Skip to main contentA logo with &quat;the muse&quat; in dark blue text.
Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

How to Give a Reference (When You're Least Expecting It)

You get a call from a hiring manager who would like to know if you’ll provide a reference for a former intern or employee. But this isn’t your typical reference call, and to be honest, you’re not sure how to answer—because you’ve been totally blindsided.

For starters, you didn’t know you that you were being listed as a reference. Heck, you didn’t even know your connection was looking to change jobs, or volunteer—or whatever it is the person on the other side of the phone is calling to inquire about.

Of course, someone shouldn’t just assume you’ll serve as a reference. What if she misjudged the relationship, and you would have turned her down? Not to mention she’s missing her chance to really prepare you.

But it happens: It’s happened to me, it’s happened to managers I know, and someday it may happen to you. And while you may be thinking, “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” you’ll probably want to say something more diplomatic to the person on the line. Here’s how to handle this situation based on your relationship with the applicant.

If You Want to Give a Stellar Recommendation

Strategy: Answer Broadly

When I was a fellowship program manager, I had a fellow I’ll call Jane. Jane was awesome: She was brilliant, she did everything I asked of her (even volunteer assignments), she worked at a super-demanding organization that loved her—she even had perfect posture.

Well, one day I get a call from a mentoring program that matches professionals with inner-city youth. Jane had listed me as a reference, and the company had several specific questions that went beyond “What do you think of Jane?” I was asked if she was right for the [mystery] role, as well as to discuss her experience working with minority youth.

If Jane had prepped me, I would have had relevant answers—but I had no idea that she’d even applied. I couldn’t admit that: It would have made her look at best presumptuous and at worst irresponsible (which isn’t really mentoring material).

So, I gave a reference that was truthful—and broad. For example, to answer whether I thought she could do the job, I responded that she was a competitive runner and had more drive than just about anyone I’d ever met (true—and applicable whether she was applying to be a systems analyst or connect with an elementary school student). When asked about her experience with diversity, I discussed her interactions with our board members and explained that our board of directors had age and gender diversity (again, broad and a bit tangential, but true).

If you find yourself in this situation, give honest, widely applicable answers that paint the candidate in a positive light. For example, great communication skills and dependability are always positives. But recounting the story of someone locking himself in his office to complete his work—while you think it shows persistence and hard work—probably wouldn’t come off as well if he’s applying for a client-facing role.

If You’re Not Comfortable Serving as a Reference

Strategy: Answer Specifically (Then Punt)

It’s one thing when a former employee neglects to mention that he put you down as a reference, because he had asked you four times over the past four months, and he didn’t want to overwhelm you with (yet another) email regarding an application he submitted. It’s a completely different story when someone misjudges your relationship and has never asked you to serve as a reference—because if he had, you would have declined. You don’t want to sink someone’s candidacy, but your credibility is at stake.

Hopping off the phone (because you’re “late for a meeting”), without saying anything and never calling back is like pulling an emergency lever: You can do this if you have nothing nice to say, but it should be the last resort.

Instead, see if you can’t first say one nice thing before you get off the phone—and make it super specific. Here’s how it works: Say someone listed you because you have name recognition, but you’ve only have a few interactions at industry events. The hiring manager calls and asks you to if you think he’d be a good marketing manager. Try this: “Each time I’ve spoken with Mark, I’ve been impressed with his ability to shift between small talk and discussing market trends.” Then, say you have to run.

The brevity of your review implies that you’re not a close connection, but you managed to say something nice—and true—so everybody wins (as much as they could in this given situation). If you really don’t know (or think highly of) the person in question, be as brief as possible: “Unfortunately, I don’t feel I know Mark’s work well enough to provide a reference. Sorry I can’t be more helpful!” That’s much preferable to, “We’ve only met twice,” or worst of all, “Who?”

No matter what, as soon as you get off the phone with the hiring manager, you need to contact the applicant. First, he’ll be glad to know his references are being checked! But beyond that, you need to fill him on what the call was like from your perspective.

For the candidate you’re close with, try something like, “I want to give you the highest recommendation possible. I did the best I could, but in the future, please let me know when you’d like to list me as a reference so that I’m better prepared.”

And for the candidate you barely know? Be candid. “I was surprised to be contacted as a reference, as I don’t remember us ever discussing it. Unfortunately, I don’t feel I know you well enough to give as strong a reference as you deserve. So, I’d appreciate it if you’d refrain from listing me in future.”

It’s an honor to listed as reference: It means the candidate trusts you to speak to a prospective employer. But, he or she should ask first—and you may decline as necessary.

Photo of person on phone courtesy of Shutterstock.