Dear Margo: Letters of Reference

Margo Howard’s advice

Letters of Reference

Dear Margo: A household employee of mine will no longer be working for me, by mutual agreement. She wasn’t terrible, but neither would I call her top notch. And the problem is: I have to call her something because she has asked for a letter of reference. I am conflicted about how to proceed. I don’t want to harm her chances for gainful employment, but neither do I want to stick another woman with someone who really wasn’t acceptable to me. A friend of mine said you can get sued for sending out a negative reference. Is this true? What would you do in this situation? — Concerned

Dear Con: As in libel, truth is a successful defense. Anybody can sue anybody, however, and who wants to go through a lawsuit? When it comes to letters of reference, legal action is unusual in the domestic worker category. Factual accuracy, I repeat, is crucial. In business, the fear is greater, which is why some companies only confirm employment dates, etc., or refuse to supply references at all. I will tell you what many doctors do when they get a request from another hospital about a resident or an attending, and the reference would not be an unqualified rave: They write a note basically saying, “Let’s have a conversation about this. Here is my number.”

That’s what I would do. Tell your soon-to-be former employee that you’re not comfortable giving out a form letter, but she should feel free to have any potential employer call you. And bear in mind that something you thought was sub-par perhaps would not be important to a potential employer. Because I would be grateful to someone for the straight dope, I would be inclined to offer the same. — Margo, preferably

On the One Hand, but on the Other Hand

Dear Margo: I have a really nice marriage to a lovely man who, unfortunately, has one flaw that drives me to distraction. It may not sound important, but it’s a great annoyance to me. I can never get him to give me his opinion! This might make it sound like he’s easy to get along with, but it feels to me like I might as well be living alone, as I have to make all the decisions. I ask where he’d like to have dinner when we go out, and he always says, “I don’t care” or “Wherever you’d like.” I ask how he’d like to spend the weekend. “I don’t care.” I ask which movie should we see? “I don’t care.” Is there a “cure” for his I-don’t-care-ism? — Exasperated

Dear Ex: I sympathize with you because there are times when I, myself, am not in a choosing mood — or mode. Your guy, alas, sounds like one of those people whose predisposition is “Cogito eggo sum”: I think, therefore I waffle.

For whatever reason he doesn’t care where he eats, what he does or what movies he sees. Given that this is the case, I suggest you stop asking for his opinion and plan outings to suit yourself. You will be spared the aggravation of getting no answer, and you will eat/go/see just what you want. There’s a slim chance that, when deprived of being asked, he may just decide he has an opinion! — Margo,

* * *

Dear Margo is written by Margo Howard, Ann Landers’ daughter. All letters must be sent via the online form at Due to a high volume of e-mail, not all letters will be answered.


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43 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Lym BO says:

    LW2: Reminds me of a lot of my friends. However, once a decision or suggestion is made they suddenly have an opinion. Not that they will suggest a place or movie, but they don’t like the suggested one. My spouse & I do this too. I don’t care to think about it, but I do care to an extent. I simply don’t want to make a decision. 🙂 But I want the decision maker to figure out what I want without asking (or knowing myself). LOL!

    • avatar Sue ZQ says:

      So if you want to do something with your friends but don’t care what exactly, offer up a specific plan, and then see what they suggest. But if there’s something you really want to do, ask them what they want. And when they say they don’t care, you get your wish!

    • avatar persey78 says:

      I will ask my BF all the time what he wants for dinner and he says whatever. Then when i tell him what I have purchase supplies for and he wants to get pizza. I told him that if he offers me no opinions then I am not telling him what I decided. If I do, I end up eating pizza.

  2. avatar ch says:

    LW#1 Margo was dead on this one.

    We hired a  day nanny-babysitter for a period of a 3-4 months after my second child was born, as I was dealing with some medical problems.

    It was an woman in her 50’s, who had worked for a lawyer in the 40 mile area where were located.
    She gave her former employer as one of her references. When we talked with him it was not just what he said, but the intonation of his voice when he evasively but firmly commented, that she was a qualified care giver but, “I would not feel comfortable having her around my children.”

    His comment stuck with us. It was what was unsaid. When pressed, he would not comment farther.

    However, she was the only applicant who was marginally qualified, and my infant daughter took to her immediately. We hired her, with a careful eye out and with the exception of one business dinner, I was always also in the house. My son didn’t particularly ever like her. She dressed in clothes often borrowed from her 20 year old daughter, but nothing was immodest and we knew she often met her boyfriend for dates after sitting.

