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 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 to endorse someone if you're not comfortable providing the recommendation.

You Have the Right to Decline a Reference Request

There is never an obligation to give someone a reference. You can 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. Here are two examples:

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

What to say when you don't know the person well: "I am sorry, but I do not feel I know you well enough (or have not worked with you long enough) to provide you with an accurate and thorough recommendation."

What to Say If You Do Know the Person

What to say when you do know the person: "I do not feel I would be the best person to write you a recommendation," and perhaps provide a suggestion for another person to ask.

More Tips for Declining a Reference Request

Here are more tips for how to say no in a professional manner:

  • 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 chose to decline. It's better not to give a recommendation at all than it is to give a wishy-washy one. Any hiring manager will pick up on the lack of enthusiasm in the reference.
  • Don’t wait: When you need to decline a request for a recommendation, try to do so as promptly as possible. It might be tempting to put it off—no one likes having to let someone down. But delaying is crueler than responding promptly, even if they don’t like what you have to say. You should give the person as much time as possible to line up alternative references if you can’t provide one.
  • Be gracious: It’s better to decline the request than to write a lukewarm endorsement, but that doesn’t mean you have to be rude or overly critical in your response. There’s no need to make the interaction more negative than it needs to be. Besides, most industries are a small world. You never know when you might run into the person again someday at a future job.
  • Be positive: If you can, include some positive feedback. Offer to help in another way; perhaps you can provide some job search advice for their target industry, or recommend a mutual acquaintance who would be a more appropriate person to endorse them.
  • Keep it short: The message you need to convey is short—for a given reason, you’ll be unable to give a reference. A few paragraphs are more than enough to convey what you need to say.
  • Always use "I" statements: Say “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.

When Human Resources Policies Ban Reference Letters

A growing tendency is for companies to establish policies that forbid the granting of references and recommendations. These no-reference policies were 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 determine if such a policy is in place.

What to Say When References Are Banned

What to say: "The company does not permit me to provide any references. I would only be able to confirm your job title, employment dates, and salary history. So it would be in your best interest to find someone else to provide a reference."

Samples of Recommendation Request Rejection Letters

These sample letters and email messages are models to decline the request. As always, tailor them to fit your situation:

Example #1

Elizabeth Waters
2022 Commerce Street, Ste. 3
Oceanside, MA 02190
555-765-4321
ewaters@email.com

October 12, 2020

Joe Smith
37 Chestnut Street, Apartment B
Birmingham, MA 02192

Dear Mr. Smith,

I am glad to hear you are interested in a job in the publishing industry. I do not feel that I worked with you long enough to write you an accurate reference letter for your job search.

However, if you have any questions about job searching in the publishing industry, I would be happy to answer them.

Sincerely,

Elizabeth Waters (signature - hard copy letter)

Elizabeth Waters (printed)

Example #2

Daniel Bruno
34 Oak Street
Ocean View, NY 11732
555-123-4567
me@danielbruno.com

July 8, 2021

Terry Johnson
12 Main Street, Apt. 3
Ocean View, NY 11732

Dear Ms. Johnson,

I am pleased to hear that you are applying for a sales position with XYZ Company. Unfortunately, since I haven’t had the opportunity to observe your work in this field, I would be unable to offer the strength of endorsement that one of your closer colleagues could.

Best of luck in your new endeavor.

Sincerely,

Daniel Bruno (signature - hard copy)

Daniel Bruno (printed)

Example #3

Nancy Wallis
15 Coastal Ave.
Los Angeles, California 90001
555-987-6543
nancy.wallis@email.com

February 3, 2021

Joe Black
34 Sunny Way
Los Angeles, California 90001

Dear Mr. Black,

I received your request for a letter of recommendation. I believe that you would be better served to utilize a reference who is more familiar with your coursework in a field related to the IT position at ABC Systems than I am.

I am happy to supply a general character reference, but I would not be able to speak directly to your qualifications for this position.

Regards,

Nancy Wallis (signature - hard copy letter)

Nancy Wallis (printed)