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Today I received a request for a letter of recommendation concerning a former member of my team (let's call him Bob). We worked together 4 years ago at a company that is now defunct. The request reads

You agreed to provide a letter of recommendation ...

however, I did not agree as Bob did not ask me. I do not want to write a recommendation as it is 4 years ago and Bob's performance at that time was not good. I see the following options available to me

  • politely refuse to write a letter. That would look weird as the company thinks I agreed to write a letter.
  • tell them I have not been asked. That would be honest but I do not want to hurt Bob's chances because of a technicality.
  • write an honest (mostly negative) recommendation. This would take some time and again, I don't want to hurt Bob.

The company specifically states that I agreed to write a letter. Unfortunately, I have no email of Bob and a quick google did not turn up reliable contact information

Are there any professional alternatives to these options? If not, which of the options above is preferable? In particular, I'm wondering how option 2 would most likely be perceived by the company.

Somewhat related: how are negative recommendations perceived by receiving companies? Is this common or unusual?

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    You could just ignore the request and not reply at all. That is probably the best option for bobs chances. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Aug 17 '16 at 15:06
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    You tagged this with "Germany" where recommendation letters work a bit different from the rest of the world. Can you add which of the companies in question (the one you worked for with Bob, the one Bob is applying to) was in Germany? – Sumyrda Aug 17 '16 at 15:21
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    @Sumyrda: both companies are in Germany. I am aware that there is a difference in recommendation letters. Bobs potential employer specifically stated that they are looking for a personal recommendation and not a formal one (Führungszeunis) – r.ams Aug 17 '16 at 15:23
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    @dan1111 It may be a simple misunderstanding. It is possible that the company assumes candidates contact their references before mentioning them to the company, and that Bob assumed there was no need to contact his references before listing them. If neither party ever mentioned those assumptions and the "you agreed" part is simply standard boilerplate used by the company, this could boil down to an insignificant misunderstanding. – kasperd Aug 17 '16 at 20:05
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    Is it possible that Bob asked you four years ago something like "If I am going to need a letter of recommendation, could I ask you?" and you said "sure."? – Stig Hemmer Aug 18 '16 at 8:08

11 Answers 11

100

I agree with other answers in that this is Bob's fault, and it's perfectly acceptable to let him bear the consequences. There is nothing wrong with either telling the company you were not asked, or writing an honest letter.

Still, it can be very hard to do that, mainly because it has significant negative consequences for Bob, and there is no real upside for you. It's not surprising that you are hoping for another option.

If you want to minimize the harm to Bob, but also maintain your integrity, another option would be to write an honest, but perfunctory (and mainly factual) letter.

Here is a skeleton example of what I'm thinking:

To whom it may concern,

I'm writing to confirm that I served as Bob's supervisor from the period A - B at company C. His role was D, and included duties such as E and F. During his time, he got along well with other team members and conducted himself in a professional manner.

Best regards,

me

In other words, mainly focus on factually describing Bob's role, and if there is anything positive you can say about him generally, such as his professionalism, include that. But leave his performance out of it.

Unlike the other approaches, this probably won't harm Bob if the letter of recommendation is a box-checking exercise for someone they have already decided to hire (which is often the case). It confirms that Bob worked in a professional environment without huge problems and probably shows that he was telling the truth about whatever he put on his CV for this period.

On the other hand, you aren't misleading anyone. The lack of praise for Bob's performance will be glaringly obvious if they are actually using this letter to assess his ability. In this case, the letter will harm him (but there is no honest route you can take that would not harm him in this case).

This may be more than Bob deserves. But it is a legitimate option if you can't bring yourself to give one of the outright negative responses.

Note: I don't have specific experience of Germany, and I wasn't aware of the country-specific angle when writing this answer.