    Late one afternoon, after she had driven home, my son came and said that he did not like that lady and explained what had happened right before she left for the day. He said she had tried to get him to walk on her back while she was laying on the floor and that she wanted him to give her a massage. He told her no because the look on her face was really funny and it made him feel icky. And he just sat down on the floor and played with his toys, turning his back to her after she kept insisting. Apparently, at one point, she tried to grab his hand to try and show him she wanted him to “make her feel good”. He was 4 and had always quite mature for his age. And stubbornly firm about things that he knew weren’t “right”.

    Upshot of all that was nothing had happened (thankfully!), but given her previous employer’s comment, and our unease, we decided to part ways. Immediately. We gave her two weeks notice, and extra 2 weeks pay to land on her feet.

    We got a call very shortly after with someone asking for a reference.

    We passed on what her earlier reference had said.


    In the intervening years, I’ve been asked for references for multiple tradesmen, and some very wonderful day-nannies our children loved. I always tell the person when they ask if they can use us for reference that we will be happy to talk to anyone on the phone. Almost always, we have been happy with the service/result.

    Often the person hiring has specific questions we can answer honestly regarding the work done, what it was, how it turned out.

    Also, working as a manager in a Fortune 100 business, company policy is to not hand out written references, which I believe is a wise policy.

    • avatar Jennifer juniper says:

      I’m sorry – but I’m a bit flabbergasted here. If I’m reading this correctly, you had a suspicion that if your 4 year old son hadn’t been quite mature, he might have been asked to do something sexual to this woman? And all you did when the next family called was repeat some line about ‘not feeling comfortable to have her around my children’? This woman needs to be reported to her qualifying bodies- not given a two-week cushion to help her on her way to her next victim.

      • avatar Brooke Schubert says:

        Amen, Jennifer-that was my first thought too.  Why on EARTH wouldn’t ch tell the next parents EXACTLY what this woman did to your son?  What if the next kids aren’t as mature as your son and wind up being sexually assaulted when you could have prevented it with simple honesty??!

    • avatar judgingamy says:

      I am confused too…what exactly is “evasive” about ‘I would not feel comfortable having her around my kids’??? Yeah, he didn’t go into detail, but you know exactly how he feels. At that point I wouldn’t think intonation would matter.

      That being said, when you were called for a reference, I disagree with the other two commenters that you should have told the other parents that she tried to molest your son. While asking a 4 year old to touch her is inappropriate, you don’t know that it was sexual. I would probably assume it was, and fire her, but telling people she is a child molester is not fair either. I think the most you could really say is what you know to be the truth- she made your son uncomfortable. 

      • avatar Sue ZQ says:

        Agreed that there was nothing evasive about “Not comfortable with her around my children.” It invited a followup question. And about being asked to provide a reference, I would probably just tell the story exactly as it was told here, and add “I am personally very uncomfortable with how she behaved, worried that it could have ended very badly for my son if he hadn’t handled it so well, and I am unwilling to risk it happening again. Make of that what you will.”

    • avatar David Bolton says:

      So let me get this straight: you’re describing a situation where it sounds like the woman tried to molest your 4 year-old and you gave her severance pay so she could “land on her feet?”

      Umm…. okay?!?

    • avatar mayma says:

      I’m still stuck on the part where her previous employer says, “I would not feel comfortable having her around my children,” and you hire her anyway to watch your children.


    • avatar Anais P says:

      You didn’t call police immediately and report this woman? At least a juvenile officer could have spoken with your son and gotten all this on the record. And even if no charges were pressed in your son’s case, it might have added to a cumulative report that could have stopped this woman for a long, long time.

    • avatar Brenda S says:

      For ch speaking about the day nanny who wanted her son to walk on her back, it brought back memories to me.  When I was younger (and had better bones), I would ask my daughters to walk on my back.  It helped realign my spine—saving on chiropractic expenses.  For me, it was nothing about anything sexual—just cutting out back pain.  When I was younger I remember seeing a movie where a Japanese lady walked on someone’s back.  I understood that it was something of their culture.  May not have been so, but it sure helped relieve back pain.

      • avatar judgingamy says:

        I agree…it’s possible the walk on my back thing was totally innocent. I still find it inappropriate, and if the parent wanted someone else after that I totally understand. But to call the cops on her or tell people she’s a child molester is way out of line. A sex abuse accusation can ruin lives- you want to be absolutely sure and in this case she wasn’t. Firing her is action enough.

