind.”

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