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Inspired by this question: Does these entries in a reference letter make it no longer neutral?

If a manager agreed to write a reference letter for an employee, then on attempting to write it realized that they cannot honestly write an endorsement of this person; how should they best handle it?

It seems to me being dishonest in the letter, writing a letter that doesn't endorse them (neutral), or backing out are all poor options. The best option would be to prevent this situation in the first place but how would a manager best recover from badly agreeing to write a reference?

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    Why does it have to be an enthusiastic letter? Maybe a neutral letter is fine for the asking ex-employee. – Brandin Jun 23 '16 at 16:18
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    @Brandin Edited to clarify. I know I'd be choked if a manager agreed to write a reference letter for me but it didn't contain any endorsement. Maybe that's a regional thing but in Canada a reference letter that doesn't contain endorsement is of little to no value. – Myles Jun 23 '16 at 16:25
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At some point after first becoming a manager, my boss explained the art of giving references. As a reference giver, you should almost never be negative.

If the employee was awesome, be glowing in your reference. If the employee was good, be very positive. If the employee was ok, be slightly positive. If the employee was bad, be totally neutral:

"EMPLOYEE worked here. EMPLOYEE worked on XYZ project. EMPLOYEE has experience in UVW areas."

A neutral reference is an AWFUL reference.

Before you give a reference, you need to understand that. If you can't give more than a neutral reference, you probably shouldn't have agreed. If you couldn't realize you wouldn't be able to give at least a slightly positive reference, then you are probably pretty bad at your job. (a huge part of any manager's job is evaluating performance. You should have at least some idea of how you feel about the performance of everyone on your team. When someone turns in notice, you need to know immediately if you want to fight for them, accept it gracefully, or breathe a sigh of relief. [those three reactions also dictate the kind of reference you'd give them])

Edit to further answer the original intent of the question:

If you do realize after the fact that you can't give a good reference, be honest. Again, if you're a good manager, your employee should know where they stand in your eyes. If you don't have anything good to say about them, you've probably given them plenty of constructive feedback, poor performance reviews, etc. They made a mistake by asking you in the first place (likely added to a long list of prior mistakes).

A response to the requester might be something like: "Based on your performance history, I cannot give you a positive reference. The best I can offer is a neutral reference, but be forewarned, your potential employer will see that as a red flag."

Another thought. If you haven't given this employee the proper feedback, now is not the time. You failed earlier in the process. If they still worked for you, you should rectify and start giving honest feedback, however, if you ambush them now, you're just going to be seen as a jerk holding a grudge against them for leaving.

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    If you can't give more than a neutral reference, you probably shouldn't have agreed. ...and how do you handle it if you realize after the fact that you probably shouldn't have agreed? Imagine getting so giddy with glee at of the prospect of them being gone that you agree when you shouldn't have. – Myles Jun 23 '16 at 17:06
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    Great first answer BTW! I have upvoted it, just looking for a more complete assessment. – Myles Jun 23 '16 at 17:07
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If you didn't do it from the onset, you should always tell someone requesting a reference that you are going to be objective and they should consider whether or not they still want you to write it.

Not sure how you want to handle any discrepancy between what they think your opinion of them is and what it really is.

Some people may feel that they will only say positive things and if they're not sufficient to show the person is a strong candidate, it is up to the person doing the hiring to decide by inferring what is lacking. If you feel this is a dishonest way of going about it, then don't write it. It's your reputation.

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