What Do You Do When Your Friend Wants a Reference—but You Know They Suck?

An HR expert and an etiquette coach navigate us through this tricky situation.

What Do You Do When Your Friend Wants a Reference—but You Know They Suck?

Your former colleague Ralph asks you to recommend him for a job he is interviewing for at a new company. You like this person. In fact, you’d go so far as to consider him a friend. You often attended happy hour together when you were coworkers, and even hung out in a nonprofessional capacity on a few occasions.

But you also recognize that Ralph is a less-than-ideal employee. Despite being talented, he can be lazy and unreliable. He doesn’t always finish assignments on time, and when he does, it’s not always done with his fullest effort and care. He can also have a poor attitude and a tendency to whine. He’s not a bad employee, per se, but not a particularly good one either.

So do you give the recommendation or not?

I posed this scenario to r/Jobs, a popular Reddit forum for professional advice, and the answer was a resounding “No.”

“You are knowingly bringing someone who will not work out well,” one responder wrote. “It’s only your reputation on the line. If your friend turns out to be a disaster, your company may no longer likely take your referrals or trust you as an employee with making decisions.” (Note: This respondent supposed the friend would be working for your company, which wasn’t exactly the scenario I posed, but still interesting nonetheless — and close enough.)

I received a similar response on the popular question-and-answer site Quora. “A recommendation means that you vouch for that person’s work ethic and personal integrity; you’re asking your employer to trust your judgment,” Doug Manning, an author, trainer and public speaker wrote. “I would never put my reputation in jeopardy by recommending a person I suspected would not be a model employee.

“I’ve been in that situation several times in the past, and my response to the friend/bad employee was always the same: ‘I don’t think you’re a fit for this job.’”

The few dissenters said they’d only give the recommendation if it was for a job at a company they didn’t want or expect to work at in the future. “There’s no one-size-fits-all answer here!” wrote one Reddit user.

The response speaks to the number of variables at play in such a scenario, and the inherent awkwardness of when your personal and professional worlds collide. “Unless you know someone very well and feel you can be very authentic in recommending them, just don’t do the reference,” say Terry Petracca, an HR executive for more than 30 years, and our resident expert on all workplace matters.

There are numerous evasive maneuvers you can use here. Petracca suggests telling the person you had a bad experience giving a recommendation in the past, and now you have a strict no-recs policy. If the person presses you on what that bad experience was, say you recommended another friend for a job, and that they unfairly blamed you when they weren’t hired for the gig.

Jacqueline Whitmore, founder of the Protocol School of Palm Beach, which consults with companies and professionals on workplace etiquette, recommends deflecting or foisting the responsibility on a mutual colleague. “If you think recommending this person would reflect poorly on you, I’d say, ‘I didn’t work with you that directly.’ Or: ‘I appreciate the invitation, but I don’t think I’d be the strongest recommendation. Why don’t you ask Pete?’”

These deflections, however, can lead to follow-up questions about why you don’t want to give the recommendation, and that can be deeply uncomfortable for the nonconfrontational among us. It’s one thing to tell strangers online about your unflappable professional integrity; it’s another to tell a friend and colleague that you can’t help them secure a new job because you think they’re a bad employee.

That said, if it’s a character recommendation, you can give glowing feedback about your former colleague’s personality, while stipulating that you can’t speak to his performance, Whitmore says.

But if the recommendation is about the person’s work performance, and you couldn’t manage to weasel out of it, you’ll find yourself having “to give the most banal kind of reference you can,” says Petracca. She recommends vague descriptions of how the person acted in the workplace, such as “Ralph was very similar to my other employees,” and “He would come into work and give his best effort.”

These coded references are why companies are putting less stock in third-party recommendations, Petracca says. “Virtually no one asks for references today, because companies know no one is going to say anything genuine.”

The other option is to be direct with the person asking for the recommendation and tell them exactly why you don’t feel comfortable recommending them, but that will almost certainly hurt your relationship with them. “If they think enough of you to ask you for a recommendation, they think of you as a friend,” Whitmore says. “So if you turn it down, they could feel hurt. Or they’ll get angry.”

Still, this is better than agreeing to the recommendation, and then telling the employer that they should not, in fact, hire dear Ralph. As Petracca says, you never want to burn anyone, for the simple fact that you could find yourself working with them again in the future.

After which you might be asking them for a recommendation.