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The Polite Refusal: How to Turn Down a Request to be a Work Reference

When someone asks you to be a reference for them, you may feel enthusiastic or honored. Sadly, that is not always the case; here are some tips on how to handle a difficult refusal.

Providing a job reference for a co-worker or a staff that you supervise is ideally supposed to be a positive experience for both you and the person asking for the referral. Unfortunately, there are times when you feel you cannot do that in all good consciousness. Here are some tips on how to refuse the request clearly, but politely.

1. Be Clear but Kind. Keep in mind that the person asking for the work reference believed you would be willing to provide them with a good one, so finding out that is not the case can be a surprising blow. Be mindful of their feelings. Say you do not feel comfortable providing a reference for them, and explain why, but briefly. Perhaps you believe you do not really know them or their work performance well enough to give an accurate picture to a potential employer, or maybe you have a hard and fast rule about not being a reference for anyone. Explain your reason respectfully but firmly.

2. Be Polite. If the reason you are turning down to provide a work reference is because of the person’s lackluster job performance, it is best to be honest with that person but to do so politely. You do not have to get overly specific or be cruel. Saying “I am sorry, but I do not feel that I can give you a positive job reference at this time, but I wish you good luck” should suffice. If your reluctance is due to you suspecting that the job they are interviewing for is one for which they are not qualified, you can express that, too, but can do so in a way that expresses concern for them. For example, “I am concerned that this job might not be a good fit for your skillset, but I will be happy to provide a work reference for a different job that is a better match for you” may be a good way to turn them down but preserve a civil relationship with them moving forward.

3. Suggest Alternative References if You Can. If it is possible, suggest an alternative at your organization that might be better able to recommend the job seeker than you. This approach works particularly well if the reason you are turning them down is that you do not feel you know them or their work performance well enough. If you know of someone in the office who feels more positively about their work performance, suggest that person. Or recommend that they use someone from the Human Resources Department to serve as their reference, as they will typically focus more on the length of their employment, compensation rates, and attendance rather than performance.

4. Be Firm. Once you have decided to turn down the request, stick to it, even if the person persists, begs you to change your mind, or even argues with you. Your first instinct in a situation like this is most often the right one. Keep in mind that providing a reference for someone puts your reputation on the line, too, and if you genuinely do not feel they are a good employee, you do not want to give a work reference.

In summary, when you do not want to give a work reference for whatever reason, be clear and firm, and be kind at the same time. Also, you may politely suggest alternative references if you can to preserve your relationships.

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