Why Giving a Professional Reference Can Be a Minefield

By: Alia Hoyt
man looking at screen
Think carefully before giving a professional recommendation to someone. Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Getty Images

Years ago, I received an email from a former employer asking for a reference for someone who worked previously for me at a different company in a temporary capacity. I politely declined at least twice, but she kept coming back at me with the request. Apparently, she was on the fence about the potential employee, and "needed my insight." I finally caved and gave her the two-sentence, watered-down version, mostly on punctuality and deadline-related issues.

Not long after I found out that she still hired the employee on a trial basis and told him that the trial period was because of an unfavorable reference. It didn't take much for the employee to put two and two together that I was the "culprit," – indeed, he said as much to others in our industry. I was absolutely floored, first because the high-level professional basically broke all the rules and ratted me out, but then that the employee would perpetuate my less-than-stellar opinion by bad-mouthing me around town.


After this experience I pledged to never again give a reference unless I could really gush about the individual in question. In my opinion, my silence should have spoken volumes. But is my revised approach what the experts recommend? I talked to a couple of human resource experts to get the scoop on how to avoid reference minefields, from the perspectives of both the former employer and employee.

Reference Tips for the Employee

1. Cultivate Relationships All Around

In this age of social media and networking platforms, it's easy for potential employees to obtain references other than those you expressly provided. In fact, many hiring professionals prefer to get information from these "backdoor references."


"Employees need to know that a hiring manager may use this method to seek information about them, so it's important to cultivate strong relationships while they're employed and to leave a job on good terms," says Greg Everett, senior recruiting manager at Randstad US. "While employees may pick and choose the references they proactively provide to a hiring manager, there's always a chance that their future employer could look beyond this carefully curated pool of references."

So, try to leave your former boss and co-workers with the best impression you can because you never know who's going to get the old reference request email. That said, it's still important to have a short list of people who are comfortable singing your praises if asked. "If an employee chooses to leave a company, they should make sure they have a mentor, supervisor, manager or peer to turn to for a strong recommendation. This way, if a future employer reaches out to someone they know in a company a candidate has worked for, they can feel confident great things will be said about them," Everett explains.

2. Make the Ask

While employers may sometimes use a "backdoor" reference, they'll always ask for some "upfront" references. It's surprising how many job candidates fail to ask their former supervisors/peers in advance if they're comfortable being used as references before supplying their names. Just because you worked for (or are friends with) someone doesn't mean they will give you a glowing recommendation. So always ask, first, if you can put someone down as a reference and, second, whether they would be able to give you a very positive recommendation.

If you would like them to write you a reference letter, Everett says that careful consideration should be given regarding whose opinion a future employer will value. "I personally prefer references from a supervisor, a subordinate (direct report) and then finally a peer," he says. This is so a potential employer can determine how well you work under, with and above people.

When you're making the ask, he adds, give the person a breakdown of the position you're applying for, to help frame the recommendation. It's also helpful to email your resume over, as well as highlighted accomplishments because this can help to jog their memory of your contributions.

However, avoid drafting a letter and asking for a signature. "As a recruiter, I can almost always tell when the candidate wrote the letter and simply had it approved by their reference," Everett explains.


Reference Tips for the Employer

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!"