Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

For almost twenty years I volunteered at a shelter for women who left
their abusive living situations. Most of the volunteers were good,
caring people and I enjoyed working with them. One, however, who
was by all evidence in a long-term abusive relationship herself,
managed to undercut the fragile gains that residents made while they
were in our care, by belittling their progress. Now I’ve learned she is
finally ready to make changes in her life, including changing jobs. She
has asked me for a letter of reference as a personal/volunteer
reference, but I am not comfortable giving her more than an average
endorsement. What should I say?


Dear Tongue-Tied:

A lot depends on what she’s asking you to say. If, for example, you
were involved with finances, you could stick to that aspect of a
reference. But if she is asking you to speak about interpersonal
matters, you should be clear, if not completely honest. Say, I don’t
think I’m the best person to ask for this reference. Perhaps you should
try X, Y, or Z. My interactions with you were limited, and I make a
point of not writing letters of references for people unless I have been
their direct supervisor in a work situation.

For most folks, that level of No would be enough of a warning that she
might not want prospective employers to hear your answer to
whatever you might be asked. If she pushes, and challenges you, be
polite but clear, about your hesitations, and be prepared to back them
up with examples. You can end by saying, You may have changed your
style in the interim, but I’m still not comfortable being the person to
assert that. I wish you only good luck, but I cannot be part of the