A reader writes:
How do you renege on a promise? I gave a problem employee a promise to be a reference and even wrote one up for her. I am new to management and came by it unprepared. I became pregnant last year and am now a new mom and running a small retail store.
Last year I hired an employee for sales, all the red flags were there, but I hired her anyway.
Two months ago after several transgressions, I fired her for strange behavior like giving her girlfriend access to my email (her girlfriend emailed me abusive emails whenever I reprimanded the employee), and finally when confronted she raged, yelled and threatened. So, I fired her.
Here's my dilemma: Out of misguided sympathy for her rough life and dire home situation. I promised her a reference letter. Now, that a week or two have passed, I am not feeling comfortable with this promise. She has since continued raging and escalated to texting my family asking "why aren't they friends with her on social networks" and explaining how she shouldn't have been fired.
I am uncomfortable with her behavior in a criminal sense (although I doubt I'm in any danger) but she's not acting rationally.
How do I renege on such a stupid promise and make my mistake less damaging than it already is!!?
I have received a call already from a employer asking me to call back. I want to speak the truth in a way that will minimize my ex-employee's reaction and maintain peace as much as possible.
Oh dear. Well, you probably don't need me to tell you this now, but don't promise a reference when you don't think you can be a good one.
In this case, I would recommend contacting the employee -- in writing, not via a phone call -- and very politely saying that while you wish her the best, you are uncomfortable with her behavior since her termination and no longer feel that you would be an effective reference for her. Tell her that you're happy to confirm dates of employment, job title, etc., but that you'd prefer that she use other references for more detailed information. If you want to, you can explain that contacting your family wasn't appropriate and you wouldn't be able to speak to her professionalism as a result.
Be as polite and nice about it as possible ... but also be prepared for her to continue attacking, possibly even more so. It sounds like it's probably unavoidable; you can't always get an easy/pleasant outcome, no matter how much you'd like one.
And then stick to that policy if you do receive reference calls. Simply explain to the caller that you're not able to provide information beyond dates of employment, job title, and responsibilities. They will press you to go further; you are entitled to decline to.
That said, some people might say that you should give a full and candid reference, explaining all the bad behavior she's indulged in. But in doing so, you'll be effectively going to war with this employee, and I don't think you want to do that. I suppose you could add something like, "Her behavior since leaving has made me reconsider my ability to serve as a reference," and then decline to provide details -- but you said you want to keep the peace as much as possible.