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    This is also the course I would recommend if Bob had asked you (or simply informed you he was putting your name in as a recommender). Never write anything outright negative about someone, as you can never be sure who will eventually see it (including Bob). – user3294068 Aug 17 '16 at 15:38
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    @user3294068 if asked you should say no, or at least tell Bob that you don't think you would write a very strong letter. Otherwise you are doing a disservice to him (and continuing to put yourself in a difficult position). – user45590 Aug 17 '16 at 15:39
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    "this is Bob's fault" Well, we don't know that. Could be an error. Could be someone at the company doing the check being a bit flexible with the truth. (Edit: Heh, as I see you commented on another answer. :-) Great minds.) – T.J. Crowder Aug 18 '16 at 7:24
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    @dan1111: Good point. I have had recruiters contact me about people I worked with in the past who hadn't mentioned the association, FWIW. They searched for the company and found my CV online... But we're stretching at this point, most likely Bob just did something a bit silly. :-) – T.J. Crowder Aug 18 '16 at 7:40
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    Excellent suggestion; a perfect example of management done right. You're not being rude, and you're not being mean... but anyone with an ounce of sense will immediately recognise the underlying subtext of your response. Maybe it's because I'm British but this is precisely how I like to see things done, and it winds me up when managers don't have the subtlety to "play the game" in this professional but ultimately honest manner. – Lightness Races in Orbit Aug 18 '16 at 9:02
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Think about it: Are you sure that Bob told the company "ams agreed to write a letter of recommendation"? Didn't it occur to you that they might have asked Bob "Anybody who might write a letter of recommendation" and Bob said "ams might write one"? The request is written by the company where Bob applied, not by Bob.

You could write, without obviously lying and without hurting Bob: "Bob worked on my team, but that is more than four years ago, and unfortunately my recollection of Bob is not strong enough that I could offer you any opinion about the quality of his work".

  • Yes I considered that option. However, the company specifically states that I agreed to write a letter. Unfortunately, I have no email of Bob and a quick google did not turn up reliable contact information. – r.ams Aug 17 '16 at 15:27
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    @r.ams yes but this could just be an oversight. Bob could have simply put you down as a reference, and later an HR person may have taken that info and sent out a standard letter saying with text saying you agree to write the recommendation. Of course Bob should have asked you before including you in the application process in any capacity, but it may not have been as egregious as outright claiming you agreed something when you hadn't. – user45590 Aug 17 '16 at 16:05
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    @dan1111 It is very possible that you are right. The more I think about this: perhaps this is in part a cultural problem. These letters are were uncommon in Germany just a few years back. Perhaps Bob and the company just had no clear pathway to follow/ are not experienced with this part of an application. – r.ams Aug 17 '16 at 18:20
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This answer is heavily influenced by the tag and German work laws. Its contents might sound nonsensical, or counterintuitive, to anyone living in a more sensible different country. Links in this answer lead to German-speaking websites.

TL;DR: Ignore the request, or take it to HR, who will likely tell you to ignore it.

In Germany, law requires that every employee, at the end of their contract, receive a Zeugnis (short for Arbeitszeugnis) that needs to be correct and well-meaning. A Zeugnis is something like a testimonial, reference, or rating, none of the possible translations exactly matches (in my opinion). Because employees get a Zeugnis anyway, separate references or recommendation letters are quite uncommon, and giving them, especially behind the employee's back, might be a breach of their privacy. So, in order to avoid ligitation, you should refuse this request, or take it to HR who know how to handle it professionally.

The requirements "truthful" and "well-meaning" leads to more than 30.000 lawsuits per year, and have led to very specific language being used. For example, you can't say "Bob was a thief", but you can say "Until the last day he was with us, there was never reason to question his integrity", implying that this changed on the last day. "Bob had a great positive impact on the mood of his co-workers" means he spent his day chatting instead of working, and "Bob was always polite in his interactions with customers" implies he was not polite with co-workers, and probably had problems with managers as well.

Because of this, if you're not an expert (a HR person), whatever you write about Bob can easily be misunderstood. If you send this to a possible future employer of Bob (instead of Bob himself), Bob can sue you for false accusations and breaching his privacy. So if you want to give a recommendation, let an expert handle that.

If you choose not to involve HR, and want to write something, make sure to state nothing but unquestionable facts - start, end, and job title of Bob's employment. Something like "Bob worked in my department at ACME, Inc, from July 2008 to September 2012, as a software developer. Due to corporate policies, I am not able to give any more information" should be ok, and because of how laws are, people won't question these policies. This is a slightly negative assessment, as it implies "and I won't try and help him in any way". If you want to do him a favour, add "Unfortunately, I wasn't aware of these policies when I agreed to write a recommendation letter", implying you did agree to writing a recommendation - so he did a good job - but you find it unfortunate that you actually can't. Considering your recommendation would be mostly negative, I'd omit that last sentence.

