Sunday, January 07, 2007


In the heat of a moment, the urge to establish rapport can prompt any of us to say something we don't really mean. Often such comments seem benign: Claiming to share a taste in musicians, authors, designers or sports teams, for example, rarely results in a flat-out battle if it's later discovered that in fact your tastes lie elsewhere.

Too many people simply don't know when to stop stretching the truth, though. It's one thing to say that you're crazy about Justin Timberlake when in reality you'd rather be home listening to the latest CD by acoustical guitarists Rodrigo y Gabriela (with Bonus DVD), but quite another to claim that you've worked some place you haven't or graduated from some school you didn't in order to win favor with someone.

All too often, even when we're not sure that others are stretching the truth to engage us, we find ourselves suspecting that they are.

"I have a friend who says that she is a graduate of the same community college I graduated from," one of my readers writes. "I was going to ask her if she would be interested in opening a small business with me until someone told me that she lied."

According to a mutual acquaintance, my reader's friend never graduated from the community college, having dropped out after completing only two classes.

At present it's one person's word against another's, but my reader is torn, unsure whether her friend lied but unwilling to go forward without knowing. She wants to know if it would be unethical for her to ask the school if her friend really did complete a degree there, and whether she could do this anonymously.

There is no ethical reason why she shouldn't look into the question, as long as her methods of inquiry are legitimate. Many colleges publish lists of their alumni, often online, for reference by their graduates. My reader could start by checking to see if such a list is available on line and, if it is, find out from it what she wants to know.

If such a list isn't available, it's equally acceptable for my reader to call the college for a reference check on her friend. Most institutions will readily confirm the dates that a given graduate attended and the degree he or she received.

She should, however, identify herself if she makes such inquiries. There are occasions when withholding your name is ethically acceptable -- when reporting a crime, for example -- but this isn't one of them.

It wouldn't be necessary to go into detail about why she wants to know, but to place the call anonymously would not only call into question her motives -- which, since she is considering going into business with her friend, are entirely reasonable -- but also might prevent her from getting access to the information she wants, since without identifying herself she couldn't prove that she herself is a graduate.

What complicates matters, however, is that my reader's idea for a new business doesn't require a college degree or anything of that nature.

"I don't care about my friend's degree," she writes. "It is the lying that bothers me."

That being the case, the ethics of checking up on her friend's background aren't really the point. If what really bothers my reader is the suspicion that her friend may have lied, going behind her back to sniff out the facts won't really solve anything. She may not be able to find the information she wants and, even if she can confirm that her friend didn't graduate, she won't know what may be behind the lie.

If my reader really wants to know if her friend has lied about receiving a degree, the right thing for her to do is to ask the friend directly. If she wants to check up on her friend's credentials at the community college, she should tell her friend that she is going to do so.

Either her friend was telling the truth or she was not. In either case, there is absolutely no reason for my reader to let her fear of the truth get in the way of her honesty.


Anonymous said...

Your reader should do a thorough background check on any potential business partner. Also, she should have a verifiable background report and CV about herself to present to any potential partner. Too many people open a business with a friend and then find out that they can't work together.

If you are worried about your friend, then approach her concerning the business and suggest upfront the mutual backgroud check. You'll know from the reaction you get if you really want to be in business together.

C3Elian said...

A friend once commented as I verified the strength of a deadbolt "Locks are for honest people." I would extend it to this case and say "Proof is for honest people." A realistic (read "effective,") business partner is going to understand the present informal character of the relationship and recognize that a business one is dependent upon mutually satisfactory measurements.

I liked "anonymous" of 12:43's suggestion; it puts the same obligation on both sides and sets the tone that this business is about integrity and parity. FYI: my own alma mater wrote to me after my graduation that if I did not want my name publicly available as an alumnus, then they would not even acknowledge to an outside source that I had attended the university. That seemed a bit harsh, so in protest I took my chances and asked to be unlisted (I've got the diploma in case anyone wants a copy.)

"Everyone is doing it" is no basis for doing it yourself

Years ago, after I had left my job as a magazine editor and took a significant cut in pay to become an assistant professor at a liberal ...