Reader Participation Day: Ethical Dilemmas

July 25, 2006 at 4:49 pm | Posted in Bringing Home the Bacon, Political Animal | 18 Comments

Solve my problems for me please, dear readers.

1. A former intern has asked me to be a professional reference for her. Quite frankly, she was a complete flake. Very nice, but very flakey. Promised things and didn’t deliver them, didn’t listen to feedback, couldn’t write her way out of a paper bag… you get the picture. I did a lot of the work on the project that was supposedly her responsibility. My former boss, when asked for advice on what to tell her, said “boy, I’m glad I was on maternity leave for most of the time she was her so I don’t have to deal with that one.” Do I:

a) Tell her I don’t think I’d be the best person for her to use as a reference for this field (I don’t think she has a lot of other people to turn to)

b) Say yes, and hope no one calls me. Be honest if they do.

c) Say, well I can certainly say you were enthusiastic (if nothing else) and hope she gets the picture.

d) ????

2. One of the security guards at work, L., has told me that her niece and niece’s partner are going to Cape Cod to get legally married in a few weeks. They are super excited, have been busy planning a huge party at L.’s house when they get back, etc. etc. She’s thrilled for them and doesn’t understand why they can’t just get married here. I don’t understand either, but I think I’ve written about that before.

They live in New Jersey. It’s my understanding that MA will not marry out of state residents (if they’re gay). If her niece and partner are from a socio-economic background similar to L.’s, which I think they are, it’s entirely possible that they may not have access to the most current information regarding gay marriage in MA. Do I say something to L. about the fact that I’m not sure they’re going to be able to pull this off?


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  1. 1)Were you the intern’s higher-up? Has she heard of you giving references to other interns? You could make a vague comment about how you’re not able to give any more information about her than the dates she worked there (T’s company is like this).

    2)Casually ask L how the couple is going to get around the “no out of state couples” issue. Some have claimed MA addresses to get around it.

  2. I agree with Blondie re: #1. My wank of a boss out in Hollyweird would not be a reference for any of our interns. He would ways tell them that studio policies prevented him from disclosing anything other than the dates of their internship.

    But we always ended up having the interns write their own letters of recomendation & then I would sign it stating that we would not be a phone reference, but that they could use the written one.

    Such a cop out, I know!

  3. My Mom, who’s been involved in hiring decisions in the US and has had … ah .. problem employees in the past, has said on occasion that you can be sued for providing a bad reference. I repeat, you can be sued for providing a bad reference. It doesn’t matter if it’s true. If it’s unflattering, you can be sued.

    Apparenlty, the correct thing to do is to confirm the dates of employment and the job title, and refuse to comment on anything else. Then you haven’t technically provided a bad reference, but everyone knows what you mean.

    I don’t know if she’s right or not, but it’s something to keep in mind.

  4. 1, What Beanie Baby said

    2, What Blondie said

  5. Art-Sweet, the way I got out of this one with an intern was to tell him our agency’s policy was to not provide references, just confirmed that someone worked there. Would it work?

    As for the Massachusetts plan – they will most definitely not be able to make it happen, even on gay Cape Cod. I think it’s fair to risk being a busybody and saying something – and if it helps I know GLAD has printable information on their website that could mysteriously end up in L.’s bag.

  6. boyohboy….the reference hot seat sucks! I can never turn anyone down, so if I ever get called on it, I say as little as possible (unless the person was really great, then it’s easy to blab away!) I guess I would fall into the “say yes to the reference, and hope they don’t call” category.

    And, sometimes they don’t, so yay!

  7. Your 7th grade bf going anon again. On the first issue: my former chicago employer would NOT allow anyone to serve as a reference regardless of what the content was — if anyone called we were to refer them to HR for the dates of empl deal. Second issue: gobsmacked.

  8. ok. I agree with m. on #1.

