There are some requests in life that are tough to refuse. For example, when an old friend is unexpectedly in town and needs a place to stay, you feel compelled to say “yes” regardless of how busy you may be, because you really can’t think of an acceptable way to say “no.”
Likewise, many people feel obligated to say “yes’ when asked to recommend or write a recommendation letter for a colleague. But what if the person requesting your endorsement is someone you don’t know very well? What if his or her performance was so unimpressive that you would be hard-pressed to come up with a single positive attribute? Or, worst of all, what if you could not—with a good conscience, anyway—recommend this person for any job?
For example, a woman recently told me about an intern she supervised for six months. He graduated from a top law school and was applauded for his writing skills, but he utterly lacked professionalism. He dressed inappropriately, cursed in the presence of managers, and was unwilling to do work that he saw as “beneath him.” The firm formally spoke to him about his behavior on several occasions, but nothing changed.
When he later asked her to recommend him for a job with a political consulting firm, she agreed. “Why would you do that?” I asked her. She replied sheepishly: “I didn’t want to burn a bridge with him.”
Unfortunately, her dishonest recommendation is likely to burn a bridge with the company who is receiving Mr. Underperformer. So here’s the question: Is it really worth the risk of attaching yourself (and your company) to someone you don’t believe in—putting your own reputation and brand on the line?
In most cases, it’s not. Of course, saying “no” is easier said than done, so here are three approaches for declining an unwelcome request.
1. Check Your Employee Handbook
Here’s the best-case scenario: Many companies have policies that forbid employees from writing recommendation letters. This means it’s time that you dust off that employee handbook and take a look—if you’re lucky, all you’ll need to say to your requestor is, “Unfortunately, our company policy forbids all employees from writing any recommendation letters, but I’m allowed to confirm your title and dates of employment with your prospective employer.”
2. Have a Personal Policy
Even if your company doesn’t issue guidelines for recommendation letters, you have every right to create your own policy. The rule here is to keep it simple, concise, and without any room for argument. If an underperforming colleague—or any colleague, really—approaches you for a recommendation, it’s fair to say something like, “I’m sorry, I don’t write recommendations due to the liability that comes with them. I hope you understand.” Untouchable.
3. Help Me Help You
If a colleague approaches you and you don’t feel like you know the person well, it’s fair to say that you’re not familiar enough with his or her work. Here’s how that could sound: “I wish I could help, but I don’t believe we worked closely enough together for me to write the glowing recommendation that you deserve.” While this does make for a difficult conversation, it also demonstrates that you have the other person’s best interest at heart.
This sort of response could also apply to a situation in which an old colleague approaches you. Rather than saying you didn’t work closely enough together, you can share that it’s been too long since you worked together for you to effectively speak about his or her work. And for an underperformer? Try a simple “I wish I could help, but I don’t think I’m the best person to speak to your abilities for this role. Best of luck.”
When you agree to host your friend at the last minute, the worst-case scenario is that you end up tired in the middle of the workday. Writing an undeserved recommendation letter, however, is not equally free of consequence. When Mr. Underperformer flounders in his next job, you didn’t just sacrifice an hour or two of your precious time—you sacrificed your reputation. Think carefully before saying “yes” to the next person who asks you for a recommendation.
That said, also keep in mind that today’s underperforming intern could be tomorrow’s boss. So, as you would in any other professional situation, proceed with tact and good judgement.