Three Ways to Say No to a Reference Request

Have you ever been asked to provide a reference for someone whom you would struggle to praise?
This short article from yesterday’s Harvard Business Review blog offers three quite elegant strategies to save face on both sides.

Three Ways to Say No to a Reference Request

by Jodi Glickman  |   2:00 PM December 5, 2013

How should Christopher respond? Could he, in good conscience, say yes to providing a letter of reference to someone he didn’t like or respect?  Could he say no, and tell Theo off?  Christopher listened politely, vacillating between surprise and schadenfrude, racking his brain for a way out of a seemingly no-win situation.

Saying “no” these days isn’t easy.  Most of us are terrible at it.  There are plenty of people who assure us we’ll be happier if we say no more often. The challenge isn’t entirely philosophical — we know we should say no more often. It’s tactical: how do you actually say no when you’re put on the spot?

If you find yourself in the unenviable position of being asked for a reference letter you have no interest in, or ability to write, there is a way out.  In fact, there are three ways out — three excuses that are perfectly suitable.  They include:

1. Not being willing or able to spend the time
2. Not knowing someone well enough
3. Not being able to provide a glowing review

Not willing to spend the time. It’s not that you don’t have a little extra time on your hands; it’s that you’re not willing to take the time from what’s important to you — whether it be mission-critical tasks at work or a spending time with your family.  Steve Job was famous for saying “no” to 1000 thingsand using “no” as a strategic business decision. If the ultimate sign of success is an open calendar, think of this “no” as a move towards freeing up your most valuable asset.   Play the travel card, the closing a deal card, or the family card — concede that you don’t have the ability to serve as a worthy reference or write an adequate letter of recommendation because it’s takes too much effort away from what you are truly focused on in the moment.

Not knowing someone well enough. The best references come from people who know you, your character, and your work product extremely well.  If you’re asked to vouch for someone you don’t know well, the chances of you knocking it out of the park are extremely low.  It’s in no one’s best interest for you to spend your political capital endorsing someone you don’t know intimately or can’t speak about genuinely.

So be honest, and decline on behalf of the other person’s best interests: “Medha, I wish I could help, but I really don’t think I know you well enough to provide as strong a reference as you probably need and deserve.  I’d encourage you to reach out to someone who knows your work style/product/ethic better.  As much as I’d like to help, I think you’ll be better served with someone else.”

Not being able to provide a glowing review. Finally, if you are Christopher and you simply can’t find enough (or any) good things to say about your former boss, it’s in everyone’s best interest to bow out early.  Tell Theo that you’d love to help, but you recognize that the letter of reference you’d provide likely wouldn’t reach the level of praise he’s shooting for.

It makes for a tough conversation for sure.  But ultimately, it shows that you have Theo’s best interest at heart.  The option of saying yes and then badmouthing your boss isn’t really an option — that’s a below the belt tactic you should avoid at all costs.

So take the high road.  Have the difficult conversation upfront, but know that your conscience stays intact and Theo’s future job prospects aren’t lampooned by you.  It’s one thing to decline endorsing someone; it’s another thing entirely to say yes and then jeopardize their future.


Jodi Glickman is a speaker and founder of communication training firm Great on the Job. Her book Great on the Job is out, and she is also a contributor to the HBR Guide to Getting the Right Job. Follow her on Twitter at @greatonthejob.

Three Ways to Say No to a Reference Request –

Three Mental Tricks to Deal with People Who Annoy You

I came across these three little tricks on Life Hacker this morning and thought they were worth sharing.

1) ‘Get Big’ – in other words, recognise your irritation for what it is – an irritation. It’s only a little thing in the big scheme of things. Change your perspective by growing taller and looking down on the problem

2) Float down the stream. imagine yourself somewhere calm and beautiful, floating weightlessly down a stream. The irritation is gently slowly soothed away…

3) Give them a mental hug. Not sure I can go this far, but the principle is that you empathise with the person who’s annoying you.
What mental tricks or tools do you use to smooth your path through the working day?

Three Mental Tricks to Deal with People Who Annoy You –

Missing the obvious

I was reminded recently of an occasion when I was talking to a colleague about swimming and she told me she couldn’t swim well because she couldn’t get her breath properly. She said she was going to get some lessons.

Over the following weekend, she went swimming with her young children who swim like waterbabies and asked one of them how you should breathe when you’re swimming. “You breathe out under water” was the answer. “But how?” she asked? “You blow bubbles through your nose.” said her son. Sudden blinding enlightenment! All her life she’d taken a breath, swum a stroke, lifted her head, breathed out and in again quickly and then taken the next stroke.

Now to you it may seem obvious that you breathe in when your face is out of the water and out when your face is in the water, but it wasn’t to her – until that moment. For me, the lesson is that we all have blind spots and it pays to be open to new learning from all sources. And it isn’t necessarily people older than you who have the wisdom or knowledge to help you move on.