    As for #2….I think that if you’re a)queer and b)planning your own wedding – you understand the rules of whats going on. In light of very different ideas of “union” in NJ, CT, VT, and finally, marriage in MA….you’d think they know the “rules.” You also don’t want to assume anything about their intellegence….you also don’t know how much the security guard knows/vs: thinks about what is happening….so, I guess my answer is….some combination of Blondie’s and….something else I haven’ t figured out fully.

  9. 1) A. It really bothers me when someone agrees to be a reference and then has nothing nice to say. Yes, it would be nice for a prospective employer to have a full view of what she’s like, but if someone’s asking for a reference, then she expects you to say something good. Other than enthusiastic.

    2) Ditto blondie.

  10. That’s craptastic about MA. Crap. Tastic.

    Ack – that reference question. It sounds like it’s pretty common to just say yes and then say you can only confirm dates. Sounds like an easy-ish out.

  11. Different continent, I know, so not sure how relevant, but I’m with Beanie Baby – here in UK you cannot, (by law I think), provide a bad reference for someone. I’d try and weasel out of it – suggest someone else?

    Dunno about the second – far too confusing for me!

    Rather you than me though!

  12. On the reference bit, as someone who does reference calls on occasion, I’d be honest with her that you don’t think you’re the best person to provide a reference for her. If she asks why, I’d also be honest in telling her the areas of her performance that were lacking. It’s not easy, but she’s not going to learn she’s doing something “wrong” unless someone tells her.

    If she’d still like you to be a reference, make it clear you’ll not volunteer anything that may hurt her chances, but that you also won’t lie if asked a direct question. Then, if you are called, you can be honest with the interviewers. You could even tell them that you’ve discussed certain shortcomings with the candidate since she worked for you and give your opinion as to whether you think she would likely improve in the future.

  13. Having done no recent research on #2, I thought that MA was only refusing to do weddings for out of state couples who live in states with state-DOMAs. So being from Georgia, I could not marry in MA, but a couple from a more progressive state with no DOMA could.

    BUT, I think the issue of passing the info through an Aunt is weird. Who knows how much detail of the planning she knows? Maybe the couple has a plan , maybe they’re very well informed, maybe they have a secret domicile in MA….

    Re #1, see if you can find out from your HR if there’s a policy on references. If there isn’t, don’t be too scared by the “you can be sued!” Technicnally, anybody can be sued for anything. The act of filing a lawsuit is pretty easy. You could sue me if you don’t like my advice. Would you win? Not so likely. The act of winning a lawsuit is a lot harder.

    If there is no policy and you don’t want to make one up that says “we only confirm dates of employment” then I vote for writing a vague and short letter of reference that mentions a no phone calls policy. Then she has something, if not a whole lot, and you’re not trapped saying something you aren’t comfortable saying.

  14. A former colleague of mine had a similar dillema. He was asked to be a reference for a co-worker who was very slow in his work and did not get along well with others.

    Said colleague told the co-worker that he would be a reference for him, but would be honest about his experiences. It was a good way to give feedback and resulted in said colleague not getting used as a reference afterall.

    But, if that direct approach doesn’t work for you, another colleague was also asked to be a reference. She said that she would only be a “character reference” since she didn’t feel qualified to be a work reference.

  15. Whoa. Two difficult questions and lots of solid advice. I think I’ll just say good luck. 😉

  16. Sounds like you’ve already got plenty of good advice on both issues, but I just want to say that I’d stay out of issue number 2. My husband had to go through the green card process to get into the US and we know several other online couples who had to deal with the same thing. Even when they ask for advice, not a single one of them has ever appreciated what I’ve told them and they really didn’t like it when I would tell them their plan wasn’t going to work. I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut and let people figure it out on their own.

  17. What cat,galloping said. 😉

  18. I think that maybe saying that, “No offense, but I don’t feel comfortable writing a letter of reference. It’s not just you, I don’t typically do them for anyone” As for the other couple, I would just feign surprise and say, “Gee, I thought you had to be a resident of MA before you could marry there? Guess you could say that I am a fan of feigned ignorance huh?

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