How to Give a Work Reference (and When Not To)

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To give a reference, or not to give a reference? That is the question.

Being a helpful reference for someone looking for work can lead to some good business karma. But the protocol (read, permission) for giving references can vary depending on the workplace.

“Many places now don’t allow you to give references. They allow you to give dates and titles only.” says Priscilla Claman, president of the consulting firm Career Strategies and a contributor to the Harvard Business Review’s Guide to Getting the Right Job. She recommends that you figure out your policy “before somebody asks you for a reference.”

Still, if you are allowed to give more information (or plan to do so anyway), you should know what to say, since that the world of references can be particular.

To help illuminate the process, Claman walked WNYC's Charlie Herman, host of Money Talking, through a few points to consider.

1.     Ask preliminary questions. Claman says she always starts by asking the applicant why the position is right for his or her future. “That’s when a reference really makes a difference. It’s when they’re really specific and related to the job that the person is going for,” she says.

2.     Don’t write a letter. Unless it’s required, Claman says that written letters aren’t very credible to employers. “They think written references are dolled up…and they are.”

3.     Explain your relationship. To be a good reference, Claman advises to “start by saying how you know the person, and talk about what the person is good at.”

4.     Be positive. “If you have something very negative to say, you probably shouldn’t do the reference,” Claman says.

5.     Be honest. While being positive is important, it’s not worth risking your own integrity to go beyond what you are comfortable saying. Not to mention, Claman adds, that “you’re not helping them to give them a glowing reference for a job that they’re going to screw up.”

Have you ever given a reference that you later came to regret? Or maybe you've given a reference for someone and they never thank you for helping them get the job? Let us know! Send an email or leave comment below.

[Click on "Listen" to hear Claman talk through these steps and offer more advice.]

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