Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Should a Friend Be Told the Real Reason He Didn’t Get the Job?

June 19, 2016 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment

Continuing my series of alternative responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicist, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on others, here is my take on today’s post, “Should a Friend Be Told the Real Reason He Didn’t Get the Job?


A friend whom I like and admire a great deal applied for a teaching job at a private school where my wife used to work, and where she and I maintain friendly connections with top decision-makers. On the face of it, our friend exceeded all qualifications for the job, and my wife and I each wrote glowing recommendations for him, including to the head of the department to which he was applying. We thought he was a slam-dunk for the position.

To our surprise, he didn’t get it, and in the aftermath, he was eager to know what went wrong, emailing me twice to ask whether I had “heard anything.” My wife subsequently had lunch with the department head, who told her frankly that he had made a bad impression, that he seemed “too full of himself,” alienating several people who interviewed him and watched him teach a class.

I still believe that the school missed out on an exceptional teacher. Yet knowing him, I can understand how he might have created this impression. He’s a person who works too hard to impress, and his energy can be over the top; at times you want to find the volume knob and turn him down a notch. I’m guessing also that he’s the kind of teacher who is effective in a cult-of-personality way — a teacher who is a “character” and whom many students will revere but some may resist. This may have turned people off.

The friend, knowing that my wife was having lunch with the department head, emailed me again to ask how it went. My question is whether to tell him what I learned. A couple of things concern me. First, while the department head did not specifically request that my wife not pass along the content of her conversation, it is quite possible that she assumed my wife wouldn’t do so; and my wife is reluctant to do so. Second, I have to admit that I’m reluctant to give my friend news that will vex him; he and I had each assumed that he was passed over for a “targeted hire” and not that he had in fact been judged adversely. Learning that he was in fact personally rejected will be upsetting to him. On the other hand, it might help him adjust for such situations in the future.

It’s interesting and a bit perplexing to find yourself in this kind of ethical quandary. You tend to think you should always have a “gut instinct” for what is right to do. But in this case, I don’t. Name Withheld

My response: I don’t know what this question is doing in an ethics column. If you’re concerned about sharing the department head’s message, ask the department head if you can share her message. If so, no problem. If not, you can tell your friend you can’t. Unsatisfying for the friend, but a closed case, nonetheless.

As for sharing with the friend if you choose to, I suggest the issue is not if it’s ethical to share, but how to communicate productively. People get rejected from jobs every day. The risk of applying is that they judge and may reject you. You didn’t create that context. If you don’t share, you’re contributing to his stagnation. The question is how to make the message constructive.

You can learn to constructively criticize people experientially more than from tips, in my experience. I recommend practicing Feedforward to develop the skill.

The New York Times response:

Just as you are morally bound to respect a reasonable expectation you have created, whether or not you used the formula “I promise,” so the demands of confidentiality extend to cases in which there is a reasonable expectation that you’ll honor it, even if you weren’t explicitly asked to. (The person who spoke to your wife would have been well advised to be explicit, however. What goes on in job interviews is usually the business of only people in the decision-making chain.) You clearly feel the force of this consideration. But you also think the information could help your teacher friend adjust his style in future interviews. For this prospect to weigh against the presumptive breach of confidentiality, it would have to be a good thing. Is it?

Notice that you’re not worried the interviewers got a misleading impression of your friend’s temperament and teaching style; you believe they got an accurate one and didn’t take to it. If that’s so, you may be able to help him interview better — by hiding the side of him that put the interviewers off. Yet the school may have had good cause to avoid a teacher who is, as you put it, “effective in a cult-of-personality way.”

There’s another reason it might be good to tell him what happened, though. Our country is full of people convinced that they’ve lost out through affirmative action to less-qualified minorities. Sometimes they have; very often they haven’t. (For one thing, you can be right that a white candidate lost out to a “targeted hire” but wrong to think that you were that white candidate.) It’s not just his self-esteem that’s being defended by this consoling thought, it’s a false belief that relates to an important social question. I would say the expectation of confidentiality wins out here. But the reason you’re having a hard time deciding is that it’s a close-run thing.

