How to Decline a Reference Request

Embarking on a job hunt can be stressful and overwhelming, but what if you get pulled into one and you’re not the job seeker? That’s what happens to job references who get that email, phone call or letter requesting a reference for a former colleague, co-worker or subordinate.

When you can vouch for the work of someone, providing a reference is an honor and a duty you perform in the interest of the person who asked. But what do you do if the person who asks didn’t do good work?

Should You Give the Reference?

When you’re asked to be a reference, the first thing you need to decide is whether or not you are willing to give one. Here are a few things to think about when you’re asked to be a reference for someone you don’t want to refer:

  • Your reference will reflect on you. If you give a good reference and the candidate doesn’t live up to your description, it reflects on your professional reputation. 
  • Your reference would help someone get a job for which they aren’t suited. If you give a good reference and the candidate isn’t a good fit for the job or doesn’t have the personal qualities necessary for the position, it’s just a matter of time until they’re on the job hunt again because they won’t last long in the position.  
  • Declining a reference can be a good opportunity for the job candidate. If you decline and feel comfortable providing reasons why, this can be a great opportunity for the job candidate to gain insight into their performance and make changes that positively affect their career.
  • Declining the reference doesn’t have to be an insult. There are many reasons people decline to be references, so don’t feel pressure that everything rests on your shoulders. It’s well within your right to decide against being someone’s reference, and the person can still move on to get the job.

How to Decline Being a Reference

Deciding not to give a reference can feel awkward, but there are several ways you can do so without creating a lot of drama or losing a friend or ally:

  • If you don’t want to give a reference because your feedback is neutral, let them know that it is an inconvenient time for you and you are unable to be a reference for them. Or, if this is the case, let them know that you don’t know enough about their performance to provide the kind of reference they need. Indicate that you don’t want it to reflect badly on them; you simply aren’t able to fulfill the requirements right now.  
  • If you don’t want to give a reference because your feedback is negative, let them know that you want them to be successful but that you are not in a position to give the best possible reference. Ask that they connect with someone else who could speak to their positive qualities. If you want to give specific feedback you can indicate that you can’t provide a reference because of [X behaviors] you witnessed on the job, sharing the examples in a polite, factual way.

Saying “no” is notoriously hard, but in this case it is in the best interest of both your reputation and the reputation of the person applying for the job. If you ever feel pressured to be a reference despite your polite refusal, respond with a firm, “I’m sorry, but my answer is no.”

Have you ever declined to be someone’s reference? What did you say, and how did it go?