To refer, or not to refer

Jeff Morosoff, Special Asst. Professor, Hofstra University

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?

2 thoughts on “To refer, or not to refer

  1. Aqlesia

    This is a tricky situation. You professional reputation is on the chopping block when you’re agreeing to be a reference to someone who’s merely satisfactory. What’s even worst is if the person is hired because of your reference, but doesn’t live up to it on the job. However, I think employers know that you are JUST a reference, and that you have control over what the employee does, or mistakes they make. I’m sure they expect you to say good things about the person because otherwise, why would this person ask you to be a reference to them? I think it’s rare for an employer to contact a prospective hires reference and hear horrible things about them or even things about them that aren’t particularly positive. I’m sure they keep this in mind.

  2. Jaclyn Maczkiewicz

    I think this is definitely true. I find myself in a similar position at my job when friends are looking for one sometimes. Although I have done it for some people in the past, there are those I am completely friends with and love to death but would never get them a job with me or within the company. It’s extremely difficult telling this person why so I usually just say we’re not hiring at the moment. I feel terrible lying to my friends sometimes but I am not willing to put myself in a position where they could possibly screw up and being a manager, I need to gain the respect from everyone from associates to the district manager. Its not up to us to get someone a job. It’s definitely a tough situation but I think you always have to look out for your career before others.


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