1. Don't Feel Obligated to Give One
Providing an employee reference depends on your company's policies, as well as your personal comfort level. Some companies refuse reference requests altogether, opting instead to only verify first and last dates of employment. So, before you give a reference, familiarize yourself with your employer's particular policy.
Jake Penney is the head of human resources for English Blinds, located in the United Kingdom. "As an HR professional, I have worked for more than one company that had a blanket policy on not providing bad references for ex-employees, with very little leeway on this!" he explains in an email. "The only loopholes were if an employee had been convicted of an offence (such as workplace theft) in which case we were permitted to state that they stole from us and that this was proven, and/or to detail their exact manner of leaving the company, i.e., 'was let go and another person placed within their role,' or 'resigned to avoid dismissal,'" he says.
It is also true in the U.S. that a former employer can say that someone was fired for stealing, assuming this is proven fact (e.g., the employee was caught in the act.) But because of the legal ramifications with this, most employers will just provide names and dates of employment.
Even if your company permits references, it's 100 percent OK to dodge the chore if you don't want to do it. "If the person being asked for a reference doesn't feel comfortable providing a recommendation, they should politely respond and let the candidate know out of respect they decline," Everett says.
If the person asks why you are declining, you can be honest with them and tell them you have some hesitations (name them if you feel comfortable) and so it would be better for them to find someone who can sing their praises.
2. Honesty Is the Best Policy
If you do want to give the reference and your employer allows it, then go for it! A positive reference can go a long way to helping someone land that next job. "Those providing a professional reference are free to say anything they honestly believe about the individual. The law protects individuals from lawsuits for defamation, as long as they are being honest," Everett says. You can ask the employee to refresh your memory about past achievements as well as specific skills to highlight in your reference.
But don't feel pressure to be all rainbows and sunshine. "A reference should highlight the strengths of an employee, but the person providing the reference can and should be honest," Everett explains. "The employee or former employees requesting a reference should already know where they stand with you. And while you should make an effort to understand the role they're applying for, as well as what skills and experiences they bring to the table, you shouldn't feel obligated to follow a script. After all, the hiring manager or recruiter is looking for your honest opinions about the candidate."
Still, those who wish to avoid potential conflict can do so by declining specifics. This can be helpful when you're caught off guard with an unexpected reference call about a less-than-stellar former employee. "A lack of comment or refusal to comment can be hugely enlightening for the person asking the question, without placing the company making the comment at risk," Penney says. "For instance, if asked about the timekeeping skills of someone who was perpetually late, stating that 'we're unable to provide a comment on this subject due to company policies' or a simple 'no comment' is often much more damning than throwing the employee under the bus in exact terms, even when this might be warranted!"