Reference Request Rejection Letter Samples

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Have you recently been asked to write a reference letter for a colleague or acquaintance? For various reasons, you might need to decline. The challenge then is to do so with thought and tact.

The first thing to understand is that there are all sorts of very good reasons for declining to write a reference.

It’s possible that you don’t know the person well enough to write a detailed letter. You may have had experiences with the person that leads you to believe that the position they are seeking would not be a good fit. You might not know enough about the position to be able to offer a strong endorsement for the candidate. It may be that you just don’t have the time to spend writing a well-thought-out reference.

Whatever your reason, if you can’t write a positive reference that will help your contact make a good impression on the hiring manager, it’s best if you say no.

Some Tips for Declining a Reference Request

  • Don’t wait. When you need to decline a request for a recommendation, try to do so as promptly as possible. It might be tempting to put it off – no one likes having to let someone down. But delaying is crueler than responding promptly, even if they don’t like what you have to say. You should give the person as much time as possible to line up alternative references if you can’t provide one.
  • Be gracious. It’s better to decline the request than to write a lukewarm endorsement, but that doesn’t mean that you have to be rude or overly critical in your response. It’s perfectly reasonable for them to ask you to write a reference; it’s perfectly reasonable for you to refuse. There’s no need to make the interaction more negative than it needs to be. Besides, most industries are a small world. You never know when you might run into them again someday at a future job.
  • Be positive. If you can, include some positive feedback. Offer to help in another way; perhaps you can offer some job search advice for their target industry, or recommend a mutual acquaintance who would be a more appropriate person to endorse them.
  • Keep it short. The message you need to convey is short – for a given reason, you’ll be unable to give a reference – and the letter should be, as well. A few paragraphs are more than enough to convey what you need to say.
  • Review sample letters for declining a reference request, but be sure to customize your letter for the situation.

Letter Samples for a Reference Request Rejection

Example #1

Elizabeth Waters
2022 Commerce Street, Ste. 3
Oceanside, MA 02190

October 12, 2020

Joe Smith
37 Chestnut Street, Apartment B
Birmingham, MA 02192

Dear Mr. Smith,

I am glad to hear you are interested in a job in the publishing industry. I do not feel that I worked with you long enough to write you an accurate reference letter for your job search.

However, if you have any questions about job searching in the publishing industry, I would be happy to answer them.


Elizabeth Waters (signature - hard copy letter)

Elizabeth Waters (printed)

Example #2

Daniel Bruno
34 Oak Street
Ocean View, NY 11732

July 8, 2021

Terry Johnson
12 Main Street, Apt. 3
Ocean View, NY 11732

Dear Ms. Johnson,

I am pleased to hear that you are applying for a sales position with XYZ Company. Unfortunately, since I haven’t had the opportunity to observe your work in this field, I would be unable to offer the strength of endorsement that one of your closer colleagues could.

Best of luck in your new endeavor.


Daniel Bruno (signature - hard copy)

Daniel Bruno (printed)

Example #3

Nancy Wallis
15 Coastal Ave
Los Angeles, California 90001

February 3, 2019

Joe Black
34 Sunny Way
Los Angeles, California 90001

Dear Mr. Black,

I received your request for a letter of recommendation. I believe that you would be better served to utilize a reference who is more familiar with your coursework in a field related to the IT position at ABC Systems than I am.

I am happy to supply a general character reference, but I would not be able to speak directly to your qualifications for this position.


Nancy Wallis (signature - hard copy letter)

Nancy Wallis (printed)