Career Advice

‘Sorry, But…’ How to Say No to Being a Reference for a Colleague

Young woman working at laptop in cafe

Giving and getting references coworkers is a normal and healthy part of the workplace experience. If you’re lucky, you’re on a team of high performers who are good at what they do and who make it easy to say so – you’ve seen their work, you’ve seen their commitment, and you feel like you’re earning good professional karma to let references know that.

But what about coworkers who, for some reason or other, don’t stand out quite as much?

You don’t want to misrepresent their skills or disposition to a potential interviewer, and you certainly don’t want to risk your reputation or integrity by recommending someone you can’t vouch for. And to top it all off, often the people you don’t want to provide a reference for can be people who are hard to say no to – either they won’t take it well, or they’ll insist you do it despite your reservations.

Are you stuck saying “Yes!” to this question no matter who asks it? Absolutely not. Here are three ways you can get around – or get away from – giving a reference for a coworker:

1. “I’d love to speak to your ability to manage budgets, but I can’t speak to your client management work.”

Yes, your first instinct is that you can’t recommend your coworker because you haven’t been impressed with the quality of his work. But before you say so, reflect on whether or not you could recommend your coworker for any particular skill. Have you been impressed by any one project or contribution? Are they really good at one task, even if they aren’t good at others? It’s okay to focus on that!

As much as we all pass around glowing reviews, nobody’s perfect. If you feel confident recommending one or two particular skills in your coworker, that may be a good middle ground for providing a professional reference as long as you let them know in advance what you plan to say. For example, you can explain that you’d be happy to speak to your coworker’s ability to manage a budget or bargain with vendors, but you couldn’t go into specifics about other skills. Then leave the ball in their court as to whether that would help or hinder their chances for a particular job.

2. “I haven’t been in a position to see your best work.”

There are two reasons most people decline to be a coworker’s reference: either you know for a fact they don’t do good work, or you can’t be sure they do good work. If you’re not comfortable telling someone the former (and honestly, who would be?), it’s alright to emphasize the latter, that – lacking oversight over how they do their job – you wouldn’t feel confident being the main contact for a prospective employer.

When the time comes to navigate this conversation in real life, any one of the following responses will help you say “No” in a way that won’t burn the bridge:

  • I haven’t been in a position to see your best work yet
  • I haven’t been here long enough to speak to your strengths in this position
  • Or keep it simple: I’m not the best person to be a reference for you, but I’d love to…. Review your resume? Cover letter? Help you prep for the interview?

3. “I’m sorry, I can’t be reliable after hours.”

If you’ve tried to think of nice things you could say about a coworker and all that comes up is that one day last year they showed up on time, you might just need to flat out say “No.” Of course, that can be an awkward conversation, especially if you aren’t close to your coworker or if they have a reputation of being cold to people who won’t do what they ask.

If you’re worried about turning down someone with whom you need to maintain a comfortable working relationship, pin the problem on your schedule. Tell her that you’ve had a full schedule after work lately and you find you can’t reliably take or return calls. Explain that you’d feel terrible if her job offer relied on you checking and returning messages in a short time frame, so you need to decline to be a reference for this opportunity.

(And no, no matter how much time you have on your hands after work, it isn’t fibbing – if you don’t want to give someone a reference, you would indeed have difficulty making time for that call!)

No one can make you be a reference if you don’t want to be. But instead of putting off your coworker’s request  – or worse, agreeing to be a reference and then not answering the phone when the reference checker calls – be upfront about it. No matter how awkward it might feel, it’s always better – for you and for them – to let your coworker know in advance if you can’t be the best possible reference for them.


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