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What to Do When You DON’T Want to Give Someone a Recommendation

By Kelsey Mulvey

If you’re reading this story, you’re probably at that surreal stage of your career where former interns and assistants are asking you for recommendations. This can come in the form of a written recommendation (usually reserved for graduate school applications) or oral recommendations (for job applications).

While most folks who ask are people you’d happily refer, there’s the chance that someone you weren’t impressed with is asking you to vouch for them. Whether they consistently arrived two hours late to work, spent more time on their phone than their assignments, or uttered an intern faux pas, one thing’s for sure: You’re not giving them the rec. (After all, your reputation is on the line!) There are three ways you can handle this situation.

Option 1: Just say no.

“First and foremost, know that you are under no legal or moral obligation to give someone a recommendation. This is not something to feel guilty about. If they don’t deserve a glowing recommendation, then don’t give one,” says Jennifer Lee Magas, vice president of Magas Media Consultants.

If you prefer the direct approach, just say that you don’t feel comfortable doing so, or that your manager won’t let you. “You can use your boss as an excuse or blame it on HR policy,” says Chandra Turner, founder of Ed2010 and Talent Fairy, a boutique recruiting agency. “A lot of companies don’t like you giving recommendations anyway, good or bad. Because if the person were to not get the job because of something you said, they could sue you or your company. This is rare, but it’s why the rule exists.”

Option 2: Say you’re not the right person.

Often the reason that you don’t want to give the rec is not because they were terrible employees, but because you don’t know them well, or remember their work well enough to come up with the words that will help them. In this case, says Magas, “politely decline, saying someone else could write a better letter for him or her.” And it’s probably true. You could gently suggest another editor who worked closer with them, or perhaps a professor or other employer who could give a more detailed account.

Option 3: Give the rec… but don’t rave.

If you’re feeling like you owe this employee something — after all, someone probably reluctantly gave one for you once — make it easier on easier on you. “Ask them to send you a description reminding you of what you worked on together, their updated resume, and the job description for the job that they are going for. This makes it easier to tailor your recommendation and make it relevant,” says Turner.

Just avoid saying anything negative, says Magas. “Someone is reaching out for your help, and if you’re going to help despite your disinterest, at least do them the courtesy of making it nice.”


Kelsey Mulvey is a New York-based writer and commerce reporter at Business Insider. She has written for several publications such as The Wall Street Journal, Time Out New York,, Check out more of her work at KelseyMulveyWrites.comand follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

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