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How to Say 'No' to Giving a Reference or Recommendation

By Mark Wilson, Esq. on December 30, 2014 8:40 AM

We've talked about how to write good recommendations, but what happens in that awkward moment when you get a request for a recommendation from someone you really don't want to recommend? It's tough to tell a co-worker or staff member, "No, I won't recommend you or act as a reference," but on the other hand, what if you really don't think the person is qualified to do the job he or she is applying for?

This advice applies to co-workers in the unenviable position of asking for recommendations of references from other co-workers. So how do you break the news? And should you even decline a polite request like this?

First of All, Don't Give That Recommendation

Don't recommend someone you don't actually believe in just to save feelings or spare an awkward moment. There's no social obligation here. If your co-worker is really someone you wouldn't recommend, then if that person screws up in his or her next position, it may look like you have poor judgment (in the sometimes tight-knit world of local lawyers, that could be really bad). There might also be ethical concerns associated with offering an opinion that you actually don't hold.

Say It Straight

Go with the direct approach, but you can be more tactful than saying, "I wouldn't hire you in a million years." You could say, for example, that you don't think the co-worker is a good fit for the job. You really can't lead your co-worker to believe that you're equivocating on the recommendation, though. He has to know right away that you're not going to do it so that he can get someone else lined up in your stead.

You have an easier out if the co-worker is applying for something that's only tangentially related to how you interacted with him or her. "I can't really speak to your expertise in complex litigation, because you and I worked together on wage and hour complaints" is a truthful way to avoid writing that recommendation.

Easiest still is the situation in which your company doesn't allow giving normative references, limiting the information you can disseminate to objective facts like how long your co-worker worked there and what his job title was.

Surprise!

If a co-worker has put your name down for a reference without asking you first, that's a major faux pas. If you wouldn't have given a reference even if asked, you can feel more than free to tell the prospective employer something neutral like, "I'm not able to give a reference for Timmy Tiptoes," though that's kind of a mysterious statement that calls for clarification (after all, an HR person figures that if your name is down as a reference, then why can't you give a reference?). Then again, if someone is listing you as a reference without asking first, that merits suspicion.

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