How to say no to being a referee

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how to say no to being a referee
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Asked to be a referee and feeling apprehensive? Here’s how to politely say no and keep your relationship and reputation intact. By Angela Tufvesson

You’ve been asked to be a referee for a former employee, but you’re hesitant. Perhaps the person in question only worked at the practice for a short time or they moved on many years ago. Maybe patients shared less than complimentary feedback after they left. It could also be that you were unimpressed with their work ethic or ability to work as part of a team. So, how can you politely decline?

Why say no?

A prospective employer will typically ask for one or two referees from applicants who have performed well in job interviews and are under serious consideration for a position. Referees are usually sourced from previous positions rather than the current employer, explains Dr Jesse Green, a dental business coach and practice owner.

“What typically happens is when most people go for jobs, they won’t ask their existing employer to be a referee because they’re usually not telling their existing employer that they’re looking for alternative employment,” he says. “The most likely scenario is, one or two jobs down the track, you get a phone call from a prospective employer asking about one of your previous employees.” 

It’s understandable that you might not feel comfortable providing a reference for someone who worked at the practice many years ago. “A long time has passed, and your comments may no longer be relevant,” says Rosemary Guyatt, general manager of people and culture at the Australian HR Institute. The same goes for someone with whom you had a short or indirect working relationship, she says. 

Then there are the people you’re simply uncomfortable about recommending for future employment. Perhaps they were always late, prone to outbursts and unpopular with patients. Overall, you might have been unsatisfied with their performance or feel unsure about their suitability for the prospective role. 

Most people seek out referees who will speak positively about the way they work, but there are circumstances that limit the pool of potential referees, such as less experienced workers who’ve had fewer managers, and people working in small practices with only one senior dentist.  

The good news is you can simply say no. “There’s no obligation to give a reference to someone,” Guyatt says. 

Your reputation on the line

When someone asks you to be their referee, they’re essentially requesting that you put your professional reputation on the line to vouch for them. So, one of the most compelling reasons to decline a reference request when you’re unsure or concerned about their suitability for a role is that it will keep your reputation intact. 

In a small industry, if you recommend someone when you didn’t have a positive experience, there’s a personal reputation aspect to it. It’s unlikely you’re going to be sued, but it’s better not to say anything. No comment tells a story in itself.

Rosemary Guyatt, Australian HR Institute

“In a small industry, if you recommend someone when you didn’t have a positive experience, there’s a personal reputation aspect to it,” Guyatt says. “It’s unlikely you’re going to be sued, but it’s better not to say anything. No comment tells a story in itself.”

Dr Green agrees that protecting your reputation is an important consideration. If in doubt, he says, it’s best to decline. “What I would say is, ‘Thank you so much for thinking of me but I don’t think it’s in your best interest for me to be that person. I’m sure there are other people who are going to be better placed to provide that reference for you’,” he says. 

“The reason for that is because your name is attached to that reference, and therefore your good standing and reputation is attached to it as well.”

Managing the conversation

To avoid any awkwardness, it’s best to be prepared for conversations like this that may catch you off guard. Guyatt advises against openly declining a reference request based on your view of that person’s performance or of their suitability for a certain role.

Instead, she says, there are a range of different approaches that can effectively maintain the relationship between both parties and at the same time communicate a clear message. You might adopt a policy of not giving references, or of declining requests from people who worked a short tenure or haven’t worked in your practice within the last few years. “It’s reasonable to say, ‘I’d prefer not to provide a reference as we didn’t work closely enough together for me to comment in detail about your work’,” Guyatt says. 

Or you can simply confirm the details of their employment. “Some people will say they’re happy to do the minimum—confirm that the person worked at the practice, for how long and their role,” Guyatt says. 

Another option is to write down what you’re prepared to say and share it with your former employee. “Then the person knows whether they would want to use you as a referee or not,” Guyatt says. “There’s no obligation to do that, but if you want to do something, it’s a good middle ground.”

Dr Green agrees that being open is a respectful approach. “I just tell people I will be really truthful,” he says. “You could say, ‘I’m more than happy to be put down as a referee, but please understand that I’m in a position where my reputation is attached to that and I’m going to answer every question they ask me truthfully’.”  

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