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If you don’t have anything nice to say …

Q. I am a business owner, and I recently separated a manager from my company. I have followed all the right human resources practices and policies. We have had plenty of conversations about the issues which led to this conclusion, and all has been documented. The conversation worked as it should, and we are moving on. The problem is he has asked me for a reference, both on LinkedIn and more formally, in spite of being very aware of my issues with his performance. How should I respond?

A. A separation done well can often lead to a better match for the person leaving the organization. Separations are typically not easy, but providing plenty of communication about why the situation resulted in a separation and following appropriate human resources practices are essential to helping the person move forward in looking for a new job. The good news is that your former employee is trying to do that. The bad news is that he may be expecting too much from you in terms of making that happen.

LinkedIn is a great resource for job seekers, and the recommendations section serves a general purpose of generating credibility. But blanket reference statements are not a job seeker’s best bet to influence a hiring manager, particularly if an employee has been separated.

Providing references can be hazardous for organizations, and as a result many organizations have reference policies which provide only title and the confirmation of dates of employment for former employees. Some organizations allow managers to provide references if managers preface remarks by saying that they are not acting as representatives of the company. Very few industries still use written references with major exceptions being education, government and some non-profits.

Your former employee has put you in a difficult position by asking you to write something public on LinkedIn. First, employees should change the general question of “Will you be a reference for me?” to “Will you be able to provide me with a great reference?” Average references or those that are so general that they say very little, are not valued by hiring managers, and in fact may raise concerns about a candidate.

You certainly have the option to say “No, I will not be able to provide a reference”. You might also be able to say, “I am not comfortable providing a broad recommendation on LinkedIn, but if you would like me to speak to a certain employer checking your references about a specific job, I would be willing to do that. I would need you to call me in advance, and provide me with specific information about the job, so that you would be aware of what I would say. That way there are no surprises.” For someone in the job seeker position, evaluate what might be said by your reference, and decide if that person or another would be a better reference.

If you find that you can not provide this former employee with a reference which outlines some areas of strength, it is best to pass. Explain that you will not be able to provide the kinds of information which will support his job search, and you will not provide information which might hurt his efforts either.

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