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What To Do When Someone Asks You For A Recommendation & You Have To Say No

732128_72168845Leigh came to me and said she was asked to give a recommendation for a fellow therapist.

It was a recommendation that she couldn’t, in good conscience, give.

A young woman had called Leigh and said she had heard about a therapist, we’ll call her H. The young woman, who had had a bad experience in the past with a therapist, now asked for references, and H. had given her Leigh’s name as a reference.

Leigh knew her, and had, at one point not too long ago, been a coworker. Leigh was still employed by the clinic, the same clinic where H. had lost her job.

Leigh was in a quandary. Her experience of H. was that she seemed to be dishonest.

H. tended to exaggerate or minimize all kinds of situations, and made up some blatant lies, and when caught, shrugged her shoulders as if it weren’t a big deal. Leigh felt that H. had emotional and behavioral issues she hadn’t worked on or even acknowledged and was not mature or reflective enough to be a therapist at this point in her life.

The program they worked together in had a few complaints from H’s clients about her “pushy” attitude, her caustic tone, her lack of professionalism, and so on. The clinic also had numerous complaints from staff. This had occurred over the course of one year, and only ended about two months ago, when H. was let go by the clinic director.

I asked Leigh how she decided to handle the reference request and she told me: I ignored my conscience. I didn’t want to be responsible for H. losing a potential client. But now I feel disgusting. 

But how could H. even use me as a reference? I worked at the same clinic she used to, the one she was let go from just a few months ago, and she knows I fielded many of the staff and client complaints against her. The complaints seemed virtually non-stop from the second she started working there. My colleagues and I tried to work with her, our supervisor sent her for trainings, but she just didn’t seem to “get it.” I couldn’t even figure out why she wanted to be a therapist.

Leigh and I ended up talking about what was the right thing to do-ethically. We agreed:  Whether you are a therapist or not, if you have unequivocal facts that a therapist, counselor or other professional has acted consistently unprofessionally (and more than once), then you simply cannot recommend her.

But there are shades of grey. We both agreed that in this particular situation with H. there were no shades of grey, it was black and white.

But when push comes to shove, how ethical is it to recommend or not recommend another therapist?

In this case, H.’s potential client never got around to following up with an appointment, so Leigh was saved from an uncomfortable situation.

We discussed ideas about what she could say if this ever occurred again. What we came up with is this: If you are a therapist and you are asked to give a specific recommendation/reference for someone who you feel you truly cannot recommend, you might consider saying: I am not comfortable giving a recommendation.

Since people can and do change, if it is a therapist you don’t know anything about or if it has been more than six months since you’ve worked with this therapist, you may add: because I do not have enough information about this therapist at this time or I haven’t spent time with her/him recently.

If you have evidence or have heard that a therapist has helped people or is professional or competent, you may give a more positive recommendation: From what I know/have heard, he/she seems professional and competent.

If you have personally worked with a therapist and/or personally know them to have helped their clients, you may, of course, give positive reviews.

When giving (or in this unusual case, not giving) references, be cautious: You may have a personal dislike of a fellow therapist or once heard a negative word about them.  This is not adequate cause for not giving a reference or giving a negative reference. Don’t let personal feelings cloud your judgment about referrals–either positive or not-so-positive.




What To Do When Someone Asks You For A Recommendation & You Have To Say No

Therapy Revolution: Find Help, Get Better, and Move On Without Wasting Time or Money and is licensed in addiction and psychotherapy with over 25 years experience as well as a consultant to organizations and companies in the fields of mental health and addiction. He is the executive director of an outpatient behavioral health program. Learn more about Richard here.

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APA Reference
& C.R. Zwolinski, R. (2015). What To Do When Someone Asks You For A Recommendation & You Have To Say No. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 16, 2019, from


Last updated: 26 Jan 2015
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 26 Jan 2015
Published on All rights reserved.