Work It Out

Help! I was asked to give a referral for a former co-worker—and I don't want to recommend them

Getty Images | Elham Ataeiazar

Dear Work It Out,

Recently I got a message on Slack from another manager at my company asking for my opinion: A former co-worker of mine is applying for a job with them and they wanted to know if they'd be a good fit. It's been a few years since I worked with the person in question, but when I did work with them … it wasn't great. I think they're nice, but I wouldn't necessarily choose to work with them again. 

How do I say that tactfully? And if the person in question reached out asking for a referral to the job, what's the best way to handle that?

It's a no from me


A lot of us get caught in this situation. It could be because a former co-worker asks for a referral, or an old intern puts you down as a reference without your knowledge, or another person at your own company asks for the unvarnished truth about someone you know who's applying for a job. 

My advice is three-pronged, but very simple.

  1. Be honest
  2. Be kind
  3. If you can't do either, be quiet.

Let's start with the first situation you laid out.

If someone from within your company is asking for your opinion, give it. Acknowledge that you haven't worked with your former colleague in a few years, and that things may have changed in that time period, and then explain why you wouldn't recommend them for the job. Make sure that what you bring up is relevant to the job they're being considered for, though. 

If it's a fast-paced writing role and you know in the past they had issues with making deadlines and doing original work, definitely raise those concerns.

But when your reservations have to do with them popping gum in the cubicle next to you, for example, or their constant complaints that their long commute made them late to morning meetings, but the role is fully remote and doesn't require them to sit next to a co-worker eight hours a day, leave those comments out. 

Give your colleague insight into why the candidate might not be a good match for the job, and only elaborate past that if specifically asked. 

And avoid trash talk or gossip. Chances are, you'll end up looking worse than the person you're dishing about. 

Just don't like the person or don't feel like you can give them a recommendation? Simply say: It's been a few years since I worked with them and I'm not sure I could give you an accurate assessment of their current skills. Most of the time, that's enough for anyone to read between the lines and see that you're not recommending them as a candidate.

If your former co-worker reaches out to you directly hoping for a referral that could bump up their chances of landing a job, you're going to want to lean into those second and third steps. Remember, you are in no way obligated to give someone a referral just because you worked with them in the past. 

Feel free to decline in a similar way as you would when talking to your current colleague: "It's been a while since we worked together so I don't feel I can do you justice for a referral." If you're on good personal terms, but just don't think they're a good fit, you can offer to answer any questions they have about the company or your experiences there to help them out in a different way. And don't forget: "Best of luck with your job search."

Work it Out is Make It's advice column for employment-related conundrums. Have a pressing career concern or question? Email me anonymously at Submissions may be edited for length and clarity.

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