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How to say “no” to a request for reference

I said “no” to a request for reference for the first time. How did I do it?

There were two emotions at play, when it came to the reference request.

The first emotion was one of guilt. I was felt guilty about not being able to support an ex-colleague in their next step.

The second was an emotion of hypocrisy. I had been previously rejected for a reference request, and the response was pretty negative on their part. In retrospect, the rejection was for valid reasons, but the way the rejection arrived in my inbox was pretty harsh.

Justifying “no”

Why are you saying no to this person? There are probably two reasons for this:

  1. You truly didn’t think the person was a good employee
  2. You did not spend enough time working with the person

You truly didn’t think the person was a good employee

This is the tough one. This person is reaching out to you because they trust your reference. They are certainly not reaching out to people they did NOT enjoy working with! It is this quality, your kindness and openness, that makes you a good candidate for this type of request.

The way I look at it, imagine you made a movie. It was going to get reviewed for public understanding, but only by three reviewers. Wouldn’t you want the three reviews to be the best possible reviews?

Taking it back to the reference request, if you said, “yes” to this person’s request reluctantly, imagine how the call would go with the hiring person.

Not exactly a glowing endorsement.

The other thing to remember is, this reflects poorly on you, too! If you recommend someone and they suck, it hurts your reputation.

You did not spend enough time working with the person

This is the easier reason, because the answer is simple. You can simplify your answer by simply stating that you did not work with the person long enough to provide a good endorsement to the hiring manager.

How to say “no”

In my case, I had both reasons to say no to the person, so here is how I personally did it.

Remind yourself that they didn’t earn it

Before you write your response, remind yourself that they didn’t earn it. Whether they did not spend enough time with you or were not a good employee, either way, they did not earn this reference.

Start by asking about their new job

Lead with some interest in their new job and ask more questions. Where are they looking? What are they looking to do with their new job?

Provide a very brief response

Keep your “no” brief and avoid including reasons or openings for response back.

Just say you don’t think you have enough experience working with the person to provide a good recommendation.

Wish them luck

Finally, wish them luck with their future endeavors. You are not a monster for saying, “no,” you are just an honest person.

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