Never Give A Bad Reference, Give An Honest One

It appears that written references are becoming less relevant these days. Increasingly, employers will refuse to give references in writing, because it is difficult to ensure consistency and fairness to all employees. Many large employers make it a matter of policy not to give written references at all.

In addition, new employers may be sceptical about how a written reference is worded. Perhaps it is carefully crafted to avoid mentioning a particular aspect of the employee’s performance or nature that displeased them.

In any case, there is no need to rely on written references alone when you can search for information about a prospective candidate online. Who need’s a CV when you have a LinkedIn profile?

But to get a true grasp of a potential new employee’s credentials, you must pick up the phone and call whoever last employed them. Over the phone you can ask direct questions to elicit information that a written reference might never disclose, e.g.

  • Did you ever have concerns about this employee’s performance?
  • Did the employee ever raise a personal grievance?
  • Would you employ this person again?

This post is concerned with what you should do if you are asked those sorts of questions about someone you formerly employed. Thinking about the approach you take now, may spare you grief later down the track.


There are two senses in which a reference might be bad.

It might be bad because it does not reflect well on the employee, with the result that the employee risks not being offered the role. From the employee’s perspective, that would be a bad reference.

However, it might also be bad if it is one that puts you at risk for having given it. This is the only type of bad reference that you, as the person giving the reference, should be concerned about.

A bad reference, in this second sense, is one that is misleading. There are two ways a reference can mislead:

  • suggesting the employee is better than they are. In some cases the employee may be someone who did not perform their job to your satisfaction, or misbehaved and was fired. Nevertheless, you may still genuinely wish for them to be given another chance at another role, reasoning that while they were not a good fit in your business, they may thrive elsewhere. As a result, when asked to speak about the employee, you might be tempted to describe them as a star performer and deny that you had any problems with their performance or conduct. If this is untrue and the new employer finds out, it is possible you could be sued for having misled that employer.
  • suggesting the employee is worse than they are. Another way to mislead a new employer is to describe the employee as worse than they really are. You may be motivated to do this because the employee was less than dutiful to you, abused your trust, or sought to damage your business in some way. Here is your opportunity to exact revenge. But the employee may have the last laugh, if they miss out on the role and discover you were the cause. Again, you could be sued, this time by the employee, for having misrepresented them.

Either type of bad reference is bad for you because it risks landing you with a legal claim.


To avoid the consequences of a bad reference, you need to give one that is good – in the sense of not being misleading. A good reference is one that is truthful, even though it may mean the employee is not offered the job.

Some tips on giving a reference are:

  • Give an honest answer that, ideally, you can back up with documentation if necessary.
  • Keep to the facts as much as you can.
  • Give your honest impressions of the employee.
  • Don’t exaggerate, either negatively or positively.

Of course, under normal circumstances, you are not obliged to give a reference at all. So it is always an option to politely decline to give a reference or refuse to give a reference other than what you are willing to put in writing.


Sometimes employees and employers will agree that they should part ways by mutual agreement, which is frequently called an “exit” arrangement.

In these situations you may be asked by the exiting employee to give a verbal reference for any new roles they apply for. Likely you have agreed to the exit arrangement because you were dissatisfied with the employee in some way. Giving a verbal reference may be difficult.

You should be careful not to agree to anything as part of the exit arrangement that would require you to mislead anyone who asks you what you thought of the employee.

In that event, you have a couple of options:

  • Tell the employee that they can use you as a verbal reference at their own risk, in the knowledge that what you say to their prospective new employer will be an honest reflection of your views about them and may not assist them to get the new role.
  • Offer a limited written reference that touches on only those aspects of the employee’s performance and qualities that you can honestly speak positively about. Be careful to ensure that by doing this you do not make any misleading statements. For example, if you would not welcome them back to your business in the future, then do not say as much in the written reference.


A bad reference is one that is misleading.

If you are not truthful, whether the reference helps or hinders the employee towards securing a new job, you are at risk of being sued by the disgruntled party who later finds out you misled the potential new employer.

When it comes to giving references, honesty is the best policy.

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