How Do You Turn Down Being Someone’s Reference?

by Dino Londis

Joanna, a coder, was flat out
glad to see Rena fired. Rena’s
probationary period was ending and management had decided with a nudge or two
from Joanna to cut its losses and find someone else. Rena was dismissed because she couldn’t produce a
decent line of code and was slowing the team. Joanna knew Rena for three months and was instrumental in hiring her. They were both from the same region of the
country so there was a bit of a bond. When Rena was given notice, she turned to Joanna to act as a reference. Joanna was blindsided by the request and
reflexively said yes, but secretly hoped she didn’t get a call. She wouldn’t
know what to say.

How Do You Turn Down Being Someone's Reference?What would you do? You have two choices: Say yes or say no.

Let’s first look at No. Saying no places a value judgment on your friend or colleague’s character and work
ethic. The longer you’ve known each
other, the harder it is to say no. You may also lose a friend. No
can irrevocably damage a close relationship as it did with a Colorado
Springs blogger who:

worked with a good friend. He got laid off and asked me for a reference. I
clearly did not like his apathetic and conflict- averse work ethic so I politely
told him that I did not want to provide a reference, but no hard feelings.
Turns out he took it very personally and it
killed our friendship which has hurt me for five years now. In hindsight, I
would have told him I would give a reference and then hope the hiring manager
wouldn’t ask about his weaknesses.

Of course he took it personally. Saying you can’t share something nice about
someone puts the relationship in a new perspective. You like him but don’t respect him, or you
don’t like him enough to cross that barrier for him.

If you try to lie your way out of a
providing a reference, saying something like you weren’t qualified to write
a recommendation, you didn’t know how, or hadn’t been paying close enough
attention to know what they did, you’re lying to your colleague and
friend. But if you agree, you’re
telling a much bigger lie to the recruiter. So the consequences of a white lie to free yourself of the
recommendation (if you can get away with it) are enormous. You’ve preserved the relationship for another
day. Besides, recommending someone who isn’t qualified stirs relatively few
direct consequences. It’s not like the new firm’s HR
department is going to call you back and say, "Hey, I thought you said
Dino was good!"

So let’s be real. Like HR, IT has a fiduciary responsibility to
be ethical. We have so much personal information
at our fingertips that our ethics are paramount. Can giving a glowing recommendation to someone
we’re cold about be separated from our ethical responsibilities?  For me, it’s not an easy answer, and in part
it’s selfishness. I don’t want to burn
that bridge and I empathize to a fault with the other person. I imagine myself in their shoes.

So to answer my own question: Have your answer prepared in advance. Take the time to think about what you’d say to
a person before they pose the question. 
For example, I suggest saying yes immediately and then thinking about
it. If you find you can’t recommend
them for whatever reason, come back the next day
with some well-reasoned about arguments why you can’t. Or, you don’t necessarily need to give out your
phone number "because you don’t want recruiters calling you," but an e-mail would work. Writing an e-mail gives you the time to write something stressing your friend’s strengths.

With companies starting to
hire, people are reentering the job market and you may get this request pretty
soon. As for Joanna, she lucked
out. Rena got a job and no one ever
called.

Dino Londis is an applications management engineer in New York.

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