Bad Employee References And How To Give Them [In 4 Steps]

Bad Employee References And How To Give Them [In 4 Steps]

Let’s a paint a familiar scenario: You’re a mid-level employee for a fairly established company. You pride yourself on being a punctual, cordial, and skilled employee who delights in a job well done. Despite this, a colleague of yours has no such pride. They are frequently late, their work lacks quality, and their attitude could use some adjustment. Plainly put, while you smile and greet them in the morning, you have Force-choked them like Darth Vadar many times in your mind. One day, you feel like your prayers have been answered as they confide in you that they are in the interview process with another company, but here’s the kicker — they would like to list you as a reference. Enter the following internal moral dilemma: Do you…
1. Grit your teeth and them proceed to lie through them with a positive employee reference?
2. Provide an honestly bad employee reference where you say everything you’ve been dying to say since day one?
3. Come down in the middle and give both a negative employee reference as well as a positive one?
4. Refuse their request to act as a reference for you to avoid giving them a bad employee reference?
Decisions, decisions. Let’s weight your options.

Possibility 1. The False-Positive: Giving a Bogus Good Employee Reference

We’d all like to give a positive reference every single time. There’s nothing better than singing a friend’s praises for their own benefit. However, there’s really no upside to lying and giving a phony positive employee reference. While your “friend” may land the job on your fake good employee reference, it’s doubtful that they will hold onto it for very long. While this wastes the next company’s time as well as that of your crummy co-worker, this also weakens all of your recommendations going forward and may even cause organizations to question your judgment. Suddenly, your references lack any kind of credibility. Plainly, if you were thinking of giving a bogus positive employee reference in attempts to be nice, just don’t.

Ok, so you’re not going to lie — now what?

Possibility 2. Open The Floodgates: Giving a Bad Employee Reference With Gusto

Let’s say you haven’t liked this co-worker since day one. They’re lazy, incompetent, and are full of excuses. This could be your opportunity to vent your frustrations in the form of a warning to would-be employers. While this may feel like it could be a potentially cathartic moment for you, ask yourself the following question: how would a soley bad employee reference make you look? To better answer this question, we consulted OakTree Staffing Account Manager, Cole Roberts.

“Rarely do people give bad references,” … “I have been doing this quite a while and have never had someone give me a reference that was bad. They may say some truth, but not bad.”

– Cole Roberts, Account Manager at OakTree Staffing & Training

With this being said, there are some instances where bad employee references can be useful. In many instances, this co-worker may be asking you for a reference because you may have connections to this other organization and they’re hoping for a foot in the door. A bad employee referral, in this case, may actually help your relationship with this other company — to help them save time and money.

“Yes, bad references are given often and I believe they are beneficial for the future employer”…”Many companies will refuse a reference if the employee is not re-hirable.”

– Heidi Winterberg, Senior Technical Recruiter at OakTree Staffing & Training

Possibility 3. Little of This, Little of That: Giving a Mixed Employee Reference

Ok, so you don’t feel like simply lambasting this co-worker with a 100% bad employee reference. They can’t be all bad, can they? Did they get you coffee once? Did they have some decent ideas at that one meeting? After all, there has to be a reason your employer hired them in the first place. What are those reasons? While those positive moments may not be enough to flesh out an entire employee reference, they can act as a starting point of mixed positivity. To get some pointers on balancing an employee reference, we asked the Technical Recruiter, Chase Wagner.

“I think you should be 100% honest when you’re called for a reference check. You’re certainly allowed to say negative things about a previous employee as long as they’re factual,” …. “Just make sure you’re 100% factual about their work performance. (I) can’t stress that one enough.”

– Chase Wagner, Technical Recruiter at OakTree Staffing & Training

How balanced do you make it? Again, we brought this question to Senior Technical Recruiter, Heidi Winterberg.

“In my opinion, it is valuable to give both good and bad feedback. My advice is to give their honest opinion.” – Heidi Winterberg, Senior Technical Recruiter at OakTree Staffing & Training

Possibility 4. Nothing Good To Say? Say Nothing At All: Refusing To Give and Employee Reference

Everyone has probably heard the age-old adage “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” There is a lot of wisdom in this if you’re thinking about leaving a bad employee reference. If you’re worried that you wouldn’t be doing your duty to warn a would-be employer about a terrible hire, keep in mind that your refusal to give a bad employee reference speaks volumes in itself. Most hiring managers and recruiters know precisely what that means. Again, we let Chase Wagner shine some this light on this scenario.

“If you refuse to provide a reference, I would just assume one of two things: (1) you’re either too busy to bother, or (2) you don’t have anything positive to say about the candidate I’m calling about. If you don’t feel comfortable providing a reference – don’t!”…”Don’t put yourself in an uncomfortable position if you don’t want to.”  – Chase Wagner, Technical Recruiter at OakTree Staffing & Training

How do you gracefully decline your co-worker’s request for an employee reference? Well, this is where the lines of honesty and brutal honesty can become a bit blurred. While you don’t have to flat out say, “If they hear from me, it’s not going to be good,” you can instead point the worker towards an employee that would, perhaps, give a better reference. It’s possible to respectfully decline in a way that doesn’t reak of disdain.

Bonus: Excuses for not providing employee reference.

“I think someone that worked more closely with you on a day-to-day basis may be able to provide a better picture of your work ethic.”
Translation: Surely someone else can’t say no.
“I’m really not good at providing that kind of thing.”
Translation: I’m a terrible liar.

We’d love to hear your suggestions on dealing with someone asking you to vouch for them when you know that you may only be able to provide a bad employee reference.


Check out the all new video version of this article: Bad Employee References.


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Ken Lane

Ken Lane has been the Content Marketing Strategist for OakTree Staffing & Training since 2014.

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