  3. avatar ch says:

    Clarification, it wasn’t two weeks notice and she continued work. It was the legal 2 weeks notice, pay coverign that and she was walked to the door immediately.

    • avatar R Scott says:

      Okay. I get the two weeks notice and pay thing but….  “I would not feel comfortable having her around my children.” is not evasive in the least and you hired her. I just don’t think some of are getting that. I wouldn’t hire a dog walker with a reference like that. Huh….? 

  4. avatar Katharine Gray says:

    Letter #1:  You are not obligated to give a letter of reference at all but if you choose to do so, I think Margo’s advice is probably the best way to go.  If you decide not to give a reference  simply tell her:  *I’m afraid I won’t be able to do that*.   As for the nanny who was a molester…it baffles me that someone would hire anyone to care for children after hearing from a former employer that he wouldn’t be comfortable having her around children and baffles me even more that one would give the same oblique reference to future employers of the nanny as there will be those, like you, who think they know better and ignore the reference.   If you don’t wish to go into the details of what happened with your son with future employers you can at least say *I would under no circumstances hire this woman and I cannot express it strongly enough because my son reported an incident when she asked him to massage her and make her feel better*.    Considering the nature of the problem, child molestation, your chances of being sued for not passing on the information to future employers is far greater than the chances of a defamation suit from the nanny (witness the huge sums paid by the Catholic church for passing on pedophile priests to unsuspecting congregations).  More important, it is the right thing to do. 

    Letter #2:  Some people just don’t like to make decisions.  I have a hard time understanding that because I am a very decisive person.  I loathe shopping with my otherwise practically perfect sister because it takes her forever to make up her mind about something even when she goes shopping with a specific goal in mind…a trait she has passed on to one of her daughters.  It became a family joke when said daughter’s sister, who shares my decisiveness, told her on one shopping trip *if you don’t make up your mind I am going to stick this key in my eye*.  We now say when frustrated about almost anything *this is a key in my eye moment*.      I agree that the best course is just to accept this as part of his otherwise wonderful personality and do the planning yourself, keeping in mind what preferences (if any) he has shown in the past.      

  5. avatar Belinda Joy says:

    Letter #1 – I am going to go out on a limb, but I’m guessing this is the same man that you knew before you said “I do” in other words you knew who he was when you married him. And if you didn’t, you should have.

    I’m with Margo, it is what it is. Stop asking him his opinion and get use to doing your own thing. As the old adage goes….Never try to teach a pig to sing. It merely wastes your time and annoys the pig.

    Letter #1 – You can indeed be sued for giving a negative reference. Especially if your verbal words don’t match what you have written. The problem is she will have to account for the window of time on her resume that she worked for you. If not for this little matter I would suggest not giving her a reference and telling her pointedly “There’s a reason you are no longer working for me, do you really want me to tell a potential employer why you left?”

    The best approach is to take the stance most employers take these days and that is to confirm dates of employment only. This is what you can say in writing. (I’m in H.R., but I know other H.R. professionals may disagree with me) “I have a policy of not providing letters of reference, however I can confirm _________ was employed with me from _______ to __________. “

    • avatar judgingamy says:

      That’s a good idea- about just the letter confirming employment dates. I imagine in a case where you are caring for children an actual reference letter might be needed, but maybe a housekeeper could get away with just this.

  6. avatar ida dunno says:

    LW 2 – Oh, I dated him for 5 years way back when…..or at least a very similar type. VERY annoying. Everything was always “Whatever you want to do is fine with me.” Especially when it came time to go out to eat. As time went on it got on my nerves more and more, and no matter what I said or tried to explain it was still “Whatever you want is fine….” So I got, well….kinda mean with it. There was one restaurant he didn’t particularly like, Shoney’s. So I started saying “Well if you can’t think of somewhere why don’t we just go to Shoney’s.” After a awhile it was “Oh, anywhere but Shoney’s is fine with me.” My reply? “Like where? If you can’t come up with something, let’s just go to Shoney’s…..” (Fortunately I really liked Shoney’s so it wasn’t really a punishment for me, just boring.) It took awhile, but he finally started actually expressing a preference!!

  7. avatar Teri Brown says:

    LW#1, I don’t get why you and all comments on this site are making this so complicated.  Just tell her you don’t feel comfortable giving a letter of reference and that she shouldn’t use you as a reference to potential employees, end of story. 

