How to Back Out of Being a Job Reference

The WorkBuzz

In the later stages of the hiring process, it’s common for employers to ask candidates for references.

If you’re asked by a job seeker to serve as a reference, you may get a call from the employer, who will ask you some questions about the job seeker. It sounds simple enough but can become more complicated if your view of the job seeker isn’t as rosy as the job seeker may think.

If you’re asked to be someone’s job reference, but for various reasons, you don’t feel comfortable doing it, you may wonder whether you should decline or go ahead with it and give the employer your honest opinion. It’s a sticky situation, because you don’t want to cause friction between you and the requester, but you also don’t want to be put in an awkward position when faced with the employer’s questions.

The circumstances surrounding the situation may impact your decision — how well you know the person, what policies your company has about giving references, the depth of information you’ll need to provide. Yet the general consensus is that if you don’t have something nice to say, it’s probably best to say nothing at all.

“If you are approached to be a reference, but you feel you cannot speak appropriately or positively about a person’s work ethic and supporting skills, the best possible thing you can do is politely decline,” says Adrienne Tom, lead résumé strategist at Career Impressions. “If you do not feel 100 percent confident addressing someone’s work history or working style, you should never offer to be a reference for them.”

As Tom points out, references play an important role in the recruitment process and may even make or break a job offer. “Since references are a chance for employers to add to the information they learned from the candidate’s résumé and in the interview, what they find out from the references will either confirm their desire to hire the job seeker or make the decision not to extend the job offer. You do not want to be the one that prevents someone from getting a job offer simply because you don’t know them well enough or because you had a difficult working relationship to them.”

Consider your company’s policies
Sometimes, it may not be you who has the problem with giving a reference. It could be your employer. “Employees need to be aware of their employer’s policies regarding giving references,” says Keith Wolf, managing director at recruiting firm Murray Resources. “Some employers prohibit their employees from giving negative references, while a growing number of companies restrict giving any information at all, other than confirming the former employee’s dates of employment. Beyond the legal implications, it comes down to a matter of preference.”

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