And for anyone for whom it wasn’t obvious – now you know!

Power, presence and perceptions

A bit of pondering on an autumn afternoon off…
As we move up the ladder at work, whether we become lecturers or administrators or managers or other holders of senior positions, we change and grow and our knowledge increases and our experience broadens. Our skills and abilities stretch and our opinions become more robust. Our viewpoints change as we see the bigger picture. Maybe we have to become more focussed on strategy, perhaps appearing less caring about the smaller things – and I’d say that’s natural and is probably the only way those responsible for large organisations can function effectively. We may also dress differently – more formally perhaps – which changes the physical perception of our presence. Power always adds presence (I think because of the obligations that come with it), whether we recognise it or not.

But I’m willing to bet that inside, we feel the same as we always did. I was speaking to an elderly gentleman the other day and asked him if he felt any different having reached his eighty-fifth year. His response confirmed my own experience: he felt exactly the same as he had in his twenties – it was merely that his image reflected in the mirror in a morning was different.

The perceptions bit of this ramble though, is about how others perceive us. When you were promoted to a position of leadership amongst your colleagues, how did your attitude towards them change? And more to the point, how did their attitude to you alter? Like it or not, someone appointed to lead suddenly becomes ‘them’… ‘Management (TM)’. Suddenly we are no longer ‘us’ but have become ‘them’. No doubt you spent some time thinking about how you managed the transition and I’d be interested to hear your thoughts and experiences.

Of one thing I’m certain – the effect we, in our new positions, have on those with whom we were once ‘us’ is something we need to consider and take very seriously. We appear different and have a different ‘presence’ whether we know it or not. I’ll give you an illustration…
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Lingualy Turns Your Web Browsing Into a Chance to Learn a New Language

Lingualy Turns Your Web Browsing Into a Chance to Learn a New Language – <a href=" Now here’s a clever idea. It’s an extension for the Chrome browser which helps you learn a new language by providing translations based on the web pages you’re browsing, thus ensuring you’re learning language around your interests rather than explaining that your postilion has been struck by lightning and you need to catch a tram.
Only a few languages available thus far, but I suspect more will be added.

Break Bad Habits by Keeping Your Plan Simple

Break Bad Habits by Keeping Your Plan Simple –
Research from the British Psychological Society suggests strongly that trying to change too many habits at once doesn’t work, whereas focusing on one at a time does. This should be no surprise to anyone who’s ever over-committed themselves, but it’s still tempting when you’re in ‘let’s make changes’ mode to attempt too much all at once.

Here’s one habit I’m breaking – a bit at a time. I have decided to avoid ‘trying’ at all costs. This may seem an odd thing to say, but I know from experience that you can waste all your effort in ‘trying’ without ever actually doing whatever it is that needs to be done. So here’s the challenge: expunge ‘trying’ from your vocabulary.

Productivity Tricks from George Washington

George Washington was known as a very methodical man who lived his life in an orderly fashion and apparently, as a schoolboy,  copied out The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation (recently re-published) by which to live his own life.

Some of these may be outdated now, but a few, especially when you read them with 2013’s technology and the way we live our lives today in mind, still seem very relevant!

4. In the presence of others, sing not to yourself with a humming voice, or drum with your fingers or feet. (Please can we add “nor click your biro”?)

14. Turn not your back to others, especially in speaking; jog not the table or desk on which another reads or writes; lean not upon anyone.

18. Read no letter, books, or papers (I would add in “or electronic device”!) in company, but when there is a necessity for the doing of it, you must ask leave; come not near the books or writings of another so as to read them unless desired, or give your opinion of them unasked. Also look not nigh when another is writing a letter.

20. The gestures of the body must be suited to the discourse you are upon.

35. Let your discourse with men of business be short and comprehensive.

73. Think before you speak, pronounce not imperfectly, nor bring out your words too hastily, but orderly and distinctly.

How many times this week have you behaved in a way Washington wouldn’t have?

You can read a lot more about Washington and the way re lived and regulated his days productively in this article: Productivity Tricks from George Washington –

Deconstruction as a productivity tool?

An article I read recently got me thinking more about deconstruction and it’s come up again in an interesting context.

Chefs frequently deconstruct familiar or classic dishes to find a new perspective and, in conversation with a colleague from the public library service the other day, she mentioned that she had been encouraged to ‘deconstruct’ the services they offer to see if she could discover new approaches to what they do and how they do it.

It struck me as an innovative (and timely) approach we could take to the problem endemic in many institutions – dare I say especially universities – in that we have a tendency to build up our offerings by constant incremental addition rather than by stopping and standing back occasionally and questioning exactly *why* we do things in a particular way.