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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

Just Say No: Your Guide to Turning Down a Reference Request

Have you ever had a friend or colleague ask you to vouch for him or her—and been just not comfortable doing so?

Maybe he spends most of the morning checking Facebook, calls in sick with a frequency that would alarm an infectious disease doctor, or couldn’t manage his way out of a paper bag.

Whatever the reason, once you’re put in that awkward position, what do you do?

Everyone likes to be helpful, and when you place yourself in the other person’s shoes, of course you’d love all the support you could get. But still, is it worth risking your professional reputation for someone who starts playing Clash of Clans on her cell phone under her desk once it hits 4 PM? Or, should you stick your neck out for your friend’s boyfriend whom you don’t really know?

I’ve been put in this situation myself, and, admittedly, I didn’t handle it well (more on that in a bit!). So I was thrilled to speak with Jodyne Speyer, empowerment guru and author of Dump ’Em: How To Break Up With Anyone From Your Best Friend to Your Hairdresser, who shared her strategies for dealing with this delicate matter.

Keep it Short and Simple

If you don’t know the person well, or what you do know makes you hesitant to risk your reputation by offering a recommendation, let him or her down easy, but keep it brief.

“Say something like, ‘Listen, I’m not the right person,’ or ‘I’m not the right fit for this, but good luck,’” says Speyer, who has faced this conundrum several times. “Don’t give a laundry list of reasons why you can’t do it. Just get in and get out. Be prepared for the ‘why?’ but don’t allow for any room for them to fight you on it.”

Though we often have a tendency to stress about saying no, Speyer says chances are we’re making it a bigger deal than it actually is.

“It turns out many people will say, ‘OK, no problem,’ and move on to the next person.”

If given the opportunity, the Dump ’Em expert says it’s preferable to decline via email, which allows you to choose your words carefully stick to the point.

Offer to Help in Other Ways

After letting someone know you won’t be vouching for him or her, suggest that you’d like to be of assistance in other areas—keeping an eye out for job opportunities, say, or practicing interview questions.

“Tell them you’ll keep your eyes and ears open. Let them know you’ll do something to help, but not the specific thing they asked you do to,” Speyer says.

Be Honest

OK, this route is not for the faint of heart. However, offering a “here’s why” provides a reason you’re not jumping in to assist and also gives your contact an idea of how his or her behavior is perceived by others.

When a friend who desperately wanted to move into Speyer’s apartment building asked her to write a letter on her behalf, the “just-say-no” maven found herself at a crossroads.

“I remember wanting to hang up the phone and blame it on a lost connection, because I soooo didn’t want to have that conversation,” Speyer recalls. “I didn’t want to be the one to ruin her chance, so I took a deep breath and said that I was sorry but I felt uncomfortable doing it. I told her I had a really great relationship with my landlord and didn’t want to jeopardize that relationship, and to be honest, I knew money was tight for her at the time, and she had already shared with me that she had been late paying rent, and I couldn’t in good faith do that to my landlord, a man who had been so good to me. And then I did the, ‘I’m sure there’s someone better suited to write the letter for you.’ Although disappointed, she said she understood.”

Tell a White Lie

Now for my moment of truth: Several years ago, an editor of mine was laid off. Shortly after he was let go, he asked a few former colleagues and me to write letters of recommendations for him. Taking an “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything” approach, we ignored his email, hoping he’d blamed our silence on a cyberspace glitch rather than realize he’d been an absentee manager whom we found largely ineffective.

I’m not proud of handling it that way and, as Speyer notes, it would have been an appropriate time to tell a white lie.

“You could say something like, ‘My plate is so full right now. It’ll probably be forever before I get to it,’” she explains.

Blaming a busy schedule is an easy way to address it if you want to be nice but also clear that a recommendation won’t be coming any time soon.

Focus on the Positive

Of course, there are likely cases in which you absolutely can’t refuse (think: family member or in-law). And in that case, write the recommendation or go into the reference conversation concentrating on the person’s positive traits.

“I’m not a fan of speaking poorly about someone,” Speyer says, “so if a question comes up that would cause you to say something negative, re-route the conversation or deflect.”

While it’s never any easy situation, turning someone down gently can keep your relationship—as well as your reputation—intact.

Photo of women talking courtesy of Shutterstock.

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