    • avatar jikinn says:

      I agree. You don’t ever need to give a reference if you don’t want to. Generally someone asking you to be a reference is expecting a good reference from you. If you can’t give a good reference (and you don’t want to torpedo the person’s job search), it’s best to decline. If you feel that it’s important to “warn” potential employers about the person, you could agree to be a reference and then tell potential employers that you don’t recommend hiring the person. I don’t understand why people ask their bosses to agree to be references when the work experience was not a good one or when the parting was not on good terms. Perhaps people don’t understand how references work.

  8. avatar Allaroundtheworld says:

    I’ve worked in some high level positions before I had my stroke and ended up on SSD. One of the worst things was the dreaded reference letter. I can remember only two or three people that I did write a letter of reference because they acutally deserved it. But in the corp. world it is highly encourage not to write these letters due to libel and Falsification. I know that at three different banks and one medical school, I had to hire and then fire mulitiple employies for stealing, lying on payroll cards, and shoddy work.  And then they had the audacity to list me as a reference. Of cource I couldn’t say why I fired them, only what days they worked but I tried to put as much disdain and scorn in my voice that the new hire might get the hint that they shouldn’t hire these employees. I have just seen too many other H.R. and managers get sued for libel even if what they said was true.  I would use this for personal employees too (nannies, house cleaners, yard workers) I would just give the dates of employement and if you would hirer them again just say no. And unless you have 100% proof positive the nanny did molest your child, you should have contacted the police instead of just firing them instead of  letting them go to the next victim. But in no way, say that you think they are a child molestor or give any impression because you will be sued for libel.  For all we know, this might be the way this woman makes her money, sueing people for a living. Sorry for any misspelling, just got up and still on my first cup of coffee.

  9. avatar Cindy Marek says:

    L #1: Can’t help you. I’m employed (not an employer).

    L #2: That would bug me too. Ask him, “Don’t you have a mind/will of your own?” Does he have a spine otherwise? Or take Margo’s advice; just up and make plans. Hopefully he’ll start giving preferences!

  10. avatar Paola says:

    Cogito eRgo sum, not eggo, thanks…

    • avatar Pinky35 says:

      When Margo said “eggo” and she said it meant “waffle” I thought that she was just making a joke. But, I did look at her words and think, wait… did she really mean to say “eggo”?

      • avatar sparktest says:

        To “waffle” as slang is to waver, back and forth, back and forth, without a firm shape or form. Rather like the shape of a…. waffle.

    • avatar Kriss says:


      Margo was making a joke.  eggo is a brand of frozen toaster waffle.  she was connecting “waffle”, the act of wavering to a waffle that you eat.

  11. avatar Pinky35 says:

    My husband is one of those “I don’t care” types, too. I think some men just want to please their wives to the point that it’s annoying. I don’t mind getting my way once in a while, however, the reason we ask our husbands what they might want is not only for ideas that we can’t think of, but also to show that we also care about their needs. I have told him this and it did help him realize that he doesn’t always have to be so agreeable. Now when he does have an opinion, he isn’t afraid to tell me.

  12. avatar Dawn Murphy says:

    LW #2.  Perhaps she has taught him not to have an opinion.  My dh of many years would ask me what I would lke to do/see/eat/wear and when I would express my preference, he would give me all the reasons why that was not preferable.  Seems he thought it was just good manners to ask me what I wanted when all he really wanted was a confirmation of his preference.  After many years of arguments, I learned to say “What ever you want to do”, “Wherever you want to go”.  It’s much easier than arguing about trivial things.  When I do have a strong preference, I express that, but for most things, it is just easier not to have an opinion than argue. 

  13. avatar Sherry R says:

    LW#2  I, too, have a really nice marriage to a lovely man.  He often asks me what I want to do, where I want to go, and sometimes complains that he has to make all the decisions.  Why am I usually non-committal in my responses?  Because I usually enjoy doing whatever we do together.  I really doesn’t matter to me.  However, my husband tends to be a picky eater and does not like the variety of activities that I do.  So why not let the picky person choose, as I’m usually quite happy with whatever we do.  When my husband asks, I make suggestions, but he’s the one who “picks” what he wants to do.  Which is fine by me.  Maybe LW#2 should ask herself if she’s picky about things and her husband is not?

    • avatar K Coldiron says:

      This is just how my husband is. He’s just an even-keeled guy. He’s happy to let me make all 90% of our decisions because he enjoys our time together, and I always have stronger opinions than he does about what I want. It took me a couple of years to get used to it, and from time to time I have to say flat-out “I want your opinion” or “I want you to decide”, which works, but it suits us very well.

