Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Help! My Friend is Unfit for a Referral

Al Switzler

Al Switzler is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Conversations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

As we all know, this is a tough job market for both job seekers and employers looking to fill specific and highly skilled roles. I have been lucky enough to land a great job at an admired company and several people have asked me to refer them for our open positions. These are skilled and qualified candidates, but the trouble is I can’t recommend everyone in good faith. Their weak points (communication skills, in particular) or past behavior I observed at work give me pause. I don’t feel comfortable pointing this out and I can’t ignore their requests without looking like a jerk! How can I take the high road here?


A Dear Uncomfortable,

For most of us, deciding how to be candid and truthful is often challenging and uncomfortable. And yet, there are some people who don’t seem to have any problem with candor—in fact they vote by their words and actions for being brutally honest. In your situation, these folks would have no problem saying something like, “Are you kidding? You have a lot of skills, but interpersonally you’re a cross between a dweeb and a jerk. Forget it.” If someone challenged them about their civility, they would wax eloquent about being one of the few with the character and courage to speak the truth.

Others vote for the opposite approach—brutal silence. In the situation you’re talking about—employment references—they create a policy or hide behind a policy that allows them to say something like, “In our company, references that come from friends or acquaintances do not count. Sorry.” Or, “Only references from managers count in this new company.” They find a way to sidestep the real issue. I imagine the foundations of this kind of dishonesty come from the old adage, If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.

Either tactic will ultimately have negative consequences. The brutally honest tactic will no doubt hurt the relationship immediately and the speaker will justify it by saying, “I told him the truth.” Brutal silence or kind dishonesty may not hurt the relationship immediately, but the lack of honest feedback also has the potential to hurt the person who asked for help.

Of course, neither of these tactics is ideal. Both are forms of what we’ve called the “Fool’s Choice” in our new edition of Crucial Conversations. People who make the Fool’s Choice think they have to choose between these two bad alternatives: “I can tell them the truth and lose them as a friend or I can be less than candid and keep them as a friend.”

The masters we’ve studied over the last thirty years use a different tactic. When they feel that they have to choose between two bad options such as candor or kindness, they avoid the Fool’s Choice by pausing and looking for the “and” instead of the “or.” They might say something like, “How can I tell this person that I don’t feel comfortable writing a recommendation and show him that I truly want to be helpful?” Or it might sound like this: “How can I say ‘no’ and keep her as a friend?” In both of these statements, we are trying to find the “and.” We are trying to clarify what we really want and what we really don’t want.

I suggest you do the following.

Your first job is to prepare for the conversation. Think through what you can say and how you’ll say it. When someone springs this request on you and others are present, you should delay. You might say that you’d welcome the opportunity to consider it and ask if you could talk later. This preparation brings you to the point of “taking the high road.”

I think the high road is being able to tell someone the specific reasons you are not able to refer him or her in a way that shows you are a friend. What you don’t want to do is try to soften the message by beginning with a string of praises before delivering the whammy. For example, “I think you are very technical, have great computer skills, and work very hard, but I think your communication skills would not allow you to perform well in the jobs available at this company.”

What is a better approach? After you consider the person’s whole resume, find a private and safe place to talk. Begin by saying that after your consideration, you find yourself in a dilemma. You want to be helpful to your friend and helpful to your company. Tell your friend that you can’t recommend him or her because you don’t think it would be a good fit. Ask if you can share your reasons why, then tell your friend the specific reasons and try to give some suggestions that you think might help him or her improve. Tell him or her this was a tough decision but you wanted to be a friend as well as be honest with your company.

One approach won’t work for every friend. But regardless of the person, make sure that before you speak up, you find out what you really want (to help your friend) and what you don’t want (to refer someone to your company who isn’t a good fit or to lose a friend).

In your efforts to avoid making the Fool’s Choice you will find yourself on that high road.

Best wishes,


You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

3 thoughts on “Help! My Friend is Unfit for a Referral”

  1. Laura Moen

    Great topic! This is an example of an issue that many of us face in different forms every day. When I was a college professor, I would get requests from almost everyone who took a course from me or who had me as an advisor to provide a recommendation for something – medical school, graduate school, a job, etc. And, of course, not everyone had the same level of qualifications for these varied requests, which meant that I had to deal with a number of potentially difficult situations. I found it was useful first of all to do exactly what was recommended here – think it out before I had the conversation with someone. But I also realized that there were many ways to handle such requests. I made sure that everyone who asked me understood that I would not misrepresent their qualifications, and I also asked them what they’d particularly like me to emphasize about their skills. This often provided the basis for a conversation about how strong a letter I would be able to write, but it would be in context and I always gave someone the option of asking someone else who might know them better or have a more favorable perspective.

  2. Monica Kane

    For the response on Q&A Help! My Friend is Unfit for a Referral
    I really found this article to be helpful and just wanted to fill in one small part that to me seemed to be key for the advice to sit well within my soul.
    To prepare for the conversation, I understood the first step is to check in with yourself and determine what you really want. To be a good friend and connect with them consistently –that would require that I am honest and fair. My best guess is that there is a little bit of attribution error going on here with this guy, looking at past behavior and deciding that they posses character traits that are written in stone. If I were in his shoes, I would identify what I really wanted out of the relationship. My conversation would include observations of the past, with a question to my friend of how I might see their side of the observed situation and ask for honest guidance in how I could put in a recommendation based on what I know.
    An example would look like this “in your last job you told me that you hated data entry and that you wanted to quit because your wrists hurt and you didn’t want to develop carpel tunnel syndrome. This job you are asking me to recommend you for would require a bit of data entry. I am concerned the job you want would recreate your last job scenario and would reflect on me negatively. I’m not willing to stick my neck out that far. Would you be willing to go into a different position?” The topic is interchangeable, but the structure is the same for any topic. The structure is: my observation; my story; their story as I best understand it; my request for understanding; establishing my boundary; suggested resolution. It takes some work, but if you really want to connect consistently, it’s worth it.

  3. Sara

    Thank you! This was so helpful. I have been in the same dilemma for the past few months. Every time a position opens, I have a friend that applies and wants a recommendation – no matter what the position is and whether she does or doesn’t have the experience/edu for it. I now will be better prepared (and honest) the next time she approaches me.

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