I’ve often been asked to serve as a professional reference for former colleagues looking for public relations jobs. I’ve also been asked by former students. Most of the time I’ve easily agreed. Sometimes, the request creates a dilemma.
For example, how do I recommend a former employee who, despite loyalty and hard work, had poor organizational skills and once made an error that cost thousands of dollars and took countless hours to fix? How do I shine a professional light on a colleague who I liked socially, but knew just as a volunteer for a board on which we both served? How do I say great things about a former student when I only graded a couple of essays and tests, and who earned a low B-plus in my class?
The larger question is: What is my obligation to help when my own professional reputation may also be at stake? If I give a good reference to someone who gets the job and doesn’t do it well, have I done something wrong? The answer is, well, maybe. So a suggested formula for handling these requests is as follows: 1) If you’re asked to be a reference, only say yes if you can truly point to good character traits and accomplishments; 2) Don’t say anything damaging about the former colleague or student, but answer questions from a possible future employer honestly, and state up front the nature of your relationship and the extent of your knowledge of his or her work; and 3) If someone asks to use your name and you’re not comfortable with it, tell the person it’s because you don’t know him or her well enough to make a professional judgment call. And they shouldn’t take it personally. Your thoughts?