I just discovered that my upstairs neighbors in my very small co-op of five units are renting their apartment on Airbnb. I only discovered this when my partner recognized a guy from the neighborhood in our stairwell and asked if he was a friend of the neighbors’. He said that he wasn’t; his mother is in town and has been renting the apartment through Airbnb rather than staying in a hotel.

Upon finding their actual listing on the site, I learned that they are renting the apartment for nearly $400 a night and have had at least six renters based on the reviews on their page. They didn’t alert anyone in the building that they were doing this, and it violates our co-op’s rules. I believe it also violates New York City law, but I’m a little vague on that.

My real issue is that there are strangers in our building, and it makes me feel unsafe. My partner says that no one who can afford their price would do anything damaging to us or the building and thinks I’m crazy for being annoyed with them. Obviously I’m also jealous of their extra income: Who wouldn’t want an extra thousand dollars (at least!) a month?

How do I confront this? Do I confront it at all? I don’t necessarily want to get them evicted, but I do want them to know they are violating my trust and not being good neighbors. Thoughts? C.S., Brooklyn

My response: If all you want are thoughts, a quick search on “airbnb coop rules” showed dozens of articles of people sharing their thoughts in this issue, which is hardly unique to you.

What you say and how you say it depends on your goals. Since you say you want them to know they are violating your trust and not being good neighbors, I recommend saying to them, “You are violating my trust and not being good neighbors.” If you want to communicate a different message, you may want to adjust what you say.

The more you develop your social skills, the more you’ll see situations like this as opportunities to develop relationships with people instead of confrontations to provoke anxiety.

The New York Times response:

Your co-op has rules. Your neighbors are violating them to their financial advantage. If they want a change in the rules, they should ask for a change. Putting your anxiety and envy to one side, the real issue here is that your upstairs neighbors are not doing their part in a common enterprise based on a shared understanding. Of course, you have to figure out how to handle this. Even if affluent short-term renters aren’t dangerous, angry neighbors can be. No doubt a printout of the Airbnb page mailed to the co-op board anonymously would force the issue.

I am a filmmaker and recently graduated from a university. I was shocked when, by a stroke of good luck, hard work and fortunate timing, I managed to get myself booked onto a huge advertising job. The work was extremely fulfilling, fast-paced and well paid.

Despite this, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the company I was working for, a giant tech company, was using me to sell a product that is made by employees who make very low wages and work very long hours. Not only did I feel bad for my role in pushing products onto consumers, but worse, I felt very guilty knowing that the extremely high figure I was being paid for a week’s work might be two years’ worth of work for the people who made the things I was selling. At the same time, this job fell from the sky at a time of extreme financial need, and I really enjoyed it.

My question is: How can I navigate this situation in the future? I enjoy the fast pace of advertising and the creative opportunities it brings, but I am acutely aware that I am becoming part of the inequality machine every time I accept work like this. Name Withheld

My response: I recommend revolutionizing the global economic system from top to bottom before you do anything.

If you can’t do that, then I suggest recognizing people face this situation all the time. When you were younger it probably made sense to ask your parents. You’re renting your own place so you’re beyond asking your parents. The New York Times has no more absolute an answer than anyone else. I recommend developing the skill of figuring out for yourself how to handle situations you’ll face many times without going to an authority. In my experience I found it helped to create and consider as many options and resources as I could, consider the results of my actions on everyone involved, and then to act to create the best outcome I could based on my values.

The New York Times response:

I commend you for your concern about the moral standing of your employer, but your characterizations are pretty broad-brush. Big corporations, like every collective human endeavor, have good effects and bad ones, and sometimes it can be hard to be sure which predominates. On a global level, extreme poverty has decreased by more than 50 percent since 1990, as countries like China and India entered the world economy. Could your tech company have played a role in that? Is it really just a wart on the face of history? Still, if you remain convinced that Giant Tech is evil, you might spare yourself some anxiety and step aside for someone who will do the work with a less- burdened heart. If this company wants you, there are bound to be plenty of other bidders for your services.

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