  14. avatar didi says:

    LW1: Unless I really know the person well, I just say that I make it a policy not to give referrals of any kind. It has saved me a couple times though the people who asked were a bit put out. When they asked why, I just said I don’t do it and let’s leave it at that. No other explanation is needed when you make it that final.

  15. avatar mayma says:

    My experience with people like the husband in L2 is that I don’t trust them. I simply don’t trust them because I sense they are holding back. It could be on account of shyness or even trauma (i.e., sympathetic reasons), but the result is the same: if they are out of touch with their own desires and sense of self, the dynamic starts to feel icky — like I am dominating them, or that we aren’t equals in some way. I don’t feel comfortable with people like that, because I sense that they are almost inviting me to take over. Like someone said upthread, you start to feel mean for no reason. Blech.

    I have a friend like this, and it is all I can do to hang in there on the friendship, because she will never never never disagree with one thing I say, or offer her own opinion on anything. She has been traumatized, but it’s still very uncomfortable for others who try to relate to her. Her boyfriend even told her, “Please disagree with me for once.”

    • avatar sparktest says:

      Mayma I’m with you on this. My experience is that frequently this is a form of passive-aggressive behavior. For whatever reason, it is an unbalanced exchange, and ultimately an unbalanced relationship – the advantage to the undecider it that they can always blame the decider later if they don’t like something. Personally, I would find it boring as well.

    • avatar K Coldiron says:

      While I definitely understand this POV, I’m married to someone who acts just like the husband in LW2 and he’s not passive-aggressive at all. He just doesn’t really care what we do for dinner. I agonized about it and felt like a major dominating bossypants for a couple of years, but I got over it. He can make decisions when asked to, he just genuinely likes it better when I do. This is one of those ways in which our dents/protrusions fit together, because I AM a bit of a bossypants, and it suits him fine.

      Your friend sounds like a walking guilt trip, though. Hope she heals. 🙁

  16. avatar R Scott says:

    LW1 – I agree with Margo. No letter but rather a phone call. When/if you get a call simply say, “Her work was andequate and (not but “and”) we agreed to a mutual employment separation”. Answer any follow-up question honestly.

    LW2 – Stop expecting him to be different.  Do/go/be whatever you want. “I’m hungry for pizza. Let’s go get some”, “I’m going to Macy’s. Want to go”?, “I’m taking an art class on Tuesday nights so figure out what you’re doing for dinner”.   Then stop thinking about it. There’s a real good chance it’s all good with him and he really doesn’t give a rip one way t’other.   

  17. avatar JCF4612 says:

    1) No form letters. State the start date and separation date. Be brisk, be business like. The caller likely will get the picture.  But if the caller presses for more info, say you you wouldn’t be rehiring this person. 

    2) Shoney’s …. now that’s a hoot. I like it fine, but friends would flee if I suggested this chain.

    • avatar David Bolton says:

      Golden Corral, babies. I would go there in a heartbeat and get some fried chicken (and about 20 other things).

  18. avatar Kordell70 says:

    LW #2: Sounds like to me that one of two things has happened. (1) In the past whenever he gave you his opinion you constantly disagreed and then turned your disagreement into an opportunity to debate all issues to death until he either “saw things your way” i.e just gave up because the argument was not worth it or (2) you can not accept that fact that he gave you an acceptable answer, i.e he does not care what is chosen because either way he is not having fun at your suggestions. Maybe he hates making a choice because your evening outs have strings attached like always going out with other people.

  19. avatar Kordell70 says:

    LW#1: Easiest way to handle this is be honest with your ex-employee. I tell anyone who asks me for a reference exactly what I thought of their performance, and that if asked I will NOT lie or omit facts to make them look better. This really works, after I make this statement about to my employees/co-workers I find that 40% of the people decide not to use me as a reference or recommendation.


    Less Hassles

  20. avatar impska says:

    References. You have two options: 1) agree to give the reference; 2) say you don’t feel comfortable giving a reference.

    If you don’t think you’ll ever hire her again and she’s not your friend, then I don’t see a problem with refusing the reference.

    If you just can’t face saying “no” to this person, then you can offer a reasonable reference by stating “She worked from X/X/X to X/X/X. Her work was satisfactory. ” Then you can include that she was timely, or well-kept, or clean, or flexible, or that you found her price reasonable. Whatever the truth is.

    If there was truly nothing good about her and you don’t even feel that her work was satisfactory, then just refuse a reference.

  21. avatar FireyLady says:

    LW2: You married a man who does the same exact thing as my husband! It’s gotten to the point where I’ll ask him what he DOESN’T want to eat/see/do.

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