giving job references - should I or shouldn't I? Would you?

My co-worker has been going on a spate of interviews recently. He was filling out yet another application today and he asked me if he could list me as a reference.

He does know his stuff - networking, Windows 2000, etc. Technically, there’s not a problem. He’s willing to work with others to help solve problems.

However, there have been times that he’s not shown up for work, and never called to let anyone know. He’s called at least twice (that I know of) to say that he was “sick,” even though it was quite obvious on the phone that he was drunk and/or hung over.

He showed up for work one morning drunk out of his mind - stumbling around, eyes red, appearance disheveled. The team leader sent him home.

I admit I wimped out, and I told him that I would be a reference. If any of these businesses call, do I sugar coat what I tell them, or tell them the truth?

My suggestion would be to check with your HR Department and ask what your company’s policy is regarding professional references. Many companies are very clear on the handling of these and often prohibit anyone, except HR and perhaps Directors or the CEO, from handling reference queries.

Even then, many HR depts. will only provide confirmation that a former employee did in fact work there, confirm dates of employment and title and perhaps provide the re-hire eligibility status of the former employee. In my HR experience, not much else could be revealed.

You could also check your company’s policy manual, which should address the appropriate handling of giving job references.

If prohibited, this would give you a way out.

As an ex-faculty person, I have been asked (and still get asked) a lot for references. I only agree if I think I can give the person an generally positive reference (which I wouldn’t in circumstances such as the OP). I turn down such requests by using phrases like “I’m sure you can find someone who can give a better reference.” and the like.

I have been appalled at how many people agree to give references and then write really negative ones. That’s not kosher.

Many companies either decline to give refs or pare them down to “he worked here from…to…” They fear lawsuits if a bad ref is given. The bad news is that no useful info is available. The really bad news is that embezzlers often repeat their crime at several banks before finally getting arrested, and sexual harrassers can go through several jobs without leaving a trail.

I was once asked to be a reference for my lunatic of an ex-roommate, who happened to work under me at the time. I agreed, for the sake of diplomacy, and went through the agonizing “what the hell could I possibly say that’s both honest and accurate and won’t completely nuke her chances of getting a job and thus paying her share of the rent?” thought process. As it turns out, the company did call, and only asked me three very specific questions. 1. Did she work there? 2. Was she fired? 3. Is she listed as available for rehire? Nothing further than that.

I later asked my supervisor about this at a different job, and she said that in order to protect themselves against lawsuits, most companies won’t answer any other questions or offer any other information, and most companies won’t ask for it, lest the person sue the person/company giving the reference for not being hired by the company receiving the reference.

I have no idea how true this is, but it saved me from having to be the one to tell them “she’s mental, she never shows up for work, she’s lazy, she makes out with her equally mental boyfriend at work, and she’s a filthy slob, to boot. Please take my advice and do not hire her. You may want to consider a restraining order while you’re at it”.


I’ve always been curious about what companies really ask when they call a reference. I’m sure it depends on the company.

I would say that you should just try to be honest. Tell them the positive stuff about his skills and willingness to help others. Do not mention the negative things unless you are specifically asked to discuss his weaknesses. You might respond that he was unreliable on a few occasions.

Hey Baby Fish Mouth, did you get your name from that scene in “When Harry Met Sally?” That dialogue cracks me up.

You said you’d be a reference. IMHO, it is REALLY shitty to agree to be a reference and then badmouth the person who has trusted you. If asked, yeah, emphasize the good things. Minimize the bad things. It’s not like the new company is gonna come after you if he goes to work for them and turns out to be a bad employee. And who knows? Maybe this guy is looking to turn over a new leaf and that’s one of the reasons he wants to find a new job: he already has bad history at the one he has now.

I had a boss who used to tear former employees to shreds when potential employers would call him for a reference. You wouldn’t believe the things he said – I hope the bastard gets sued someday.

Baby Fish Mouth wrote

It varies, but in general they ask about what you’d think they would:

  • How do you know the defendant -err- applicant?
  • What did they do, and what did you do? (esp. did they work for you? did you work for them? were you a customer of theirs? etc.)
  • What are their strengths?
  • What are their weaknesses?
  • Would you work with them again?

Knighted Vorpal Sword wrote

Well, here’s how I see it, in terms of morality: What your co-worker really asked for wasn’t to be a reference. He asked you to be a positive reference. So in fairness, you should’ve found a polite way to back out. Or perhaps you still can, if you tell him company policy forbids it or some other white lie.

If by chance you can’t back out, I think it’s only fair that you tell the truth to the company calling, although I’d probably tone it down a bit. I’d say that when he was there he was a good worker and really knew his stuff. And that he’d missed a few days work when you knew he was partying instead of being sick.

SnoopyFan wrote

I completely agree.

However, I also think it’s REALLY shitty to lie on someone’s behalf, especially if they aren’t someone important in your life. Putting a positive spin on things isn’t bad. But lying is. The company is calling because they’re trusting you and violating that trust is just not right.

Also, it isn’t long in business life before you start knowing many people in your industry. Having an honest reputation goes a long way and having a bad one can be death.

I would like to a professional reference service. If you are looking for a job, and have no references, you come see me, pay a fee, then I will be your reference for a period of time, depending on the fee paid.

I think it would be a million dollar idea.

Keep in mind that you are in fact commiting a fraud if you knowingly provide an unwarranted positive reference. Presumably if, in the future, lots of faecal matter struck a rotating device his new employer could sue you for damages.

In reference to “negligent referral” the California Supreme Court has said :

The writer of a letter of recommendation owes to third persons a duty not to misrepresent the facts in describing the qualifications and character of a former employee, if making these misrepresentations would present a substantial, foreseeable risk of physical injury to the third persons. Randi W. v. Muroc Joint United School District, 929 P.2d 582, 591 (Cal. 1997).