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Recruitment Dilemma: How to say no to a reference request

With industry experts saying we are headed into a period of job reassessment, resignations and renegotiation, business leaders and managers could see an influx in requests to provide references for colleagues taking advantage of the current job market.

Providing a reference should never be undertaken lightly, and while there is no obligation to say yes, many of us find it hard to say no.

Being asked to refer someone you wouldn’t highly recommend can present you with a moral dilemma. What if they haven’t performed well against their job description, haven’t met their objectives or have been disruptive to your business? How do you respectfully decline to provide a reference? 

More often than not, references are given generously and positively. Yet, not all requests are straightforward, especially when they come from an individual you like personally but don’t think they’re great at their job.  

Fortunately, there are ways to politely and professionally turn down being a referee if this is the path you choose to take.

Start by checking your employer guidelines

Many companies have a strict policy around who can provide a reference and what information they can share. While some HR teams will choose to speak candidly about an employee, others will do no more than confirm dates of employment and job title. Your employer’s policy around providing a reference might shape how you respond to a request.

Pass the responsibility to someone else

You can politely suggest that the person moving on ask someone more senior or someone with whom they have worked more closely. This person will likely be able to speak with more clout and provide more relevant examples. 

Offer to support a colleague in other ways

For example, say you’ll keep your eye out for potential opportunities or help them by refining and proofreading their CV and cover letter. Helping them prepare for a job change can be equally as valuable. 

Make it a personal policy not to be a referee 

Providing a reference can take time and careful consideration, and if you’re regularly asked to be a referee, you might find it’s beginning to take up more time than is viable. If you take the route of saying no to all reference requests, you’ll need to be consistent and follow through with this policy across the board.

If you agree to provide a reference — remember that this reflects on your reputation, so be thoughtful about who you choose to recommend. Prepare in advance of your conversation with any potential employer or recruiter. Speak to your experience and relationship with the person and include details about the individual’s position and job responsibilities. 

If you’re giving a reference for someone who wasn’t always the best employee or colleague, be brief, find a diplomatic way to get the message across, and don’t embellish.  

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Kate Furey

Kate Furey

Kate Furey is Indeed’s Career Insights Specialist and APAC Corporate Affairs Director. Kate has a dynamic global background in communications, marketing and journalism. Kate’s passion lies in helping people find jobs they love.

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