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Home | Got a Minute | Bad bosses | No. 21 – How do I turn down a request to be someone’s work referee?

No. 21 – How do I turn down a request to be someone’s work referee?

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21 July 2021

Each week, Dr Kirstin Ferguson tackles questions on the workplace, career and leadership in her advice column “Got a minute?” This week, how to avoid being a referee for an ex-colleague, uncertain job prospects in midlife, and dealing with an inexperienced and uninterested CEO.

One of my former work colleagues has asked me to be a referee for a role at a new company. I really don’t want to get involved because while I like my colleague on a personal level, they are pretty lazy at work and so anything I say in a reference will be stretching the truth. I don’t know how to tell my colleague that I hope they get the job, but I would prefer they choose someone else to be their referee. What would you advise?

Giving a reference is a serious undertaking that I have never taken lightly. I made it a policy about 20 years ago that, as a general rule, I don’t provide job references. My reasons were that (a) I was getting asked all the time and so it can become quite burdensome, and I wanted to be able to make saying no a little easier and (b) it meant I didn’t have to pick and choose between who I gave a reference to and who I said no to which avoided the kind of dilemma you are having now. That said, whenever I am asked about someone’s work performance (whether formally or informally) I am always impeccably honest. I may not be as blunt as to say “this person is a lazy so-and-so and getting them to respond to an email is a Herculean task”, but I will definitely find a diplomatic way to get the message across if asked directly.

One possible way to extricate yourself might be to suggest to your colleague that you are not the best placed to give the reference because you are not as senior/experienced/high-profile as Person X and kick the can down the road to Person X as a viable alternative while you run the other way. Good luck!

I’m 50 in a few months and am keen to land a permanent role and find my workplace “home”. Before moving to a small city my career was moving in an upward trajectory and now 10 years on (after having a child thrown into the mix) my job feels stagnant and uncertain. What advice would you give?

Have you had a think about all the elements of what might make up your ideal workplace? What type of work do you most love to do? What are the ways of working your most enjoy? Are you missing being in a workplace that really challenges you with new experiences and ideas?

Whatever you might be searching for, I think being really clear about what it is you want in your own mind is critical because then you can start to “curate” how you want to spend your time – both at work and at home. Given your years of experience, you will have much to offer any employer so get clear about what it is you are searching for and then seek it out. Also remember that the right role for you may be in an unexpected place so keep your mind open to left-field opportunities. It may be that after your long career doing one type of work, moving into a completely new field or experience may be where you will find your new home!

I have a new, inexperienced CEO who is rarely available, offers little value and seems uninterested in the role. My teammates and I are utterly exhausted and are now discussing with each other how we get out of an organisation we love and have helped build. How do we raise this with our board – which thinks the business is thriving – in a manner that protects the organisation and our reputations?

A new, inexperienced CEO is one thing but a new CEO who is also unavailable and uninterested is another (very concerning) issue altogether. I am not surprised that you and your work colleagues have had enough. This seems like a serious challenge that your board would and should want to know about – do you have anything like 360-degree reviews or employee engagement surveys where you could confidentially share your feedback on the CEO?

If not, then it sounds like you and your colleagues could think about how you want to approach this together. Strength in numbers may help to give you the ability to either speak directly with the CEO about some of your concerns. If that falls on deaf ears, try to speak with someone on the board you feel would be open to hearing about what is going on within the business, and ask for their advice. It may be that the board has appointed someone to the role who is simply not ready and this will need to be addressed quickly before too much damage is done.

Send your questions about work, careers and leadership to Your name and any identifying information will not be used. Letters may be edited.

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