In business, you’ll come across employees of all different kinds: Some will consistently go above and beyond their job descriptions, adding great value to improve the company. Others will check off all the requirements but not take any initiative on their own. You will also encounter some employees who won’t be able to handle their roles. Either they will lack the skills or they won’t have the drive.

It’s common for employees to ask their employers for reference letters when they apply for new jobs. However, writing a reference letter for an employee who didn’t perform according to your expectations is a tricky task. Be sure to carefully consider what kind of information you want to share.

Use Formal Business Writing Format

Regardless of the kind of employee you’re writing a reference letter for, be sure to use formal business writing format. Apply block style so that all of the content is aligned to the left side of the page. Single space the reference letter, and add double spaces in between paragraphs. Start your reference letter with a formal greeting, such as “Dear Mr. Jones” or “To whom it may concern.”

Offer Details of Your Relationship

Provide the reader with context that shows why you’re qualified to provide a reference for the employee. Even a letter of recommendation for an average employee needs to show your working relationship to them. For example, you can state your position and how many years you worked with the employee.

Your negative letter example might say, “I am the owner of John’s Auto Body Shop and Ryan Martin worked for me for six months. He reported to me directly.” This tells the reader how long you’ve worked with the employee in question and how closely you interacted with them.

Don’t Badmouth the Employee

Refrain from providing negative details about the employee in your reference letter as that can lead to legal issues. For example, the employee may disagree with your characterization of his work. He can also bring the details into question. Avoid a defamation case by omitting negative details. If you do choose to include specific aspects of the employee’s history at your business, be sure to only include factual information that is objective. Don’t rely on emotional or subjective details.

Avoid Exaggerating Their Skills

While refraining from including negative details in your reference letter is advisable, you should also avoid including overly positive information in your reference letter if it is not true. For example, if the employee was always late to their shift, don’t say they have great time management skills. If they were bad at communicating with customers, don’t tell the reader they built a great rapport with your clients.

It may seem easier to add positive information in a reference letter, but it’s best to avoid exaggerating skills or including false information. If the new employer hires the employee based on your inaccurate reference, they may be disappointed when they learn the employee is not up to par. This can also impact your business negatively if the new employer brings legal action.

Just Provide the Pertinent Details

In your reference letter for a bad employee, it’s best to stick to the pertinent details such as their dates of employment and their job title. You don’t need to provide any additional details about performance. In your negative letter example, you can say “Jackie was employed as a cashier at Fresh Farm Produce from January 2018 to November 2018.”

Letter of Recommendation for Bad Employee Sample

To whom it may concern,

My name is Amelia Burns and I am the owner and operator of Sew It Today. Karen Paget worked directly with me for eight months. She was employed as a Customer Service Representative from December 2017 to July 2018.

Best regards,

Amelia Burns

Owner, Sew It Today