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    ' "Bob was always polite in his interactions with customers" implies he was not polite with co-workers' -- That level of doublespeak is both fascinating and kind of awful. +1 for the Germany-specific insight! – Matthew Read Aug 18 '16 at 20:20
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I fully agree with Chad:

You could just ignore the request and not reply at all. That is probably the best option for bobs chances.

You do not want to impair his chances. You also don't want to spend a large amount of time writing a letter. So don't.

You have not promised anything. You could even state this entire affair is none of your concern. So don't make it your concern. Stay out of the matter. Nobody gets hurt.

Except Bob. Bob might get hurt for not having a recommendation. That's is own fault, not yours. The damage done will be by his own and will likely be the least amount given the alternative scenarios.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Aug 19 '16 at 10:33
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I see one other option - you could try reaching out to Bob and telling him you don't think you'd be a good recommendation for him, as his performance wasn't at a level you were aiming for. (Presumably he knows this already.)

I could see three outcomes:

1) This might nudge him to go back to the new company and get you off the hook somehow, perhaps by offering them a different coworker or manager from the ex-company to request a letter from. (The company might still request one from you, though, if they wonder why Bob doesn't want them to hear from you.)

2) He tells you "I understand, but I would like you to write one anyway". Then you're back where you started, but you would at least have the assurance that Bob won't be blindsided by a neutral-to-negative letter.

3) He gets upset that you won't write him a more positive letter. In that case, though, you can remind him of the performance issues he had while working for you, and tell him that due to those, he will either get a neutral-to-negative letter, or none at all. He can then choose from #1 or #2 above.

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    I like the idea of reaching out to Bob, but would begin with the issue of whether Bob told the prospective employer that the OP would write a letter. If there is a misunderstanding between Bob and Bob's potential employer, Bob should have a chance to clear it up. – Patricia Shanahan Aug 17 '16 at 15:30
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    OP doesn't have Bob's contact info – Cohen_the_Librarian Aug 17 '16 at 19:52
  • @Cohen_the_Librarian, yeah, but I don't think this was clear at the time the answer was written. In any case, it's a potentially useful alternative for others who see this question. – user45590 Aug 18 '16 at 7:39
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So you received a request from someone you haven't talked to before claiming something about Bob that they cannot even prove? There is a chance they simply read his CV and after figuring out that you worked with him decided to ask you for that recommendation without Bob's consent. This possibility is yet another reason to follow Chad's advice of not replying at all. Any reply whatsoever can only reduce Bob's chances, while the lack of a reply merely indicates that you're too busy to reply to strangers asking for something not related to your work.

1

You reach out to Bob and ask Bob what he would like you to do.

At this point, Bob deserves the benefit of the doubt, not the company. You have not seen Bob in 4 years but you have not ever worked with the company. The company may be being dishonest, or have mucked up your contact information behind Bob's back, just like Bob may have dubiously listed you as a reference. You withhold information while you surmise what is going on, and give Bob the benefit of the doubt in the meantime. You owe Bob very little, and your integrity is important (so do not write a glowing letter if that conflicts with your ethics), but you do indeed owe Bob more than the company.

This is just professional ethics. People you have worked with, you generally help, all else being equal, and I strongly suggest being a little more generous than is strictly necessary.

It should not be a challenge to find Bob's contact information. Check LinkedIn or ask other coworkers or check Facebook or check signatures on old email. If this is a little effort for you, then do it because helping Bob, who you have not seen in 4 years and you owe very little to, is the right thing to do.

Bob may have done something to put you in a difficult situation, or the company may be being dishonest. Bob is the person who can best resolve this ambiguity. If Bob dishonestly put you in this situation, express your anger with him, then work with Bob to resolve it in a way that is consistent with your integrity but not vindictive at Bob.

Once you make contact with Bob, you ask him exactly what you would like him to do, given the fact that you are not willing to write a glowing letter. Usually the not-glowing letter goes something like "I remember Bob showed up and got his work done but this was a long time ago and we did not work closely together."

