I've got to write a reference for a member of staff who, frankly, I'm really relieved to be seeing the back of! Obviously I don't want the job offer to be rescinded, but equally I don't want to lie, especially as I know one of the people my colleague is going to be working with. What's the best tactic to pursue?
It's easy to inflate the importance of references. The new potential employer has already made the decision to hire based on criteria which you may not know or share and is likely to be looking for reasons to prove that this is indeed the right decision. It would probably take a very damning document indeed to dissuade him or her.
Fear of being sued by the candidate for malicious defamation has led many employers to take refuge in bland statements or even to refuse to give a traditional reference - merely confirming that the candidate did do a particular job at such and such a salary for the stated length of time. You could take this route if you wished.
An alternative is to give a brief, calm and descriptive rather than evaluative account of this staff member's achievements in the role without dodging away from shortcomings, leaving it to the new employer to call you to explore further if they wish.
You should make sure that everything you say is based on evidence and not on assumption. Generally speaking,
it is good practice to avoid sweeping judgments of someone's character or personality and to concentrate on actual behaviour. If in doubt, run the draft past your HR specialist.
Should the job offer be withdrawn, this leaves you with the responsibility you have seem to have dodged: to tackle this person's poor performance through firm and fair feedback, setting improvement objectives and making the career consequences of failure very clear.
Management coach and director, Management Futures