Can a Supervisor Refuse to Write a Letter of Reference for an Employee?

Supervisors may not want to write glowing reference letters for poor employees.
Supervisors may not want to write glowing reference letters for poor employees. (Image: Jupiterimages/ Images)

Job applications often involve a variety of documents, including resumes, cover letters, work samples, college transcripts and letters of reference. Most of these items the applicant can generate by himself; however, letters of reference are written by other individuals. It’s common to ask a former employer or supervisor to write a letter of reference, but that doesn’t guarantee that the person will agree to the task. Supervisors may refuse to write a reference letter for employees or former employees, but there are other options to avoid submitting incomplete job applications.


Letters of reference and letters of recommendation are frequently employed as interchangeable terms. In fact, they have very similar meanings. Both provide outside perspective to augment applicants’ personal narratives and documents regarding their suitability; ideally, both contain warm, positive statements about the individual in question. Letters of recommendation usually persuade readers of an individual’s suitability for a particular job, scholarship, responsibility or privilege. These can be written by employers, mentors, professors or other individuals knowledgeable about the applicant. Reference letters make more general statements about an individual, and they’re most frequently written by employers and supervisors.

Legal Obligations

Employees can definitely ask employers and supervisors for letters of reference, but supervisors have no legal obligation to comply. Reference letters are courtesies. Supervisors might refuse to write letters of reference for a variety of reasons.


Supervisors can deny employees’ requests for letters of reference because they don’t want to make positive statements about workers who didn’t meet their expectations or caused problems in the company. They don’t want to write a misleading letter of reference, but may want to avoid writing negative cover letters, too. Employee rights are protected so that employers may not actively impede their job-hunting by providing negative personal viewpoints about performance and ability. To avoid having comments come into question in court, supervisors may feel safer by refusing to write letters at all.


If you’re a supervisor who has agreed to write a letter of reference for a problematic employee, contents might include a brief statement confirming the employee’s job title and dates of employment. Some states, including California, require employers to provide this basic information. The glaring absence of complimentary prose might alert other employers to your lack of enthusiasm for the candidate. Another option is to write a balanced letter that addresses the employee’s strengths but provides a fair-minded account of some of their challenges, too.

Employee Options

Employees have recourse if they believe they have been refused a letter of reference based on discrimination. This is called victimization; examples might include being refused a letter of reference when employers frequently agree to write such letters for other workers.

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