A previous coworker who has since left my company just emailed me asking me to be a reference as she applies to new jobs.

I feel that while I like her, I couldn't recommend her as an employee. So my gut reaction would be to (try to) politely decline. But I feel that since we were friendly, that sort of refusal could be a major rejection and ego hit, and could really hurt her emotionally.

I feel torn between two options:

  1. Write an email back offering to be a reference. Then be honest-by-omission when/if asked by future employers, not saying anything negative, but letting my lukewarm positive feelings be clear. This obviously is likely to shoot down her chances at future employment, but it wouldn't be a major ego hit/rejection from a friend.

  2. Write an email saying that although I like her personally and respect her (enumerated) positive work characteristics, I can't comfortably recommend her, because of how being honest about X would push me into giving a non-positive recommendation. This doesn't shoot down her employment chances, and it possibly offers positive constructive feedback, but it seriously risks making her feel awful. It also probably destroys our relationship, but that's the least of my concerns.

Help? I'm really really torn on this one.

  • Did she specifically ask for a good/positive reference? If not, then you would just need to be a reference who doesn't necessarily have anything good to say. Then again, you say she has "positive work characteristics", so you do have good things to say about her, right? Anyway, people typically know what someone thinks of them when they ask them to be a reference. If she isn't perceptive enough to know what you think of her, then too bad for her.
    – user20925
    Oct 31, 2014 at 22:08
  • Ouch. My recommendation is to decline with a very gentle reason. Off the top of my head, "I really appreciate you asking me to be your reference. I know we had a very positive co-worker experience, but I feel like I don't know enough about your professional stance to where I would be a great reference that employers are looking to hear from. I feel it would be best if I decline since I don't want to hinder your future opportunities. Respectfully, [Name]"
    – Xrylite
    Oct 31, 2014 at 23:38
  • My usual response in that kind of situation is "Thanks for the complement, but I'm really bad at writing recommendations. Heck, I struggle just trying to put my own year-end review documents together." If they insist, then (a) remember that most references don't actually get contacted, and (b) it's possible, and reasonable, to write a recommendation which praises someone's strengths without overstating them, and employers are generally savvy enough to notice the areas where you don't praise someone and figure out for themselves whether that's likely to be a problem or not.
    – keshlam
    Nov 1, 2014 at 1:47
  • Do you know anything about her new position (that she's applying for) vs her old position? If the new position by nature mitigates some of the trouble spots she had in the old position, it shouldn't be a problem.
    – corsiKa
    Nov 3, 2014 at 15:52
  • Loosely related: workplace.stackexchange.com/q/18484/325 May 2, 2016 at 18:40

3 Answers 3


She is asking you to tell others that you think she'd be a good hire. If you can't do that then you need to decline.

Saying yes, then subtly sabotaging her prospects is about as back stabbing as you could possibly get and, imho, incredibly unethical.

When declining to be a reference you have several options. You can be brutally honest or simply not state a reason. How you handle it should be based on how much you value this person. I believe that if you value them then giving the truth is the best path forward.

  • Well, the idea is that direct honesty could be more harmful (in terms of the pain of rejection, ego hit, etc) than the loss of a potential job. By a utilitarian ethical system, that would make it a less unethical choice, but point taken. I think I agree this is the better tack. I'm just worried, perhaps unreasonably, that it would be really hurtful (perhaps moreso). Oct 31, 2014 at 21:57
  • 3
    @anonymousquestioner098: Forget the hurtful part. This is a growth opportunity for this person. They will likely not be happy with you the moment you say it. However if your concerns are actually valid and they have any ability to objectively look at themselves then this could be a positive impact on their life and that is far more important than some potential pain. Further, I'd argue that loss of ability to pay your bills is worse than having your ego hurt.
    – NotMe
    Oct 31, 2014 at 22:00
  • 1
    If this person truly has a performance problem, the very kindest thing you can do is to tell her. She can't fix a problem if she doesn't understand what the problem is. It strikes that what you are really trying to do is avoid having an uncomfortable but necessary conversation.
    – HLGEM
    Nov 3, 2014 at 18:22

First, check to see whether your company has a policy about not giving references at all. Most large-ish companies in the US (and many smaller ones) have general policies that the only references they'll provide are from HR who will only confirm dates of employment and titles. If your company has such a policy, you can simply inform your friend that you don't want to violate company policy on references.

