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Q: How should you respond if a less-than-stellar employee asks you to provide a reference?
I’m going to start with the assumption that you don’t want to provide a reference for this person, in which case: Don’t. Simple. I grant you permission to ignore them.
If the requestor can’t read between the lines, is desperate, or if you’re the kind of person who loses sleep over an ignored request (gasp!), consider blaming HR. You know you do it all the time anyway. Claim there’s a policy that prevents you from providing a reference. If they check the guidebook and find no such policy, say it’s a “practice.” That’s a magic word. A get-out-of-jail-free card. A practice means that something isn’t a rule, but is a typical expectation or behavior. Sneaky? Perhaps. But it works.
If you feel compelled to write something, then my recommendation goes from “Don’t” to “Don’t lie.” A good hiring manager will hear what is and isn’t being said in your reference.
Get as much information about the position and qualifications beforehand. Find out exactly what the role is and what characteristics or experience you’re vouching for. If you’re asked to address areas of weakness, push back. Focus your reference on the positive points that are most relevant to the prospective role and be silent on the rest. And be prepared for questions like, “Would you rehire this person?” and “What did this person struggle with most?” These surprise attacks can throw you, so plan ahead.
If you remember nothing else, remember this: No matter how you respond, it will impact your reputation.