The Awkward Reference Check

Dear DW,

I’ve been asked by someone I supervised a few years ago for a reference. She did only an adequate job, but I like her and wish her the best. What should I say?

Signed, Feeling Awkward


Dear Feeling Awkward,

You might consider talking with your former direct report to find out what she’s achieved since you last worked with her, says Kelly Marinelli, founder of Solve HR Inc. and a talent acquisition expert with the Society of Human Resource Management. Learning about her recent professional growth may help you give a stronger reference. When you speak with her, be honest about what your feedback is likely to be, so she can decide whether to keep you on her reference list.

If you’d rather not have this conversation, but still want to support this person, Marinelli suggests you give an honest reference highlighting examples of things she did well.

“If her work product was adequate, you can probably describe her as a ‘reliable performer’ whose work was ‘consistent,’” Marinelli says. “Maybe you don’t think she was the star of your department, but if she always showed up, did her work, and met deadlines, then these characteristics can make her a good employee.”

Be prepared to answer truthfully about whether you’d hire her again. You might say that you would, but with the caveat that she receive additional training in a particular area. Above all, don’t feel obliged to give more information than you feel 
comfortable sharing.

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