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Do I have to give an ineffective employee a reference if asked?

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Two HR experts advise a reader who has been asked to provide an employee reference for someone who was considered ineffective at their job. Is it best to come clean with the prospective company? Are you obliged to provide the reference at all?

 

I have been asked to provide a reference for someone who was a junior executive in my last firm, but whom I didn’t rate as particularly good at their job. I am torn on this request as I got on very well with the employee on a personal level, but there were continuing issues with his performance that were consistently addressed during his employment.

I could do the easy thing and write a bog standard reference without much detail but I feel that is unfair to the prospective new company. Of greater concern is how it reflects on me personally if this person gets the job and is then shown up to be ineffective. What is the best way to handle this?

 

 

Fiona Wade, HR Operations Team Lead, PwC

I would provide a minimal, standard reference with the former employees job title and dates as he is legally entitled to a standard reference from the company. I would also provide my contact details to the prospective new employer and should they ring me I would answer truthfully any questions regarding his performance.

If he were to get the job based on the employment reference, which just states his employment dates and job title, I wouldn’t feel guilty if he secured the new job. In my opinion, the onus is on the new employer to determine if there were any previous performance issues in any of his previous employment. Therefore, if he was to continue to underperform in his new role, it would be the new employers responsibility to have asked for a more comprehensive employment reference regarding his performance in advance of them hiring him.

 

Many employers will read between the lines of a statement of employment being given when a reference has been requested.

 

Jennifer Davies, HR Consultant & Coach, CapturedHR.ie

Firstly, I would let the former employee know that due to performance issues throughout their employment, despite liking them as a friend or on a personal level, I would not be in a position to provide a positive reference. This would most likely prevent the employee from using you as a referee but ensures that your integrity is intact. I think as a manager it’s important to tell your employees how they are performing throughout their time in employment. If the performance issues were communicated then it should not come as a surprise to an employee that a positive reference could not be given.

If this is not feasible or the employee has already named you as a reference, I would only confirm their title and dates of employment by providing a statement of employment rather than a reference. Many employers will read between the lines of a statement of employment being given when a reference has been requested. If they did follow up and contact me to find out further information then of course I would give my honest and objective feedback on the employee to the new employer.

It may be a difficult situation to be in but it is your integrity and reputation on the line so as with most situations, I find that being up front and honest is the best policy.

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