You’ve just received a phone call—an old employee wants a letter of recommendation and you can’t even remember them! Or, an employee relocating to another town wants a letter from you offering a glowing report and you have nothing good to say. What are your options?
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If You’ve Got Nothing Good to Say….
I’m not sure who said, “If you’ve got nothing good to say, don’t say anything," but if you want to refuse a recommendation for a staff member, a former employee, a co-worker or subordinate, should you or should you just give in and write one and say something nice?
There are real concerns with writing something bad in a letter or even offering a verbal statement when it comes to recommendation requests. In fact, HR departments these days stick to name, rank and serial number so to speak, or job title, period worked and salary verification and will skip the rest in fear of lawsuits.
During my 17 years as a business owner, I wrote only two letters of recommendation—all the others only received the name, rank, serial number offering. Why? A fear of lawsuits, plain and simple.
But, what if you simply can’t get out of it? What if you feel you are between a rock and a hard place and have no choice but to write the letter? What’s the best way to handle the situation?
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Just Say No—Seriously
There are a few reasons why you may just want to say no if asked to write a letter of recommendation or even offer a verbal reference.
First, once you’ve penned your thoughts and delivered them, you can’t take those words back, even if the recommendation was a good one. What if you offer a glowing, make-believe recommendation and then it comes back to haunt you? By that, I mean what if the person or organization you wrote the letter to quickly finds out why you did indeed have reservations about the person and they are really not as grand as you made them sound?
Alternatively, what if you write a terrible reference revealing all the bad stuff and the person requesting the recommendation happens to see it? Could you be liable for what you said? It’s definitely something to think about.
In cases such as these, it’s best to be honest but you don’t have to be mean or hostile when you refuse the recommendation.
However, what words can you possibly use to make "no" sound good or, at the very least, soften the blow of the refusal?
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Choice Words and Phrases
When you really have nothing good to say in a recommendation about someone you’ve hired, fired or worked with, there are a few choice words and phrases you can use.
Firm policy – Tell the person you have a firm policy and never write recommendations. If they ask why, simply tell them it’s a personal choice and leave it at that. If they keep bugging you, remind them it’s a personal decision and has nothing to do with their request. The challenge here is sticking by this statement no matter what. This means you must deny every request.
I’m Not Qualified – There might be cases where you really aren’t qualified to offer a recommendation. You may have worked with someone but not closely, so in cases such as these, tell the truth. Tell them you really never worked in the same department or environment so you wouldn’t feel comfortable writing anything. If they persist, tell them it’s best to speak to the HR department.
Have a Handbook Policy – Many companies include a statement in their employee handbook that states when and if the employee/employer relationship ends, the company adheres to a strict policy on offering only job title, dates worked, and wages received as far as references go. Make sure you include supervisory people in this statement. If you are asked to write a letter, you can always point the requester to the handbook policy.
Prepare a Standard Recommendation Form – This is also a good idea. You can create a form letter of sorts on company letterhead that includes a place for the person’s name, job title(s), start and end pay levels, and time worked with the company. Don’t include any statement in the letter that says, “please feel free to contact me if you have any questions." This will just open up another avenue as a new employer may call you and then you might be stuck saying something you don’t want to say.
Finally, if your company is fortunate enough to have an attorney versed in labor laws on retainer or if you know an attorney, ask for their assistance in these matters. While refusing a recommendation is hard to do, often it’s a must-do, especially when you truly have nothing good to say.