The days are long gone when managers felt free to sit on the phone for half an hour, providing an in-depth job reference for a former colleague or subordinate. These days, HR departments are cracking down on renegade reference-givers, restricting references to the basic facts of job title, start date and ending date.
The good news is that managers are off the hook when it comes to providing job references for former subordinates or co-workers IF they (the managers) still work for the employer. But when a former workmate asks you to give a reference, and you don't feel all that comfortable, and you don't have the excuse “HR won't let me" because you no longer work for the same company, what do you do?
Now, it goes without saying that we like to help our former colleagues as they seek new opportunities. There's nothing more fun than singing the praises of a former workmate and knowing that you're helping him or her get a great job. But what about the case when you don't feel so comfortable? Amazingly, people will ask you for references who really should know better. Perhaps you and this fellow never saw eye to eye, or perhaps you gave him a poor job review, or even fired him!
Nonetheless, he gives your name as a reference, and the phone rings. How do you deal?
Here's how. You say, “Ah, yes, I remember Neal. But I'm not a great reference, because I didn't supervise him closely" [or, if that's not true, “because although I remember him as a nice guy, I don't have a terrific recollection of his work"]. If you were caught unaware, poor Neal can't really be angry at you for begging off. It's much better than giving him a bad reference - I wouldn't do that, no matter how negatively you feel about Neal's work.
Here's one other choice, but it only works for written references. (They're strictly tongue-in-cheek, of course. ) “In my opinion, you will be lucky if you can get this employee to work for you. " or “I can recommend this candidate with no qualifications whatsoever. "
Liz Ryan is a former Fortune 500 HR executive, workplace expert and CEO of the global online network WorldWIT. She lectures internationally on the new-millennium workplace, networking, and work-life issues. Liz lives in Boulder, Colorado. (http://www.worldwit.org )