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What has not been mentioned are your legal requirements under European data protection.

You are most likely not permitted to release information about an individual without their specific consent. Doing so would be a breach of data protection regulations and could leave you open to whatever the consequences of this are in Germany.

Regardless of Bob's chances, without him having given consent, you cannot do this. Given that you are unable to contact him, you should probably not even reply.

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One thing not mentioned that can apply in the U.S. and may elsewhere is one of liability.

Be careful to stick to verifiable facts as much as you can. Do not offer an opinion. Be clear in your communications so that there cannot be any confusion or misunderstanding. Be kind. Assume the best. Do no harm. Be brief. Do not elaborate.

How someone perceives your letter is their business.

Do write a letter as it is gracious and the right thing to do for those who are requesting; the company and not Bob. It is not their fault for the confusion. It is a good policy not to put them in the middle. Do what you can to be as gentle as you can be. Put as much thought into your letter as you can for the sake of everyone. Remember this is a reflection of you as much as Bob. When satisfied, then let go of the matter and let the chips fall where they may.

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  • write an honest (mostly negative) recommendation.

This, you cannot do. (Well, maybe the German language is different, but in English you cannot do this.) You can write a negative reference. However, the word "recommendation" is positive in nature. If what you're saying is truly negative, then it's not a recommendation.

  • tell them I have not been asked.
    ...
    In particular, I'm wondering how option 2 would most likely be perceived by the company.

It will seem like you are choosing not to cooperate. Some people will proactively write letters of recommendation. You're clearly communicating that you have no interest in expending effort to give Bob the favor of providing a positive recommendation. This will cause people to wonder why. If you're bothering to talk, why aren't you talking positively? It could be a sign that Bob did not generate enough goodwill, which could indicate he wasn't a great employee. It could also just be interpreted as demonstrating that you're not a very kind and considerate person, which would be more of a reflection about you than Bob. But, it could still be interpreted as Bob making a poor judgement call when deciding to make you his recommendation-giver, so, even if it communications (rightly or falsely) more about you, it still looks poor for Bob (also).

politely refuse to write a letter. That would look weird as the company thinks I agreed to write a letter.

This is one perfectly ethical option. As other answered noted, you can choose to not even respond to the request (which would essentially be a refusal to write the letter).

I do not want to write a recommendation as it is 4 years ago and Bob's performance at that time was not good.

Ultimately, the first part of your sentence indicates what you should do. You don't want to provide a recommendation? Then don't.

A person should not feel pressured to say something they don't believe. If you don't desire to praise Bob (because he doesn't deserve it), then please don't.

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My best advice to the person that originally asked this question is the best thing would be to find Bob first, if google didn't work which most times it doesn't try contacting him on facebook or the other popular social network site (my answer keeps getting rejected as spam when I mention other sites), that's usually the best places to locate ppl on the net, or maybe "Linked In" he might have a profile there since he is job searching.

Discuss with Bob what he wants you to say and tell him what you're comfortable with saying. Then politely inform him to not list you as a reference in the future without asking first.

If you cannot locate Bob then your safest bet to protect yourself legally and also not hurt Bob's chances of getting a job would be to lie to the company asking about him and say they got the wrong person, you're not the one that worked at ACME inc. with Bob and don't know or ever worked with Bob and probably just share the same name as the person he referenced.

If they say he gave them your contact info then reply it must've been his error when he searched for his references contact info he say your name and assumed it was the right person and put down your info. Basically you don't know him and it's no ones fault.

I don't know what the definition of "personal" recommendation is as opposed to "professional" in Germany. Does personal mean "your opinion of bob's character?" In that case you can just list his personality traits and not discuss his work performance.

I live in the USA and I managed 5 family businesses part time during the week and all 5 full time on weekends when my parents went camping out of town, this was in the 90's in a small town. I was always told you can't say anything bad about someone ever even when you do have proof. I'm not sure if we're allowed to say anything negative even with proof, here in this country that fact is generally irrelevant to most businesses and people bc even if you think you have proof why would you risk your job or your money if said evidence ends up not being held up in court? It does not benefit you to risk yourself just to hurt an ex employees chances at another job so just to be safe and protect themselves legally. The general rule is never say anything negative when asked to give a reference for an ex employee. I've never bothered to look into if it's legal to say with proof because it almost never happens and people rarely ever do it because it's a risk with no reward and not a smart thing to do in the first place so it's always been irrelevant for me to know if it's legal to do with proof here or not.

