Weasling Out of a Job Reference

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Liz Ryan Speaker, writer, soprano and mom; founder, Human Workplace

A lady called me on the phone and said "Help!"

What's up? I asked.

This guy who used to work for me, she said, he's using me as a reference. I don't want to  be his reference. He's the nicest guy in the world, and the biggest slacker you can imagine. He's the guy who would sit with you in a meeting and agree to do three things, and one half-hour later would have forgotten every single thing you talked about it. I can't be a reference for him. I wouldn't have one positive thing to say.

You said he's a nice guy....I countered.

Right, she said. I can say he's nice.

Well, I said, you could use the old left-handed reference compliment.

What's that? She wanted to know.

You can say to the next employer, "In my opinion you will be very lucky if you can get this guy to work for you."

Ha ha, she said. But seriously.

Okay, I said. How long did the guy work for you? Seven months, she said.

Seven months? Why such a short time? He quit, she said, thank god,  because I didn't know what to do.

So why did he quit?

No special reason that I remember, she said. He was going to take a steamer to Australia, or something like that, she recalled.

That's it then, I said. You say to the guy "We worked together for a short time several years ago and I didn't get much opportunity to see what you're capable of. When you left the company there wasn't a lot of evidence of your having been there, and your sudden departure without much explanation was puzzling. For these reasons I wouldn't be a great reference for you."

That makes sense, she said. But what if he uses me as a reference again anyway, and some company calls me?

You verify his dates of employment and his title, I said. You owe him that. Don't say anything negative to them, of course. If they ask you to talk about him on the phone you can say "I remember Randy as a nice guy." Then button your lip.

So I can't say to them, Ask him if he's planning to take another steamer to Australia?

No, don't say that, I said. It sounds a little bit like you're kind of angry with this guy, still.

Not really, she said. He's a nice guy. You just got me thinking about that steamer.