I bet you remember the first time someone asked you if he or she could list you as a reference. Mostly because before that person made the request, you probably assumed reference checks were the kind of thing only serious executives were asked to do. So, if you’re anything like me, you were very, very flattered and happily obliged.
But, after you got that first request, you might have noticed that a lot of people started asking you to be their reference. The only problem? Some of those people weren’t really that awesome at their jobs. Or they were awesome at their jobs, but they weren’t very nice to you.
In any case, it’s really, really awkward to turn people down, especially when you know they’re in the middle of an important interview process. So, instead of just caving and making up some nice things to say to the hiring manager, you should start with step one.
Step 1: Say No
I know this sounds like the complete opposite of “nice.” But, I’m not suggesting that you be so blunt, that you make that person cry. I am saying, however, that it’ll be easier on both of you if you just get to the point as quickly as possible. In fact, I’d argue it’s actually less professional to lead that not-so-awesome person on for an extended period of time, especially when you know he or she should be asking someone else who could really speak to his or her qualifications.
Hey, I get it. It’s really uncomfortable to tell someone that you don’t think he or she’s awesome. It’s even more uncomfortable to tell him or her that you also won’t tell someone else this. However, it only gets worse if you try to dance around the issue by saying, “Well, I could, I guess, but I shouldn’t, and therefore I will surely take the call, I guess.” Or worse, not responding at all, hoping it’ll blow over.
Instead, if you’re replying by email, simply craft your message around the idea that, “Based on our previous experience working together, I really don’t think I’m the right person to speak to your qualifications.” Usually that one tiny sentence says enough to end the conversation. Disaster averted.
However, if that person insists on a lengthy explanation, save yourself a lot of headaches and refer to the next step.
Step 2: Get on the Phone if the Person Keeps Asking
The great thing about email is it allows you to be really thorough without doing a whole lot of typing. The problem with both is that there’s no clear end to a conversation, which can make things difficult when you’re trying to get out of being someone’s reference.
So, as controversial as this might sound, consider using your phone as an actual phone to solve this problem. And yes, I know the idea of setting aside time to talk to someone you just rejected sounds horrible. But, not only does an actual phone call allow you to go into more detail about why you’d prefer not to be a reference, but there’s also a clear ending. However, do note that when I say go into more detail, I don’t mean list out every single grievance you have with this person.
Instead, just elaborate on your original reason. “I don’t think we worked together closely enough for me to speak to your strengths” becomes, “As you know I worked mostly with Christina, and while I enjoyed doing that project together last fall, I don’t recall the details well enough to elaborate on them in a reference call. I wouldn’t be able to say anything about it besides confirming that we worked on it together.”
If you want to make it even more obvious that you only have a certain amount of time to talk, create an event on both of your calendars and be firm about sticking to that time. Just be careful: If someone’s desperate enough to get on the phone with you, he or she probably thinks you can be swayed. So go into this knowing your reasoning. Be firm, be repetitive with your chosen talking point, and be willing to cut it short if the person keeps pushing. It’s better to end it quickly than to be placed in a defensive position.
Step 3: Be Honest With the Employer if You’re Listed Anyway
This is rare, but it does happen. And when it does, it’s very awkward. If you can relate to this, I wouldn’t be surprised if you just took the call and spoke glowingly about that not-so-awesome person because, what else were you supposed to do?
I’ve urged you to be fairly honest throughout this entire article, and that won’t stop here. If an employer calls to talk about someone you wouldn’t recommend to dog-sit, let alone work for a company, don’t be afraid to say that you don’t feel you’d be a good reference for the candidate. That’s honestly the only thing you have to (and should) say. You don’t owe anyone any explanations.
Although this might seem uncomfortable, remember that you’ve already told this person he or she shouldn’t list you. So, if this happens, don’t feel obligated to make up any white lies.
I know it’s tempting just to be nice and say yes to everyone who asks you to be a reference. But put yourself in the hiring manager’s shoes—if someone misled you about a candidate you ended up hiring, you’d be pretty upset. So do your best to remain honest throughout the entire process. And odds are that unless this person’s totally at a loss for references, you’ll never get to step three.
Richard Moy is a Content Marketing Writer at Stack Overflow. He has spent the majority of his career in talent management, including a stint as a full-cycle recruiter and hiring manager. In addition to the career advice he contributes to The Muse, he also writes test prep and higher education marketing content for The Economist. Say hi on Twitter @rich_moy.More from this Author