We’ve all gotten the panicked phone call or e-mail from a friend or colleague asking whether you’ll be a reference for them, because they have been interviewing, and they are getting close to their next gig. The natural reaction is to say yes immediately, and worry about the rest when you get the call or e-mail later. The general thinking is that reference checks are a mere formality. There is an art to being a good reference, though.

Before you say yes: Qualify and decide whether you can give a good reference

Regardless of how close you are to the person requesting a reference, you always have the right to demur from providing one. Reasons to decline include you not working closely enough with that person, not knowing that person for long enough, you not agreeing with their style of work, despite your friendship with the person, or even that you don’t necessarily believe that person is a fit for your company (assuming they have asked you to go to bat for them at a company you are affiliated with.) The key in handling this issue is to be delicate. Gently mention to the person that you feel like you don’t have enough information to be a good reference, and you don’t want to take the place of someone who could possibly do a better job.

“I once was asked to provide a reference for a company I started at, and the person who asked had worked with me at a different company previously. What looked like a good fit on the surface was a bad choice on their part. I was asked a direct question about that person’s attitude, because the hiring manager had heard a story about that person leaving their previous company on bad terms. I was in a spot, because I had to choose between my employer’s trust in me, and helping a friend. It was extremely awkward” says Shana from Toronto.

Get as much background as possible to stay focused when answering questions

If you’ve agreed to provide a reference for someone, you should arrange some time with them to get the complete background on their interest in the role, what the role requires, and what they’ve already discussed with the hiring manager. This will give you the best possible footing to answer questions. It’s easy to answer a question thinking you understand the context, when in reality you’ve not been helpful to the asker. If you know your facts, you can anticipate and guide the discussion easier.

Answer as truthfully as possible, within reason

Just like when you’re at the border or you get pulled over for a traffic ticket, you should only answer the questions you have been asked, and answer succinctly. You should answer as truthfully as possible, but don’t be afraid to say you don’t recall something or you don’t have experience with something asked of you. You don’t have to give an exhaustive deposition of what you know.

But don’t leave important details out if your name is on the line

If you are asked about something for which your requestor might be seen in a negative light, try to frame the situation in as light and as human a way possible. No one is perfect, and no one reacts perfectly under stress 100% of the time. If your co-worker didn’t get along with someone on their team, you can always say, “sometimes, tensions ran high when we were working on big projects/short deadlines. It was an opportunity to learn how to deal with different personalities.” This is not an untrue statement, nor does it tell the gossipy details of what happened in your office.

You shouldn’t ever lie if asked a direct question, even if the temptation is high to do so. What if you tell a completely different story about something than your requestor already has? You could be putting their future role in jeopardy.

After: Debrief with your colleague

It’s important that after you give your reference you recount what happened with your requestor. By telling them what types of questions were asked, and how you answered them, you will be setting them up well for the next stage of the process. Additionally, you can raise flags about any types of questions that seemed specific or out of place, so they can plan accordingly. You should also be honest with them about the reactions to your answers. They deserve to know how it went.

While on the surface it seems easy to “just provide a reference,” for a friend or former coworker, there is an art to getting it right, and being a good reference. Doing your research and giving your friend important feedback goes a long way to being a great reference.