Three Ways to Say No to a Reference Request

In fact, there are three ways out — three excuses that are perfectly suitable. They include:

1. Not being willing or able to spend the time
2. Not knowing someone well enough
3. Not being able to provide a glowing review

Not willing to spend the time. It’s not that you don’t have a little extra time on your hands; it’s that you’re not willing to take the time from what’s important to you — whether it be mission-critical tasks at work or a spending time with your family, says Jodi Glickman in her latest article for HBR. Steve Job’s was famous for saying “no” to 1000 things and using “no” as a strategic business decision. If the ultimate sign of success is an open calendar, think of this “no” as a move towards freeing up your most valuable asset. Play the travel card, the closing a deal card, or the family card — concede that you don’t have the ability to serve as a worthy reference or write an adequate letter of recommendation because it’s takes too much effort away from what you are truly focused on in the moment.

Not knowing someone well enough. The best references come from people who know you, your character, and your work product extremely well. If you’re asked to vouch for someone you don’t know well, the chances of you knocking it out of the park are extremely low. It’s in no one’s best interest for you to spend your political capital endorsing someone you don’t know intimately or can’t speak about genuinely.

So be honest, and decline on behalf of the other person’s best interests: “Medha, I wish I could help, but I really don’t think I know you well enough to provide as strong a reference as you probably need and deserve. I’d encourage you to reach out to someone who knows your work style/product/ethic better. As much as I’d like to help, I think you’ll be better served with someone else.”

Not being able to provide a glowing review. Finally, you simply can’t find enough (or any) good things to say about your former boss, it’s in everyone’s best interest to bow out early. Tell them that you’d love to help, but you recognise that the letter of reference you’d provide likely wouldn’t reach the level of praise he’s shooting for.

It makes for a tough conversation for sure. But ultimately, it shows that you have Their best interest at heart. The option of saying yes and then badmouthing your boss isn’t really an option — that’s a below the belt tactic you should avoid at all costs.

So take the high road. Have the difficult conversation upfront, but know that your conscience stays intact and Theo’s future job prospects aren’t lampooned by you. It’s one thing to decline endorsing someone; it’s another thing entirely to say yes and then jeopardise their future.