What is the Jewish response to this question in the "New York Times Magazine" Ethicist column, May 19, 2013? It is common practice to decline to give colleagues and students a reference if one has nothing positive to say about them. When someone looks good on paper but is less competent in real life, is it ethical to act against someone to ensure that the work goes to someone who is a better fit?
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Thank you for this powerful and relevant question. Many of us have been in the position of providing a reference for someone and put in the position of being asked for a reference for an individual who does not meet the expectations of the job for which they are applying – from our own perspective. So, what do you do? I read your question as asking how honest or direct we might be in such a circumstance and does the Jewish tradition have guidance to guide our behavior and decisions.
The ethical conflict arises because, on the one hand, our devotion and relationship with the one who is applying to the job is important and valuable and we don’t want to hurt them. Yet, on the other hand, we care about our commitment to honesty and integrity with which it applies to the hiring institution.
The solution is actually not all that complicated, but it does take emotional maturity and intellectual clarity. Here are the primary bullet points with which to keep in mind:
Don’t lie – lying about a person is a sin – both for the positive or the negative (e.g., exaggerating). The Talmud teaches that we must be honest in our dealings of business and this is the example par excellence.
Don’t gossip – telling things about a person that are hurtful to a person (even if they are true) and could ruin their reputation and this is clearly a sin – it is lashon ha-ra.
Say what you know – this is a caveat to both of the prior points. Say what you know and don’t even bring up what you don’t. References are evaluations that require questions, measures, and genuine judgment – it’s objective science, not opinion. Stick to what you surely know and be honest about what you don’t know.
When we give references, we need to understand that the reference is not about us. In fact, references are not about the individual for whom we are referring. References are about the welfare of an institution with goals, peers, and needs. Our reference is an objective statement of an individual’s particular fit to those goals, peers, and needs, not a moral judgment over which we are judge and jury (there’s only one judge and it ain’t me or you).
At the end of the day, Judaism teaches us that all we have to judge is our own conscience – what our own hands do and what our own mouths speak. We get to choose if what we do is true to the value of our spirit. That means that we don’t ignore a colleague or friend needing a job, but also that we can’t speak to that which are not totally sure.
Being honest about others and with ourselves is one of the greatest spiritual lessons we can learn.
Before providing a Jewish response, it should be noted that the question posed is not identical to the one that was in New York Times Magazine. The enquiry in the Times was explicit about what action might be taken against the person in question, stating, “But might it sometimes be more ethical to provide a negative reference?” You do not allude to a specific action as a way to “to act against” the person, but given that it is a reference that has been requested, it is probably good for us to first consider the question in terms of either not giving a reference or acting against the person by giving a negative one.
Judaism does not shy against either rebuking someone or stating hard truths, but one must state them directly to the person in question (Maimonides, Mishnah Torah 6:6-7). If one is giving a negative reference, which is essentially a rebuke, you are required to let the person know what will be in it. Otherwise you would be taking the role of secretly delivering negative information about a person, which is really lashon harah, or tale bearing/gossip, which is forbidden [Arachim 15b]. Furthermore, it is presumptuous of someone to assume they can take it upon themselves to make the judgment about who is the best fit in a job. That is the task of the people responsible for filling the position.
As is implied by the question, most of us are inclined to say we will not give a reference rather than tell someone that we are only willing to provide a negative reference. Effectively, one could attempt to intervene in the hiring by offering to write a reference and letting the person know it will be negative. Of course this would most probably result in them withdrawing their request, which amounts to the same thing as not providing the reference. Not surprising, it is easier to choose to decline a request then mention the option of a negative one, but the later would be an appropriate way of attempting to intervene in the situation when one believes the person is not competent.
Would there ever be a circumstance where we would be justified, even obligated to inform someone that they should not hire an applicant? Yes, if a life were at stake (pekuakh nefesh) or if the person was engaged in ongoing financial impropriety that you knew about directly, but then these should have been addressed earlier at your current workplace. The question being posed is framed in terms of competence rather than issues of safety or legality so this would not seem to apply.
Many of us have watched people we judged to be unsuited for a position get it, often over candidates we respect. But if our evaluation is not being directly sought, no person or law is being threatened, and the person in question has declined our offer of a negative reference, then Jewish tradition does not permit us to actively work against them.
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