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Handling a Reference Request for a Poor Performer

If you’re a manager, you’ve probably been asked to provide references for former employees. Unfortunately, from time-to-time you might be asked to provide a reference for an employee who was not a great fit at your organization or possibly even a bad apple. So, what’s the best way to handle this type of request?

Be candid with the employee. 

If someone asks you to provide a reference and you know that you won’t be able to answer in a positive manner, it’s better to tell them now. It might be uncomfortable, but everyone will be better off knowing your position before you get a call from a future potential employer.

Take the easy way out when you can. 

If the employee hasn’t worked for you in the past few years, simply let the hiring company know that you won’t be able to remember specifics – and therefore would prefer not to serve as a reference. If you’ve managed them more recently, say you can only confirm title and employment dates. If the potential employer pushes for details, you can always ask for a release from the job candidate before sharing specifics on performance.

Be honest – today and daily in employee interactions. 

As a manager, you rely on honest feedback from references to decide if a candidate would be a good fit for your organization. Consider being honest with the reference checker, but be sure to share objective/truthful facts – you wouldn’t want to end up being accused of defamation. Additionally, while you’re managing people, be honest with them in daily coaching and training sessions. If employees know where they stand – they should leave with a pretty good understanding of what type of reference you could provide them.

Of course, it would be great if this never did happen to you, right? Being a reference for a high-performer can be an incredibly rewarding complement and experience. Do your best to try and coach your employees to achieve and exceed expectations while they are working for you. The more employees you can empower through great coaching and leadership, the less of a chance you’ll run into this type of sticky situation.

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