Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Can I Hire Someone to Write My Résumé and Cover Letter?

April 12, 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, ”Can I Hire Someone to Write My Résumé and Cover Letter?


I’m looking for a new job in the nonprofit sector and am considering using a résumé service to write my résumé and cover letter. Part of me feels morally conflicted about this process. Is it fair to have someone else write the two materials that show the quality of my writing skills to my future employer? NAME WITHHELD, WASHINGTON

My response: Again with the abstract questions. There is no absolute measure of fairness. The people providing the service think it’s fair. You wouldn’t ask if you didn’t think some people didn’t.

I think the principles I keep coming back to in this column would help you more.

First, you will affect people with your choices. Consider the results on them. Someone might hire you based on an inaccurate portrayal of your skills. But then what does a resume say about your skills, or even a cover letter? What expectations do they have? What relevance does your writing skill have to the job? What would happen if they hire you and then find out your writing skills weren’t what they expected (and that they wouldn’t have found out had you not hired the service)?

No one can answer these questions for you because only you know the details and only you have to live with the consequences.

Second, figuring out the answers for yourself will help you learn more about your values, which will help you handle challenges like this later. Asking for others to tell you what to think and do teaches passivity and helplessness.

Third, you can act to resolve your questions, not just passively ask how others would label your choices and behavior. What can you do? Whom can you talk to? You can ask people at the job you’re applying to and build relationships with them. If you accept there are no absolute right answers, you can use the occasion to find out more about them and let them learn about you. Why not try talking to them? What have you got to lose besides a job you don’t have? You can gain social and business skills. Come to think of it, that lack of skills led you to this question in the first place. Not developing communications skills earlier led you to doubt your ability to write a resume and cover letter.

Sadly, the New York Times column reinforces this passivity.

The New York Times response:

Kenji Yoshino: To the extent that we are saying this shows the quality of your writing skills, you are not being transparent or honest about your writing skills vis-à-vis your future employer if you have somebody else write the materials that are supposed to reflect those abilities. On the other hand, it’s not obvious to me that résumé writing reflects those skills. So I would actually drive a wedge between the résumé and the cover letter, if it is a substantive one.

Amy Bloom: I would have been very grateful earlier in my life to have a résumé service write my résumé. I don’t really consider that to be an example of your writing skills. It is an example of your organizational skills and probably even more an example of producing-a-résumé skills, which may or may not be part of your job. In your own best interest, if you have writing skills, write the cover letter.

Jack Shafer: As someone who used to sift through hundreds of résumés when I put jobs up for application, I looked very closely at the quality of a résumé. Are words spelled correctly? Is the punctuation done intelligently and by the rules? So I wouldn’t dismiss the art and the craft of résumés so quickly.

Bloom: I would certainly rather hire somebody who was smart enough to ask a friend to proofread a résumé than somebody who turned it in with a bunch of typos. That’s showing common sense.

Yoshino: What if you’re not going to have the chance on the job to vet every single piece that you write with colleagues to make sure that it’s perfect? The principle here is that it’s unethical to misrepresent skills relevant to the potential employer. I think we agree on the principle and disagree only on its application.

Shafer: No, I don’t think so. Who among us has not misrepresented their skills to an employer when asked, “How’s your French?” “My French is pretty good” — and you haven’t opened a French textbook since high school. The dance of the employment review in which this résumé is a part is a little bit like poker: There is ethical leeway.

Yoshino: I don’t think it’s enough to say we’ve all done it. The question is, Have we done it and remained ethical? You’ve made a case for why you believe that you can do it and be ethical. I’m less sure.

Bloom: Using a résumé service is entirely ethical. Should somebody come to me for that kind of help, I am happy to give it. I don’t feel that I am helping them misrepresent themselves; I am helping them produce a better document. I actually wouldn’t do it for somebody who I thought was applying for a job for which they did not have the skills. A lot of students bring me their résumés and cover letters, and I am glad to help and feel that I am actually behaving ethically, because I am giving them assistance, which allows them to approach gainful employment.

Yoshino: Perhaps I am not giving enough weight here to people’s capacity to learn and grow. You help them with their résumé and their cover letter, then they go on and do the next one themselves.

Bloom: I like your addition. Maybe it is not unethical to use this service this time and learn how to do it yourself.

Shafer: That would send it in the direction of, Is it unethical for you to help your child with their homework? Yes, of course, it’s ethical to help them. It’s not ethical — it’s not actually helpful — for you to complete your children’s homework. The letter writer has enlisted a sort of surrogate parent to help them complete their homework, and I’m not comfortable with it. I don’t think that behavior is ethical or representational of the skills of the applicant.

