Office Politics 101: Referring a lousy employee

Q: A guy who works for me has advised he’s been short-listed for a position with another company and wants to use me as a reference. I’m glad he’s planning to leave, frankly, and yet I don’t want to be overly negative. What should I say if they call?

A: You’ve been unhappy with this employee’s work and are pleased he is pursuing other opportunities; therefore, it may have crossed your mind to provide him with a supportive reference, just to get rid of him.

While I probably would not blame you for giving a reasonably affirming endorsement of his work, you will also need to be true to yourself and his prospective employer will expect you to be candid.

In addition, if you were seeking a suitable employee to fill a position in your company, you would be frustrated with an employer’s recommendation that turned out to be untruthful.

(The fact he is using you as a reference means he trusts you and believes you will be giving a fair estimation of his work performance: you should receive this as a compliment.)

It is important to consider not only the content of any reference you may give, but also the tone. After all, you can make relatively encouraging points with a voice that may deliver a contrasting message.

I’d like to encourage you to reflect on the deficiencies of this employee and whether or not they could be corrected in another setting. In other words, you don’t want to employ excessively critical communication when there is the likelihood that his performance could be improved elsewhere.

Also, if the responsibilities of the new job are significantly different than those he is performing for you, you may be in a better position to offer remarks that are helpful, especially if those responsibilities are obvious strengths.

Remember, too, that he has made the decision to leave your company so he is also experiencing a measure of dissatisfaction that may be affecting his performance. While this should not excuse his behavior, it could explain it to some extent.

This employee needs to be treated with respect and justice. He’s undoubtedly disappointed you but may perform better in a new setting. Your reference, therefore, must be both accurate and sensitive, with consideration of the needs of the future employer.

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