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I had a college professor, Dr David Bernstein, once talk about recommendations and referrals. The line he said has stuck with me for near 20 years since I heard it:

“Don’t give a reference for someone if you can’t, by all good faith, make them sound like they walk on water.” – Dr David Bernstein

Over the past 20 years of my career, I’ve had dozens, if not hundreds of people ask me for a recommendation. Whether they’re going for a new job, a security clearance or some sort of promotion, it’s the first thing they need to iron out. They need solid references so there is more trust built around their case.

This seems to make a lot of sense, but, it’s really hard to tell someone no. You can wuss out and say “oh, my company policy won’t allow me to provide a referral”. Ok, that really may be the case, but, your integrity is important. Sometimes, we need to tell people the truth in order to help them grow.

If you have to say no, let them know why. No need to be mean, but be constructive. If they push you for “why” you can’t give a recommendation, talk to them about specific incidents or habits that they could improve upon.

If they have done something in the past to break your trust, and they still ask you, then you can laugh at them. That’s a no go. Protect your integrity at all costs.

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