Man and woman have intense conversation at work

Be a referee - sparingly

Being genuine without ruffling feathers

Written by Dr Shaun Ridley FAIM
3 minute read
Man and woman have intense conversation at work

It is always a slightly awkward situation when someone you don’t particularly admire asks you to be their referee when they apply for a job.

Do you say “no” and immediately put that person offside, forever?

Or do you say “yes”, privately reassuring yourself that you can come up with enough innocuous phrases to survive any serious scrutiny by the recruiter?

The easiest and most common answer is to respond with a “yes” - but at what cost?

If you genuinely respect and admire the person, then being a referee is a further sign of your commitment to their ongoing development and honours your relationship.

However, disingenuously singing the praises of a candidate who you don’t think is very good exposes you both.

There is a risk of setting them up to fail in a role for which they may not be suited.

You also create expectations in the prospective future employer that may not be realised.

You may argue that the candidate could surprise you and star in the new job, but that is to their credit and not a function of your dishonesty.

The person most at risk in this charade is the person providing the misleading or dishonest reference.

Regardless of whether your motive is to avoid an awkward conversation or to move on an underperforming staff member, gaining a reputation for being dishonest or mischievous when asked to comment on a potential candidate is never going to end well.

And, in an increasingly litigious business environment, you may be exposing yourself or your organisation to a claim for compensation.

So what might you do or say when asked to be a referee by someone you don’t feel you can honestly endorse for the new role?

The first obvious answer is to tell the truth and explain why you don’t feel comfortable recommending them – and then live with the consequences.

A second option is to give a qualified “yes” response, saying you are happy to speak positively about particular aspects of their work, but would not feel comfortable extending to other areas where you believe the person is in need of further development.

A third option is a procedural approach that is being adopted by several organisations, and that is to ban supervisors from being referees for employees wanting to leave the organisation.

All references must come from the Human Resources section and they tend to be bland records of the person’s work history.

One more small step in the next 24 hours

Take a few minutes to think about each of your direct reports. How would you respond to each of them if they asked you to be a referee for a role outside your organisation?

If there is anyone you would not want to endorse, consider how you will respond, honestly and sensitively.

In an ideal world, if you have been working closely with them and providing ongoing feedback, anything you say will not be a surprise.

Regardless of the consequences to your relationship, a genuine response will always be the best option.