If you're applying for a job—or college or graduate school—you may be asked to submit a letter of recommendation letter. A negative recommendation letter can cost you your dream job. Even a recommendation letter that's lukewarm about you can damage your ability to land a job or get accepted to a program.
A negative recommendation letter will hurt you far more than no recommendation letter at all.
Here's how to recognize the characteristics of a negative recommendation letter. Plus, get tips on who to ask to write a recommendation letter—and some tip-offs that the letter writer may pen something that's less than flattering or isn't a solid endorsement of your abilities.
Who to Ask for a Reference
If you think someone won’t give you a positive recommendation, look for a different option. Some people you can consider asking instead are other managers you have worked with at your current company, more senior colleagues, and previous managers.
You could also ask for a character reference instead of a professional reference. It's also appropriate to ask teachers and professors, particularly if you are applying to college or graduate school.
Ask people who know you well, and think of you positively.
If your current employer or manager is unwilling or unable to write you a positive recommendation letter, find someone else who can.
You want to make your choice carefully. Some people will decline to provide a reference, if they don't have much positive to say. But some people may feel awkward about telling you that they don't feel comfortable giving you a positive reference, and will agree despite their reservations.
Ask your reference if they feel comfortable writing you a letter of recommendation, as well as if they have enough time to write you a letter. That will give the person an easy way to decline if for some reason they do not feel comfortable writing a positive recommendation letter.
Make the Task Easy for Your Reference
Since you are asking your recommendation writer for a favor, be prepared to make their work as easy as possible. Here's how:
- Provide reference letter samples they can use.
- Share a copy of your resume, as well as the job advertisement—this will help provide your recommender with useful background information.
- Let the letter writer know if there are any specific points you'd like emphasized.
- Be specific about what you need—share details on who to address the letter to, the name of the company and the position you're applying to, the timing, and so on.
- Offer to reciprocate when they next need a recommendation letter.
A little extra effort on your part to ensure your letter of recommendation is a positive one will be well worth it when you get an invitation to interview from multiple companies.
Recommendation Letter Flags to Watch For
Remember that negative recommendation letters will rarely come out and say that you were a terrible employee and that your current company is excited to see you leave.
The rules for recommendation letters require a certain level of formality, so reference writers who don't think you should be hired won't say so directly.
Instead, they'll convey their lack of enthusiasm for working with you and the hiring manager will be able to understand what the recommendation letter writer is really saying. Or, they might be very neutral in their tone. In the context of a recommendation letter, that'll come across as a lack of endorsement for your candidacy.
It's important to check with your reference letter writers in advance to be sure they can give you a positive endorsement.
Sample Negative Recommendation Letter
To Whom It May Concern:
Jane Doe reported to me for two years while working as a Customer Service Associate at ABCDE Corporation. She did a capable job in some areas. However, in other facets of her position, especially in customer relations, retraining and supervision were required.
Ms. Doe's services are no longer needed by our company, though we wish her well in all her future endeavors.
If I can provide you with any further information, please feel free to contact me at (111) 111-1111.
John Smith Manager
How to Handle a Negative Reference
While negative recommendation letters are important to avoid, having one doesn't mean your job search is over. One of the best things you can do in the case of a bad recommendation letter which has already been seen is to explain the situation to the company you're applying to. Perhaps it was a case of incompatibility or unclear communication about expectations.
Regardless of the circumstances, you should be sure to acknowledge your share of responsibility for the situation and explain what you would do to produce better results should the same situation arise again.
Doing so shows a sense of responsibility and maturity, both of which are valuable assets in an employee. You should also gather as many positive recommendation letters as possible. One bad recommendation seems less worrisome to an HR department when it's included in a bundle of glowing references.