The Ethicist: Is It O.K. to Surprise Someone With a Negative Reference?

February 4, 2018 by Joshua
in Ethicist

My series answering the New York Times’ Ethicist column with an active, leadership approach instead of an analytical, philosophical perspective continues with “Is It O.K. to Surprise Someone With a Negative Reference?

This spring, my assistant decided to pursue medical school and quit her job so she could take prerequisite courses. She asked me if I would provide her with a reference, to which I agreed. Her work was competent, if not stellar, and I told her I was happy to give a good reference.

It has since become clear that she committed a number of mistakes that cost the company thousands of dollars. She seems to have known and tried to fix what happened, but she never reported the issues, leaving us to discover her errors — and the corresponding costs — after the fact.

I expect to receive reference forms soon. Am I obligated to tell her that my opinion has changed and that she may want to choose a different reference? Or should I just complete the reference informed by my new understanding? Name Withheld

My response: I’m trying to answer questions with stock answers to show how many questions people consider ethical can be solved with a practical, problem-solving approach instead of abstract philosophical approaches, such as if one is “obligated,” for which there is no absolute measure.

In this case, the writer presents a false dichotomy: Am I obligated to do A or should I do B? I don’t think it even qualifies as an abstract philosophical question. I don’t know why he or she wouldn’t tell the assistant without asking others if he or she is obligated. I can’t see any reason not to tell the assistant. I see plenty of reasons to tell her, not least of which is that I’d consider helping someone improve her performance part of a manager’s responsibility.

If any principle of ethics exists, it’s reciprocity—that is, the Golden Rule. I can’t think of anyone who would like someone else to say he or she would write a good reference and then do the opposite without warning.

The New York Times response:

When it comes to references for college or graduate school, the norm is that you agree to do them only if (a) you have a duty to do so or (b) the person asking for it knows that you’re going to be critical, if you are. You have no duty to write for this person. So you should explain that your letter would be informed by your knowledge of her misconduct. You told her you’d give a good reference; that’s no longer true, and she should know it.


My boyfriend and I live in his vacation home in summer. We’ve become friendly with several neighbors. One couple has huge fights every few weeks with screaming and swearing you can hear down the block, triggered, possibly, by her drinking. I don’t know them well. I’ll call them Bob and Karen.

They recently took in the woman’s granddaughter — her son’s child. The son is in prison, and his child was placed with a friend and then in a foster home. Bob and Karen have had the child for about a year. We’ve had the kid over to visit a few times. The fighting did not stop; in fact, one day the whole block could hear Karen yelling at the child and slamming doors.

To my complete surprise, my boyfriend and I were asked to be their personal reference so that this couple can adopt the child. Clearly, this is not a good situation, but is it better to have the child ripped from yet another home and placed yet again?

Of all the neighbors, we probably know them the least, so why are they asking us? My partner says it’s probably because year-rounders would refuse. We can say no, but I don’t want to make enemies. We can say yes and simply tell the truth of what we know or have observed, which isn’t a lot. I am so torn about this; contributing to either outcome for this child is a tough decision. Name Withheld

My response: Anyone can only answer the second question, “We don’t know any better than you do.”

To the first question, I can’t see any other answer than that it depends on the family in the next home.

As for unasked questions, we’ve all experienced trying to help someone only to find what we meant to help got the other person angry, frustrated, or the like. We’ve also all experienced someone trying to help us who only made things worse.

I usually respond to letters with no questions by saying something like, “Thank you for sharing your story,” and not giving advice or commenting much more. Not commenting may sound like an easy way out of more thoughtful and helpful writing, but I’ve learned many times in coaching, teaching, and friendships that helping people who haven’t asked for it is a recipe for disaster.

My starting point for why is that what different people consider “helping” depends on their values, views, goals, and other factors that you, giving unasked advice, don’t know. For example, offering potential solutions to someone who just wants to be heard often leads to exasperation, frustration, and feeling devalued. But just listening to someone who wants advice can lead to impatience, frustration, and other emotions neither party wants.

