Don’t Want to Write a Letter of Recommendation? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

An employee recently left. She worked for me for 18 months. She never really seemed to want to be here, never got very good at her job, and never developed relationships with anyone on the team. At best, she seemed apathetic. She rather unceremoniously gave two weeks’ notice right before the holidays and it was inconvenient for me to have to replace her so quickly. In her exit interview with HR, she gave no indication of why she was leaving.  

After several weeks, I got an email from her asking me if I would be a reference and write her a recommendation. I have never received this kind of request from someone I didn’t enjoy working with and who made no effort to develop a relationship with me. I don’t want to say yes, because I don’t know any positive things I would say about her. And I really don’t feel like writing a recommendation, because, frankly, she left me high and dry.

Can I just say no? It seems…

Mean and Stingy

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Dear Mean and Stingy,

You can absolutely say no. But, since you seem like a decent person, you could also meet her halfway.

It sounds like your former employee (FE) did nothing to create relationships, never committed to the job, and left you in the lurch. You could tell her you don’t feel like you got to know her well and don’t know that anything you say would make a positive impression, and therefore she may want to use someone else as a reference. If she wants to pursue the issue with you, so be it. When potential employers check references, they don’t always ask detailed questions. They are often just making sure that employment history is accurate. I got a call from an outsourced service checking a reference recently, and it was clear they just wanted to make sure my former employee showed up for work and didn’t commit any crimes. If FE still wants to take her chances, she can—or she can use your HR partner to confirm the claim of employment.

If you end up writing the recommendation, you could ask her to write one herself and send it to you so you can edit and add personal touches. Again, you would only tell the truth. She must have been good at some things. You say she “never got very good”—does that mean she got good enough?

Of course, you have no way of knowing what was going on for FE while she worked for you. Maybe she was going through a hard time. Maybe she is super private and shy, and it’s difficult for her to connect with people. You have no idea why she left you high and dry, but she must have had her reasons. I would encourage you to try not to judge her. It would only be mean and stingy if you said mean and stingy things about her to others.

The fact that you are concerned with being mean and stingy makes me think that isn’t how you see yourself or what you are aiming for as a leader. When in doubt, take the high road. You have almost nothing to gain by being stingy and absolutely nothing to lose by giving FE the benefit of the doubt.

So, be kind, don’t judge, and tell the truth. No one can ask for more than that.

Love, Madeleine

About the Author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

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