Author of "Your Journey from Fired to Hired"

Leadership Lessons: Should you say YES to reference requests?

Let’s face it, being asked to provide a personal recommendation or reference for someone is a huge compliment.  Sure, they asked because they want you to use your reputation to further their goals…but admittedly the unspoken respect for your accomplishments is pretty cool.

The bad thing is that these compliments can cloud our judgement.  Instead of really pondering the weight of what we’re being asked to do, we instead often give a resounding “Yes,” I’d be happy to!

In fact, I literally can’t count the number of times in my decades as a coach and mentor that I’ve seen people underestimate the weight that should be placed on a personal recommendation.  After all, it’s really your “seal of approval” for this person and a solid statement that you believe in both them and their abilities.

To put things in the political arena that it seems we can’t avoid right now, your personal recommendation is akin to an “endorsement.”  It’s public, it WILL BE scrutinized and you are certainly judged based on the abilities of the person you choose to support.

If you think that all sounds a little ominous, you’re pretty observant.  But it can also be an incredibly gratifying and uplifting experience to help the career of the “right” person.  Use the tips below to navigate this challenging topic:

  • Don’t Know? Say No!  Before you can begin to provide insight into someone’s abilities, it’s imperative you know their strengths, weaknesses and work habits.  So yes, as much as you might want to help your sisters, friends, daughter whom you’ve never met….giving a personal recommendation just simply isn’t in your best interest.  In fact, an ill placed recommendation can cause leadership to question both your judgment and decision making abilities.
  • Mediocrity isn’t Newsworthy. Since you were asked to serve as a personal reference, I’m going out on a limb (not really!) and guessing that you’re a bit of an overachiever.  Not that big of limb really because let’s face it, no one asks someone who constantly misses deadlines and completes “average” work to be a reference.   Just as you are judged every day by the quality of work you produce, you are judged by the people you “endorse.”  Choose carefully and always remember you want your name to by synonymous with outstanding and unexpected results…not mediocrity!
  • Skip the Easy Button! Admittedly on the topic of recommendations, it’s much easier to say “yes” than “no.”   But it doesn’t mean it’s the right choice for you OR them!   You see, there are two ways to look at your refusal.  The obvious is that you are being a kill-joy and perhaps standing in the way of someone achieving their next big opportunity.  But the second and more likely is that you could be protecting them from a challenge they aren’t quite ready to tackle.  Sure it’s not near as much fun as saying “yes” but often it’s the best choice for everyone involved.
  • Less is certainly MORE! For my frequent readers, you’re aware that my dad was legendary for his ability to “speak little and say much.”  Truth be told, he was really my first lesson that people who talk non-stop often say the least.  You see, providing countless personal support reduces the “value” of your words.  If you really want to help, save your recommendation for that contact that truly inspires you!  It will be much more effective for them and you’ll feel better too!

While there’s no greater feeling than helping the “right” person get that next big job or stretch assignment, always remember that it’s your reputation on the line!


Article written by:

Kathi Miller-Miller is a sought after career specialist and author of “Your Journey from Fired to Hired.” Kathi draws on her 25+ years of success (and failures!) to offer her readers advice on topics ranging from dealing with a boss that drives you crazy to managing millennials...all in a light-hearted and easy to read style.

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