If that's not an available out, it's far kinder to tell your friend that you can't give a really enthusiastic recommendation is far kinder than silently torpedoing her chances. Since you were just coworkers at the same level, you might try pointing out that a reference from a supervisor is going to carry far more weight with a potential employer than a reference from a coworker. If she insists (presumably because she knows the manager would give a poor reference), this might also give you some cover to decline to answer certain types of questions. Since you weren't a party to every discussion between your coworker and her manager, it's perfectly reasonable to decline to answer certain types of questions in a reference check. For example, if you weren't responsible for setting and monitoring her hours, it's reasonable to personally find it inappropriate for her to come in at a later time but to avoid questions about punctuality because you weren't privy to all the conversations between the employee and management-- it's possible, for example, that her manager didn't care that much if she was regularly coming in a few minutes later than everyone else. You can tell her that you'll diplomatically decline to talk about punctuality, in that case, because that wasn't something that you were responsible for dealing with.

Additionally, references generally only get contacted at the very end of the interview process, it's generally pretty easy to figure out that one of your references is undercutting you when a candidate finds that offers are getting pulled once references get contacted so the silent torpedoing also doesn't spare your friend's feelings for long. Instead, she'll most likely feel even more betrayed when she finds out that you agreed to give her a reference and ended up undercutting her once she had a job or two lined up.

If you were colleagues, it seems unlikely that she would be completely blindsided by your constructive criticism. Surely, if you found something she did (or didn't) do so bad that you can't in good conscience recommend her to a different employer, you would have told her about it when you were working together, right?

  • No such policy, unfortunately. Thanks to both you and Chris for your helpful answers. I think I'll be direct in as positive and friendly a way as possible. I do think she'll be somewhat blindsided, though, because (correctly or not) it didn't feel like my place as a coworker on the same level to didactically tell her when I thought she was behaving inappropriately. She would have had to pick up on my silent opinions, which the reference request suggests she didn't. Oct 31, 2014 at 22:00
  • I don't have the rep to upvote, unfortunately, but I really appreciate your guidance on this one, Justin. Thanks a lot. Oct 31, 2014 at 22:01
  • @anonymousquestioner098 - If what you're concerned about is something that didn't have an impact on you and that you didn't think was important enough to raise to a friend, are you sure that what she was doing was something that her manager found (or would have found) inappropriate? Are you sure there is no chance that her manager blessed the action? If you felt it appropriate to "mind your own business" about it when you're working together, are you sure it wouldn't be appropriate to do the same in a recommendation? Oct 31, 2014 at 22:08
  • Yes. In retrospect, I feel "inappropriate" is the wrong word choice to apply. I just thought she hurt team morale, and to some degree productivity and work quality - essentially, precisely what I would want to avoid as a future employer, and definitely not sanctioned by our management. I think if I'd felt closer to her, I might have said something to her in person. But we weren't, it felt largely like a personality judgment, and making that sort of suggestion didn't feel appropriate. Oct 31, 2014 at 22:16
  • @anonymousquestioner098 - Is this a "horses for courses" sort of thing? A heads-down, straight-laced, just-the-facts-ma'am sort of person might do really well in certain positions in certain companies but be a poor fit in a more social team. Certain personality traits might be huge red flags in one environment but minor inconveniences in others. If that's the case here, it's perfectly reasonable to let your friend know that you'll give a balanced reference (i.e. great widget puncher and order taker that could use a bit more mentoring in dealing with upset customers). Oct 31, 2014 at 22:26

If you agree, you have a choice of:

  • Lying, which is unprofessional and unethical
  • Damaging your friend's chances of employment

Neither of which is particularly savory. Or you can:

  • Decline with an honest answer, damaging your friendship
  • Decline with a white lie, to save your friend's feelings

In this situation I'd decline but mask it as for my own selfish reasons.

I'd say I just don't feel comfortable giving references about friends, as it's hard to be neutral and you wouldn't want to accidentally say something well-meaning the came across badly.

Combine it with a valid point that you were a co-worker, not a supervisor, manager or similar, and that you can only talk about the fact she was friendly etc. Point out that this may make it seem to the new employer that you're leaving professional/practical aspects out because she's bad at them, when the 'reality' would be that you're leaving them out because you weren't in a managerial position and can't really legitimately comment on those things.

Overall, base it on the fact that you don't want it to accidentally come across badly because you're not a manager, and you're not experienced at writing references etc.

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