do I have to give my ex-girlfriend a job reference?

A reader writes:

I have been asked for a reference, in my capacity as a manager, by an ex-girlfriend.

The relationship ended very badly for me (depression and on-going anti-depressant medication), so I’m quite gobsmacked/angry about this. I was her line manager’s manager at the time of her employment, but unfortunately she was made redundant at the same time, or otherwise it could of gone to her.

I’m sure I could be objective (well, I think), but this feels like a massive liberty. I’m hoping a generic HR reference will do, but is it reasonable for her to expect me to do this (frankly nothing surprises me from her)? And do I have a legal obligation?

Well, first, do not date people in your line of authority, even if there are other managers in between you and them.

Do not do it!

It is Very Bad Practice.

But you’ve already done it, so that doesn’t help. The pickle you’re now in is one of the many, many reasons this type of dating is a bad idea. Of course she should be able to ask her manager’s manager (you) for a reference, without you feeling like it’s a “massive liberty.” And at the same time, of course you shouldn’t be in the position of needing to give a job reference for an ex. Such is the pickling that results from manager-suborindate relationships.

But ideally you’d be able to be objective about your ex-girlfriend’s work and give her a reference that’s unbiased by your relationship with her. You should do this because you want to be a mature and civil person, and the type of manager who doesn’t let personal biases get in the way of professional assessments. There’s no legal obligation to provide a reference (assuming you’re in the U.S., which you might not be, since you said “gobsmacked”), but there’s a professional one, assuming the person did good work.

But if you can’t do it, or if it’s too painful for you, you can tell your ex that you wouldn’t be a credible reference since the two of you dated — which is true. Reference-checkers don’t want references from exes (or best friends, or spouses, or so forth).

And frankly, she should be using her direct manager anyway. It doesn’t matter that the direct manager was laid off; your ex should track her down and use her as the reference, and that would be true whether you dated or not. It’s just extra true since you did.

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