Tips for Turning Down a Reference Request

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What can you do if you are asked to write a recommendation letter or to provide a reference for someone that you don't want to recommend? Perhaps you have been unimpressed with the person’s job skills, teamwork, or work ethic. Perhaps you simply don’t know them well enough to describe their work performance effectively. In any case, it's better to turn down the request than it is to endorse someone you're not comfortable providing a recommendation for.

There is never an obligation to give someone a reference. If you can't honestly attest to the person's qualifications and skills in a positive and enthusiastic manner, it's better to opt out of providing a reference for them.

There are ways to politely and diplomatically decline the request without offending the person who asked you. The trick is to do so without making your refusal sound like a personal criticism or a professional rejection.

How to Decline a Reference Request

If you are asked to write or give a recommendation and do not feel comfortable doing so, here are a few ways to politely but directly say no.

What to Say When You Don't Know the Person Well

If someone asks for a reference, and you do not know the person very well or you don't feel comfortable recommending them, you can simply say, "I am sorry, but I do not feel that I know you well enough (or I have not worked with you long enough) to provide you with an accurate and thorough recommendation."

If the person pursues the matter, simply explain that your integrity and professional brand is on the line with each recommendation you make, and you simply do not feel comfortable writing the recommendation.

What to Say When You Don't Want to Provide a Reference

If you know the person well, but do not feel you can give them a positive recommendation, you can simply say, "I do not feel I would be the best person to write you a recommendation," and perhaps provide a suggestion for another person they could ask.

Don't feel bad about saying no. Sometimes it is difficult to find a way to politely decline the request, but you would appreciate candor if someone you asked for a recommendation were to decline. It's better not to give a recommendation at all than it is to give a wishy-washy one or even a negative reference, which some people do without considering how it will impact the individual, professionally or psychologically, who asked them.

What to Do When Human Resources Policies Prohibit Reference Letters

It’s a sad fact that there is a growing tendency, in our litigious society, for companies to establish policies that forbid the granting of references and recommendations to personnel. These no-reference policies have been developed because of the many cases where employees have sued an employer for providing them with a negative reference.

Check with your organization’s Human Resources department to see if such a policy has in fact been put in place. If so, you can explain to the person asking for the recommendation that the only information that you would be allowed to provide them with would be confirmation of their job title, employment dates, and salary history. Thus, it would be in their best interest if they could find someone else to provide a reference for them. 

Letter Samples Rejecting a Recommendation Request

Here are sample letters and email messages you can use as models to decline the request.

As always when using these sample letter examples, be sure to tailor the letter to reflect your own circumstances and tone of expression. Remember, also, to be considerate and measured in the language you use when refusing a reference – it should in no way level criticism of the person making the request.

Always use “I” statements rather than “you statements”: “I feel that I don’t know you well enough” rather than “You haven’t made much of an impression on me.” Maintaining a respectful and mature dialogue will go a long way towards making the difficult refusal of a reference less painful.