How to Give a Negative Reference in a Positive Way

Include constructive comments in your reference.

Include constructive comments in your reference.

There are times when a manager is contacted by a potential employer and has to give a negative reference for a current or former employee. The potential employer needs to know the truth about the job candidate, but you can give an honest and sincere reference without bad-mouthing the worker. Offer insight so the hiring manager won't automatically write the employee off and might be able to work around weaknesses and shortcomings.

Avoid a Lawsuit

You want to give a negative reference in a positive way, so a former or current employee doesn't have legal grounds to sue you or your company. Even if your comments are valid and you might even win in a lawsuit, it isn't usually worth your time or emotional investment. Ask the employee to sign a legal release form that allows you to share information, both positive and negative, with an inquiring potential employer. You never know if the person requesting the reference is posing as a potential employer and is really a private investigator, debt collector, stalker, identity thief or ex-spouse, according to the Texas Workforce Commission.

State Something Positive

Start with something positive when you issue a written or a verbal reference for an employee. Even if the employee is a troublemaker or has poor work habits, find at least one or two polite and constructive things to say. You don't want the hiring manager or the employee to think that you have a vendetta or ulterior motive for your negative review. Focus on the employee's administrative strengths, technological skills or years of experience in the industry. Incorporating positive remarks into the conversation will help you appear kind-spirited and cooperative.

Stay Professional

Stick with business language, work-related comments and the facts when you give a negative review. You maintain a high level of professionalism by avoiding slanderous or rude statements. For example, if the employee is lazy and unproductive, say, "At times, he has trouble completing tasks and meeting deadlines." Or if the employee doesn't work well with others, say, "He is most productive when he works on individual assignments." You can prove facts with witnesses and documentation, so avoid opinions, value judgments and moral criticism, according to the Texas Workforce Commission.

Be Honest

Be honest about the employee's weaknesses, but present them in a positive light. Potential employers realize that no job applicant is perfect, so you can present negative comments by explaining how the employee compensates for his weaknesses. Discuss problem areas and provide concrete examples, so the hiring manager can accurately assess whether the employee has potential and just needs heavy supervision or more training. You might say, "He lacks organizational skills, but often makes up for it by working extra hours." Or, "He struggles with accounting software programs, but is always willing to attend training seminars." Avoid comparing the employee to other workers and keep your personal feelings out of the discussion. It's perfectly legal to give a negative reference, as long as it's honest and accurate, according to

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About the Author

As curriculum developer and educator, Kristine Tucker has enjoyed the plethora of English assignments she's read (and graded!) over the years. Her experiences as vice-president of an energy consulting firm have given her the opportunity to explore business writing and HR. Tucker has a BA and holds Ohio teaching credentials.

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