A Terrible Employee Just Asked You To Write Them A Letter Of Recommendation

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A former colleague corners you. He/she needs a letter of recommendation for a potential employer and asks you to write it.

A feeling washes over you, and it isn’t flattery.

It’s dread.

You don’t want to do it; you have nothing positive to say about the person’s performance. If you write something glowing you’ll be lying through your teeth.

Recommending someone who isn’t a good worker could do you more harm than them good. If you write it, you’re putting your reputation (and maybe even theirs) on the line.

But you don’t want to be that person who says no. It could hurt your former colleague’s chances of furthering his/her career, and that just seems wrong.

Suffice to say you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. We asked a business executive how she handles these sticky situations. Here are five excellent tips she gave us:

1. Avoid this situation at all costs. Don’t ignore the request, but don’t agree to write it either. You don’t want to be on the hook for something you don’t feel you can honestly write. Which brings us to the next tip…

2. Don’t lie. Especially when your reputation is at stake.  If you write something positive and the next company hires him/her, that is a direct reflection on you, good or bad.

3. It’s ok to decline the request.  It’s better to turn down your former coworker right away than to string them along while you think of an out. At least they’ll have time to ask someone else.

4. If you choose to decline the request, you can do it one of two ways: 

  • Be completely honest. Say you don’t feel comfortable recommending them.
  • Tell a white lie. Make an excuse such as, “We generally don’t write recommendations for former employees,” or “I’m not in the position to make recommendations,” both of which are probably somewhat true.

5. If you already agreed to write it, you have two options

  • Write a strictly factual recommendation. Then you don’t have to give your honest opinion about the employee’s performance. For example, you could write something like this:

 “This is to confirm that [Mary Jane] worked at [this company] in [this role] from [beginning date] to [end date]. Her duties included [X, Y, Z].” 

  • Tell a white lie. You could say you spoke with your manager and you’re not allowed to write it, or that legal reasons prevent you from writing the recommendation.

Of course, you could always roll the dice and punch out a quick paragraph about the employee. We don’t recommend it.

If you don’t think they’re worth it, we don’t think your reputation is either.