However obvious you consider your interpretation of what the letter-writer wants, dozens of other interpretations exist, any of which the writer may have meant, or not. Acting on unchecked assumptions risks imposing your values on others, which usually provokes responses you wish you hadn’t from others.

I’ve found the best policy to keep neutral until the person clarifies what they want so I know what “help” means to them in that situation.

The New York Times response:

You’ve gotten into difficulty here by thinking that it’s up to you to decide what’s best for the child. That simply can’t be right. You don’t know nearly enough to make that decision. Our child-welfare-and-adoption system is notoriously imperfect, but it is run by trained people who are required to assemble all the relevant information before a decision is made. No doubt Karen and Bob have chosen you because they think you will tell a story that helps their case. But your only obligation is to be truthful. That will mean providing your best judgment about something you don’t say much about, namely whether the child is being well cared for. You might think you shouldn’t agree to provide a reference unless you think it will help your neighbors get what they want. That’s a mistake. You can agree to provide one if it will do what they ought to want, which is to help the authorities make the right decision. That’s what you owe them, and at least as important, that’s what you owe the child.


I am a physician often approached to write letters for people. These letters generally fall into two classes: 1. Asking for work accommodations based on illness, or 2. Requests to be exempted from some requirement, like participating in jury duty. Recently I was asked to provide a letter for an elderly woman with a medical illness that would enable her to apply for citizenship without taking the exam, which she would be unable to pass because of her illness. She has been in the U.S., legally according to her family, for less than 10 years, has never held a job and has never paid taxes. They want her to have citizenship because it will allow her to receive more in benefits. (I am not sure this is true, but I am not a lawyer or even that interested. I have no interest in seeing a person without a valid status be deported either.) My concern is that she is requesting an exemption in order to collect benefits toward which she has contributed absolutely nothing. In a world of scarce resources, this makes me uncomfortable. On one hand, she is one person, whose costs will not be particularly burdensome to the state in which she lives, which is large. On the other hand, she is asking not to play by the rules. However, the illness is real, and I am not being asked to falsify anything; she truly has the illness, and it truly prevents her from taking the exam. However, I’m not 100 percent comfortable doing this for her. Finally, she is not even my patient. She came to see me only to get the letter because only a doctor in my specialty can certify that she has the illness in question. What’s your thinking? Name Withheld

My response: Your question is legal/medical/other professional service. Talking to a professional will answer your questions more effectively than a newspaper columnist. I looked up the Hippocratic Oath, but it seemed to have various versions and ways to interpret this situation. For example, you say she has an illness, which the oath, if you took it, suggests you said you’d help her heal, but it doesn’t sound like she’s asking you to heal her.

Since you asked my thoughts, I’d say two things. First, you sound like you know what you think is right. Second, as I alluded to above, it sounds specialized enough that other medical doctors and health professionals seem the people to ask.

The New York Times response:

Of all these testimonies about testimony, your case is the most straightforward. Your job in this process is to certify what, in your professional judgment, is true about her medical condition. Your only objection to doing so is that the truth here could entitle her, under the law, to benefits she wouldn’t otherwise get. You think this is wrong because she didn’t pay into the system that’s going to help her. Note, first, that this has nothing to do with her being an immigrant. There are native-born Americans who never pay into the system. But also note the assumptions you’re making about giving and taking. Our social welfare system is, in effect, a system of social insurance. It’s designed so that people get out what they need, not what they put in. There’d certainly be no point in the system if we were allowed to take out only what we put in. We could just stash money away for a rainy day. Once people join our society, we should surely want them to flourish like everyone else. Even if you think I’m wrong about this, though, the right thing to do is to focus on changing the laws, not preventing someone from doing what, at present, she may be lawfully entitled to do.

Read my weekly newsletter

Lsbs book

Subscribe for a weekly update of musings on leadership, the environment, and burpees.

We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit

Leave a Reply