We basically would just give a general description of their job title and responsibilities, if they were great and we liked them we'd say all the great things we want about them but if we didn't like them then we would use phrases like "Performance was adequate or average", we don't comment on attendance issues due to the many laws such as "Americans with disabilities act", "Family medical leave act", etc that there may be parts of the laws we may be ignorant of or don't know so no one comments on attendance and I've never been asked by any other company or any third party background investigators some companies hire to check applicant resumes.

BUT, on the other hand, not everyone follows these common sense strategies and every once in a while you will come across someone who is ignorant of the laws and/or has intense anger and wants to hurt the ex employee and will bad mouth them anyway, then theres some that know the laws but will bad mouth someone they don't like anyway because they know there is very little chance that what they said would get back to the ex employee being referenced because if you don't get hired for a job 9 times out of 10 you just never hear from the company you applied at ever again or rarely if they're polite you may get a form letter in the mail letting you know that the position has been filled but the company would never admit that they didn't hire you due to a bad reference or something bad someone said about you as that would put the company at risk of being sued by both the applicant and the reference.

A lot of USA is small towns where everyone knows everyone though and sometimes a reference can use codes and slang to tell a potential employer that the employee was a bad employee to protect their town's other business owners and their own reputations. Small businesses in small towns sometimes do have to secretly answer honestly and still protect themselves from legal problems. If you call from a small town business to another small business in the same town and the employee you're enquiring about was a very bad employee and the reference doesn't tell you to protect you and you lose a ton of money on this employee then the reference giver now has a bad reputation and will not be trusted dealing with other businesses in town in the future and a bad reputation in a small town could destroy your business and drive you to shut down.

But on the other hand, it is a small town so if someone calls asking for a reference you don't know that the person calling could be a close friend or family member of the employee they're asking about so if you say anything negative and they tell the employee then the employee can sue the reference, so it's usually coded using slang or words and phrases that can be easily twisted in court if sued.

For instance I once called another salon from mine to ask about an applicant and was told "She has sticky fingers." I don't know what all countries use that phrase but here it means someone is a thief and will steal product or money. But if they were taken to court they could easily protect themselves with the defense it was taken out of context or the person asking didn't hear the beginning part where I said "She eats marshmallows for lunch everyday" and only heard the end of the sentence saying "and she has sticky fingers." and the case would get thrown out and no one in trouble, so the local business owner can still protect their reputation using codes or coded phrases and still protect themselves from legal problems.

I've also spent a decade working for large national corporations and pretty much large corporations usually always have the same procedure in regards to reference checks. They are only allowed to be given from human resources unless a specific employee is listed to be the one asked. Most times the HR dept will be in a different building and not know most of the employees personally and they are only allowed to verify that the person worked there, their job title and/or duties, and the dates they worked there.

Even if the employee was fired pretty much all HR personal are taught and instructed not to answer or reveal if the employee was terminated or even if they quit on their own and if asked are trained to say "We do not reveal reasons for why they left the company, we can only provide you with a start and end date."

While we do have laws against providing negative info in references, it is VERY VERY rare to ever see a court case regarding a bad reference. In my experience I've only seen one which involved rival families from rival businesses and I'll call them the "fake employee" applied for the job not actually wanting it to purposely have their family member bait the reference into giving a bad review on purpose so they could tell the "fake employee" what their ex employer said about them so they can sue and the family member that called to ask for the reference could be a witness to what was said. When the judge found out the relationships between all the parties involved the case was thrown out, no one won, no one lost. I believe the judge threatened the possibility of fraud charges the "fake employee" could be charged with, but it was so long ago I don't remember if they got in trouble for fraud afterwards or not.

I'm sorry I don't live in Germany but I hope I have helped you or anyone else in this situation in the future, in any country it is best to just use the strategy I described corporate hr deptartments using just to be safe and protect yourself. Don't take risks where no reward is involved.

protected by Jane S Aug 19 '16 at 4:40

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