How to say no to a reference request without offending

By Robert Half on 13 July 2018

Are you in a situation where you’ve received a reference request from a former work colleague, or someone who’s a friend?

Of course, if they’re hard workers and good at what they do, feel free to give them a glowing reference.

But what do you do if, for one reason or another, you can’t recommend them?

This is a really difficult situation and one that you need to handle with care. To help, this blog looks at some of the reasons why you should decline a reference request and shares tips on how to say no politely, without causing offence.

3 reasons to decline a reference request

Writing a reference, creating a recommendation on LinkedIn, or talking to a prospective employer over the phone is a great way to help someone secure their new job.

But you shouldn’t feel obligated to provide a reference for someone if you don’t feel 100% comfortable with it. In some cases, you may just have a gut feeling that you don’t want to provide a reference.

Here are three important instances when you should certainly think twice about providing a reference:

1. You haven’t worked with that person for very long

If you don’t feel you know the person well enough and don’t have enough information to pass comment on their skills, don’t feel like you must provide a reference.

You run the risk of your answers being vague, which won’t provide them with any benefit.

2. You know they’re not a strong candidate

Have you had bad experiences with the person, or do you feel they don’t merit a positive reference? Perhaps they’ve been turning up for work late and leaving early, they’re not a true team player, or have bad work ethics.

Of course, you could give them a negative review, but sometimes it’s best to stick to the saying, “If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

3. HR policies at your company forbid you

Some businesses have rules in place around providing references. If you receive a reference request, make sure you check your employee handbook first, to avoid getting yourself into any hot water for conflicts of interest.

How to say no without causing offence

It’s not always a comfortable situation having to say no to someone. In fact, it’s a skill that many people lack or avoid all together.

Make sure you think through your response carefully first though, to avoid causing any upset or offence. If you’re unsure how to say no, here are some things you could consider saying, along with some tips to help make it easier for you:

When you don’t know the person well enough, it can be tempting to just ignore their request. However, make sure you respond promptly, so they have time to formulate another plan. To turn them down politely, you could write: “I’m sorry, I don’t feel I have worked with you long enough to provide you with an accurate and thorough recommendation, but I wish you all the best with your job hunt”.

If you know the person well, but feel you can’t give a positive recommendation, you should explain that you don’t think you’re the right person to do it. Where possible, respond to the request in writing. This will give you a chance to pick your words carefully. Be clear and concise, so you don’t allow any room for them to persuade you otherwise. Be professional too – there’s no need to be negative and this isn’t the right time to highlight all their shortfalls. Here’s an example of what you could write: “I don’t think I am the best person to write you a recommendation, but I’m sure there’s someone much better suited to speak about you.”

If you can’t provide a reference due to company policies, explain that to them. They’ll understand your hands are tied. If you feel bad about saying no, perhaps ask if there is anything else you could do to help them. For example, you could suggest you look out for job opportunities for them, read over their CV or provide some career advice. Here’s a suggested response you could write: “I’m sorry, it’s our company policy not to write recommendations. I hope you understand. If there’s anything else I could do to help, please let me know”.

Knowing how to say no is an important skill and one that is vital to master in your career.

Remember, you’re under no obligation to give a reference, so stick with your decision, reply promptly and always remain professional.

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