My out here would be disclosure: The letter writer would be O.K. saying to the interviewer, “Oh, by the way, I had a service write my résumé and also write my cover letter.” That would leave everybody with clean hands. But at that point, the prospective employer would say, “Take a walk,” I think.

I am a pediatric intensive-care physician. Recently, a colleague of mine, a very good doctor, was taking care of an extremely sick child who was expected to survive at the time of admission but who died. The institution conducted a root-cause analysis (R.C.A.), which found that the medical team made mistakes in diagnosis that led to inappropriate treatment and eventual death. The leader of the team resigned. I feel guilty: I was close to the family and took care of the child several times; the mother trusted us. After the R.C.A., I thought our institution had the obligation to tell her the results. I want to tell the family. I think they will pursue litigation if they get the results of the R.C.A. I would sue my hospital as well if I found out they made a mistake and my child died, at least in part because they were not forthright. I think whenever an R.C.A. is conducted, the results, positive or negative, should be shared with the family. Many of my colleagues think a physician’s ethical obligations to a child end when the child dies. I argue that this means that whenever there is a bad, nonfatal outcome because of medical error, logic would mean that the physician should hope for death in order for self-preservation. I am sure that I am conflating many pillars of ethics. I want to advocate for my patient even when she has died. NAME WITHHELD

My response: I read your letter several times. Unless I missed something, you aren’t asking for advice or any other response. As best I can tell, you’re venting, implying you feel intense emotions and don’t know what to do with them.

I see the core of your letter as: “I feel guilty and powerless. I want to do something but the system won’t allow it. I don’t like the system.” The rest just explains those sentiments.

Everything about the case and the medical system you work in depend on details and particulars we don’t have. I’m sure there are no absolute right answers.

My advice, not that you asked for it, is to understand how you feel about the situation, what you can do, and what you can’t do. Feeling powerless about something you care about leads emotions to become intense, which makes it hard to think straight. A child dying is tragic, all the more so for the situation you described. Your inability to think straight doesn’t help.

Do you want to change the system? Change the outcome of this situation? Resolve your guilt? Until you straighten these things out for yourself, I doubt you’ll figure out what to do about anyone else. You and only you can answer these questions, not me or any New York Times columnists.

When you do, I expect you’ll be able to think more clearly and act according to your principles more.

The New York Times response:

Shafer: Nowhere in the letter does he allege malpractice. He says mistakes were made. Mistakes are made everywhere — are these understandable mistakes? I feel as if I need some legal advice here.

Yoshino: We would have much more transparency with regard to the results of R.C.A.s if doctors weren’t worried about litigation after they made a mistake — whether an understandable one or not. In this case, I take it that the mistake was not ordinary because the team leader resigned. That said, I don’t think that the right remedy is for the letter writer to take justice into his own hands and notify the parents. Even if a mistake was made by the hospital, the proper step is to make the strongest case possible internally for disclosure, not to take it outside the hospital community.

Bloom: I don’t think that the letter writer is conflating pillars of ethics but trying to serve his conscience and be an ethical actor and also see that good is done. That last goal is where some of the complications arise. One doctor friend I asked about this said it was probable that if the letter writer went directly to the family without discussing it further with the hospital, and if that family did in fact file suit, then it’s very possible that that doctor would never find himself employed again. That also has an impact on all the future people he would not be able to serve as a doctor.

Because this letter writer was not an actual part of the medical team that provided the care, there is still some information that he does not have, and so he may not really be in the best or strongest ethical position to go to the family and specifically point a finger. His next step should probably be to go to the hospital’s legal counsel or risk-management team or the R.C.A. team and find out more. He may not be in the best position to assess blame, but he is certainly in an excellent position to encourage the hospital to share the R.C.A. findings, for starters.

Yoshino: We have to consider the good-faith reasons that the hospital might not want to disclose the R.C.A. other than fear of litigation. A famous report from 1999 estimated that 44,000 to 98,000 deaths a year occur because of medical errors in hospitals, so this is a very widespread phenomenon that they are obviously trying to minimize. It’s quite likely there will be fewer calls for an R.C.A. if all R.C.A.s are going to be made public. Raising the level of care for everybody might mean that there has to be a zone of safety for physicians to get optimal reporting.

In addition, I want to address the letter writer’s claim that if you go with the hospital’s reasoning, then logic means that the physician should hope for the patient’s death for the sake of the physician’s self-preservation. I can think of lots of reasons other than the physician’s self-preservation for why the hospital would have greater obligations for disclosure to a surviving patient. If there’s a bad lung and a good lung and you make an error and cut out the good lung by mistake but the patient survives, then the doctor has an obligation to go to the patient and say, “We’re sorry we cut out the good lung, not the bad lung, so therefore you’re going to need to take X, Y and Z steps in order to preserve your health.” If the patient dies, nondisclosure does not compound the original mistake in the same way.

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