When a Bad Co-worker Wants a Reference: Ask HR Guy

by | March 10, 2009

Dear HR Guy,
An ex-colleague was 'let go' from our department in a recent staff cut. She has been having trouble finding another job, and has asked me if I minded giving her a reference--I was soft-hearted and said, "fine." The thing is, she wasn't very good at her job, or any of the other tasks she was given. What can I say?

Thanks!
Too nice

Dear Too Nice:
Offering to give someone a reference is a serious matter and shouldn't be taken lightly. In the future, if you feel you cannot objectively give a reference, tell the person you wish you could give her a reference, but since you never supervised her work and you can't offer an honest assessment.

However, since you have already agreed, my advice is to not ever lie. Instead, be general and be honest, and say things like, "She was very nice and I (if you did) enjoyed working with her." When pressed, say you didn't supervise her work, so you are unable to assess it. If you can, say things like she was punctual and always neat and orderly; she had a good disposition and was fun to be with. Remember, don't ever lie. Keep it short and general.

If you are an HR professional, you should also remember that your organization may have certain rules about the type of information that can be given out regarding current or former employees. Many companies only verify information such as dates of employment, salary, and title. If this is the case with you, be careful, especially since you will probably called upon during the workday to give this reference. Since your former colleague asked you to be a reference, I'm sure she is thinking of this as a personal recommendation from someone she used to work with. However, if you are called while on the job and asked about a former employee, it could be construed that you are in your "official" capacity as an HR manager at company XYZ, so whatever you say should conform to your company's established guidelines.

Good luck and hopefully you may have learned something for the future....

HR Guy

Filed Under: Job Search


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