Do I need to give a positive reference? Etiquette tips for referees

27 May 2021 by Stuart Hunter

Ask any recruiter or hiring manager, and they'll tell you that a negative reference is better than no reference at all. When it boils down to it, a reference is simply another way for a recruiter to collect vital information to determine whether a candidate is right for a role. Regardless of whether your comments are positive or negative, the more honest information and context you can provide, the better.

Do I need to give a positive reference? Etiquette tips for referees

Telling half-truths

Must you tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? The old adage "honesty is the best policy" rings true here, but only to an extent. Every individual will have a slightly different take on this depending on their ethical beliefs, but when it comes to reference checks, you are not legally obligated to provide information that you are not asked for directly. It is up to the recruiter to compile a comprehensive series of questions that are relevant to the role, just as it is up to the candidate to provide a comprehensive list of relevant skills and experience. Your job as a referee is to answer the questions honestly and with context.

Providing context

Regardless of whether your comments are positive or negative, you need to provide context so the hiring manager or recruiter doesn't jump to conclusions. Having an employee arrive late to work because they're caring for their elderly mother is different from rocking up 30 minutes late every Monday with a raging hangover and underperforming as a result.

The same applies to a once-off incident versus an ongoing issue with the employee. A disagreement between two colleagues about a missed deadline or miscommunication probably doesn't need to be raised during the reference. However, if the candidate has a history of workplace quarrels and causing division among coworkers, it may be worth explaining to the hiring manager if and how these matters were resolved.

In a role where teamwork and collaboration are paramount, a candidate who works better alone simply may not be the right person for the job. Likewise, if the candidate thrives through working closely with others, a solitary role in a work-from-home capacity perhaps wouldn't be a good fit. Providing this information within the context of the proposed role will help the hiring manager make an informed decision.

Avoiding the "D" word

Some referees may be concerned about being accused of defamation when providing a negative reference, particularly if the candidate doesn't land the job. However, as long as what you're saying is truthful and can be supported by contextual, anecdotal or physical evidence, you have nothing to worry about. Performance reports, HR complaints and past communications with the candidate may provide support in the "worst case scenario".

In most cases though, as long as your reference speaks to the job-related performance and suitability of the candidate and is not a personal attack (because they always eat the good biscuits in the variety pack first!), you can be comfortable knowing that you're in the clear.

Too busy to provide a thorough reference?

It takes time to provide a quality reference – time which you may not have to spare. The great thing about Referoo's online reference checking tool is that everything can be done at your leisure. Rather than receiving a call in the middle of a particularly busy day and having to rush through your answers, you can complete your responses in your own time. In the case of a phone reference, you can schedule the call for a time that suits you. This will allow for a more honest, thorough reference.

If you think you're the wrong person to be providing the reference, you can always decline to be a referee & provide this reason through Referoo with a simple click of a button. If you're letting the recruiter down over the phone, it helps to provide a reason why you're not willing to provide the reference for that particular candidate.

Understanding the value of a quality reference

It's important to remember that your reference doesn't always have to be glowing. If you don't think you can provide a positive reference for someone, you can still give an honest one without tanking the candidate's chances.

Cultural nuance plays a significant role here. In certain countries, giving bad references is frowned upon. But in truth, no reference is a bad reference. It's an opportunity to provide invaluable information about a candidate to the hiring manager. A good reference is constructive, detailed, and delivered with honesty.

If the roles were reversed, you would want to be equipped with as much information about your candidate as possible to make an informed decision. So forget about positive or negative and just tell the truth.