Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Should I Help a Classmate Who Sexually Harassed My Friend Get a Job?

September 20, 2015 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment

Continuing my series of alternative responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicists, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on others, here is my take on today’s post,  “Should I Help a Classmate Who Sexually Harassed My Friend Get a Job?


At work, we fill a lot of vacant positions through word of mouth. I recently posted a job on my college’s career network and received a résumé from someone in my graduating class. I’ve never met this person, and I know him to have been a diligent student who won a prestigious fellowship during senior year. He would probably be a leading candidate, and by passing his résumé on, I would be implicitly giving my stamp of approval. The problem is that freshman year he sexually harassed and attempted to sexually assault a good friend of mine. A third party intervened before it escalated and brought her to me and another friend. She decided not to take the incident to any authority, and she eventually worked through the experience. The thought of working with the man who brought so much pain to a good friend is hard to swallow, but I do not know what the ethical thing to do is. It is not my story to share, and I do not want to bring the question to my friend for fear of opening old wounds. Am I allowed to share this information with the head of human resources? Can I take an act committed five years ago by somebody I never met and use it to determine his future job status? Is there a way to bring up my discomfort without outing him? NAME WITHHELD

My response: Through reading most of the message I thought to myself that you have no obligation to pass the résumé on just because you posted a job somewhere. You seeing this as a burden, if I read you right, seems your choice.

My first advice would have been to talk to the friend. You know her best and if you don’t like that idea, that makes sense.

Next I’d wonder if the candidate changed since five years ago. Some well-known people learned from criminal pasts to achieve great things. Many people never change. Some get in deeper. It’s hard not to wonder if he changed and how. If you don’t know him directly, he may have both a different story than your friend’s and a different recent past than then.

On the one hand, you are in a position to be judge, jury, and executioner, though one job application is not that big a deal, assuming he has other prospects and the company isn’t about to fold. If you are to judge him, not giving him a say in the matter seems unfair and contrary to the common principle of innocence until proven guilt.

On the other hand, confronting him could be more difficult than doing a company a favor of posting a job warrants.

The easy path seems to sit on the résumé without passing it on. That seems, to me, though, like a punishment that doesn’t fit the crime, which we don’t know the details of, and ignores his story. The hard path seems to talk to him about it, but that path’s difficulty doesn’t fit your role, unless you feel comfortable talking to him.

This situation the classical ethical dilemma, which I wrote about in “Business school’s first major lesson: how to resolve ethical dilemmas.” My post “How do you decide when your decision affects other people? Involve them in the process.” also seems relevant. I recommend using the principles of those posts:

  • Create more options
  • Change the rules of the game
  • Involve them in the process

I expect using those strategies will give you more options than you think you have that will lead to outcomes everyone prefers. Without knowing more details, I can’t go farther, but I can tell you that whenever I’ve used these strategies they’ve worked.

The New York Times response:

Amy Bloom: If I was absolutely sure that this happened and didn’t feel any need to hear the other person’s story, I might not pass on the résumé. But I would have a twinge about it. There are some very fine and competent and hardworking people who did some awful things when they were 18. I might even qualify as one of them.

Kwame Anthony Appiah: Let me sign up for that, too.

Bloom: You can’t speak up for the victim ­— it’s not your story to tell. I’m not sure it makes a lot of sense to go back and say to her, ‘‘Hey, five years ago, you didn’t want to bring this up to the authorities, but now I feel that maybe I should bring it up to a potential employer so that they don’t hire your former harasser.’’ That just doesn’t strike me as particularly helpful or even ethical. If you wanted to be more engaged with the victim at the time, that would have been five years ago and with her permission. It also doesn’t seem right that you should say, ‘‘He’s a hard worker, but I know something about him that you would want to know.’’

Kenji Yoshino: I totally agree with you. The competing ethical obligations — to your friend, to the harasser, to the employer — cut in different directions. Fortunately, there’s a simple answer here: You have the discretion not to pass along the résumé. That strikes a balance of remaining discreet for both the victim’s sake and the accused’s sake (let’s remember that he was a minor or a young adult at the time), while not exposing your employer to the risk of hiring such an individual.

Appiah: As you said, in passing on the résumé from someone in your alumni circle, you’re definitely giving the impression that you think the person is O.K. Because you can’t explain why you don’t think the person is O.K., you have no choice but to give a misleading impression either way.

Bloom: The sticking point really is the implicit approval.

Appiah: This is one of these cases where informal hiring practices have the effect of excluding from consideration people who aren’t in the alumni networks and so on. Deep unfairness flows from the fact that many of the most important opportunities are available only to a small subset of people because they’re channeled through these social networks. It’s a really important issue that I don’t think we think enough about. It’s a reason affirmative action is so important, because it requires you to look beyond these networks. You shouldn’t just let job opportunities flow through the networks of the people who are already employed; you should let them flow through other ways as well.

Yoshino: The silver lining behind this very black cloud is that if something is run by custom, as this alumni network is, then there isn’t a formal process, and the employer is not saying you have an obligation to pass along all qualified résumés. That informal process has the advantage — alongside the many disadvantages that Anthony points out — of allowing greater discretion on the part of the letter writer. The letter writer can simply decline to forward the résumé without breaching an employer’s search or recruitment policy.

Bloom: I’m sure that’s one of the things that people who are in these informal systems often really value, which is that for the individual passing on the information, it offers a lot of flexibility and some options. But the fact is, it also shuts out an enormous number of people who would benefit by being in the system.

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