At any point in time, we will be either a reference seeker or a reference giver.

If you believe in karma – and you truly want to help a former superstar employee get to the next level – then you should be considerate about how to give a proper recommendation. That doesn’t mean that you’ll always hand out glowing praise. It’s actually your responsibility to be honest for both the new employer’s and the employee’s sake.

How do you navigate the sometimes awkward territory that surrounds agreeing – or not – to be a reference?

1) Check with HR for your organization’s reference protocol

    Before you say yes or no to a reference request, check with your HR department first. They may have certain rules in place as to whether (or how) you are able to speak to an individual’s previous experiences.

    Many companies have a formal policy that states that the HR department is responsible for all reference requests…and no one else can do so. By giving a candid reference, you may be violating not only company policy but perhaps local, state or federal laws if any of the commentary is viewed as unfavorable.

2) If the answer is no, be honest as to why

    If what’s causing you doubt about giving a reference isn’t corporate policy but rather the colleague’s less-than-stellar performance, then you might want to stick with the tried-and-true statement, “If you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all.”

    To let the requester down lightly, simply tell her (or him) that you’re not comfortable speaking about her skill set. If that doesn’t work, simply tell her outright that you weren’t happy with her previous performance, but you can say it in a way that sounds as if you don’t want to hurt her chances of landing the position.

3) Don’t be afraid to lead the conversation with the hiring manager

    While it may seem natural to wait for the hiring manager to ask questions, this approach may not convey the enthusiasm you have for your former coworker. Feel free to ask the hiring manager questions about what exactly the job duties entail. If you’re able to give more detailed examples and anecdotes, this will be perceived as more thoughtful and honest.

4) Be upfront about what you can speak to … and what you cannot

    Striking the right balance between a candidate’s strong suit and his weaker points is a tricky but crucial part of the reference-giving process. Don’t be afraid to give your requestee a heads-up on what you think you’ll say regarding his strengths and weaknesses. This will help better prepare him in case the hiring manager asks him about those points at a later time.

By following these 4 simple steps, you should be ready to give a superstar reference – or at the very least navigate those awkward waters by letting your colleague down gently.

(written by: wc)

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