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Giving references - say it nicely or say nothing at all?

Were you ever told "if you can't say anything nice, then don't say anything at all"? Not a bad rule for a child looking to avoid trouble in the playground, but rather less helpful when it comes to the thorny problem of giving an employee a reference.

Your employee certainly isn't going to be happy if you give them a bad reference, especially if that means they end up missing out on the new job they were hoping to get. That could be just the encouragement they need to have another look at whether they can take you to an employment tribunal.



So how about "don't say anything at all"? A prospective employer doesn't have to be a genius to guess that your reluctance to give a reference might be covering up something you'd rather not put down in writing. So what will you say when they phone you asking why you didn't provide a reference?


Meanwhile, of course, your employee might well be justified in claiming that your refusal to give a reference is as bad as - or even worse than - just telling the truth.



Following the old childhood advice, you might look for something nice to say. That would make your employee happy. The problem is that it might well make his/her new employer very unhappy if they end up having to deal with a disastrous new hire that you deliberately decided not to warn them about.


So it should come as no surprise that employers increasingly restrict employment references to just a few basic facts, confirming job title and employment dates but refusing to say anything more. And they make a policy of doing this every time, regardless of whether an employee has been a dream or a nightmare.



It makes the employment reference next to useless, but it also minimises the risk of legal claims.



"If you can't say anything nice, have a policy of always saying the bare minimum and including appropriate disclaimers." It's not catchy, but it might be your best approach.



Chris Walker, specialist business writer, editor and content strategist

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