I am approached fairly regularly to give employment references for people who have worked for me. This is something I am generally happy to do, provided it concerns an ex-employee whose work warrants a favourable reference. However, there can be awkward situations where the ex-employee’s work did not meet expectations. Such situations call for good judgement and a fair amount of sensitivity.
Of course, it is human nature to want to help. The person requesting the reference obviously needs a favourable one from you, in order to obtain an advantage somewhere, for example, a new job. But it can be awkward if you know full well that you cannot, in all good conscience, grant that sort of reference. It would not be right to do so. So you will have to say no, and to disappoint a person who really needs your help.
The thing is, however moved you may be to help this ex-employee, please remember that you are not helping him at all by painting a less than honest picture of his skills and abilities. It is far better to be honest and straightforward with him, and explain to him gently why you simply cannot give him that reference.
I might add that providing an inaccurate reference will definitely hurt your credibility. Apart from being morally wrong, it is not worth the risk to your reputation. I once hired an employee on the basis of a glowing reference from someone whom I respected. The employee turned out to be nothing at all like she had been described in the letter. It was almost as if the reference had been written about an entirely different person. Eventually we had to let her go. I still haven’t forgotten the letter from the respected referee, and I will be very careful in future if I ever receive another such letter from him. His credibility took a big hit, and it will take a while before it is restored.
Here is a good rule of thumb for when providing a reference: would you hire that person yourself in the role for which you are recommending him? If yes, well and good. If no, then why recommend him to someone else?
Help your ex-employee better by being honest with him. He might not thank you for it, but your conscience definitely will. And, perhaps, one day in the future, your ex-employee will look back on your act of integrity and appreciate it as well. But – even if that never happens, that’s also OK. You did the right thing, and that’s the main thing.