Sunday, April 19, 2009


A reader and her husband recently received a letter from the federal government that has put each of them in a slightly different ethical bind.

For several years my reader and her husband have been friends with a couple who live near them in Providence, R.I.

"The wife has always been a bit `crazy,"' my reader writes, "but in a fun, life-of-the-party kind of way."

Last year the wife volunteered for the Obama campaign. As she got more and more involved, she would travel to other cities and then to other states for extended stays. Gradually the volunteer wife's contact with local people, including her friends and even her husband, started to wane. After the election the volunteer wife still didn't return home. When my reader was able to reach her on the telephone, my reader reports, she found her evasive and "slightly manic."

Finally she returned home to collect her things and to move to Washington, hoping to get a full-time job with the new administration. She never contacted my reader while she was home to retrieve her stuff.

"Our friendship seemed pretty faded," my reader writes.

Three months into the new administration, though, the volunteer wife called my reader at work. She was in a hurry, she said, but she was applying for a job and asked my reader if she could serve as a "sort of reference" by confirming her address in Providence. My reader agreed. When she started to ask a few questions about the prospective job, however, the volunteer wife quickly excused herself and hung up.

She also tried to call my reader's husband, but wasn't able to reach him directly.

My reader and her husband received a letter shortly thereafter. They were indeed asked to confirm her address -- but were also asked if they had "any reason to question this person's honesty or trustworthiness" or if they had any "adverse information about this person's financial integrity."

Neither is crazy about the idea of vouching for anything about this woman other than her address, which is all that my reader had agreed to do.

"Are we ethically obligated to contact her and say that we aren't interested in serving as this type of reference and refuse to respond to the letters?" my reader asks. "I'm pretty sure that we shouldn't continue ignoring these letters and hoping they'll go away."

Yes, generally speaking, letters and obligations rarely disappear. And there is indeed an obligation in this case, no matter how shabbily the "friend" may have acted toward my reader.

Because she told her friend that she would confirm her address, my reader can't simply ignore the letter. The right thing for her to do is either to answer the letter -- she can, if she wishes, confirm the address but leave blank the rest of the letter, since it goes beyond her commitment to her friend -- or to contact her friend to let her know that she does not plan to do so because the letter isn't what she had been led to expect.

My reader's husband is in a different situation, of course. Since he never agreed to be a reference, he is free to ignore the letter, if he likes, or to fill it out any way he pleases. It was bad form for the volunteer wife not to get his agreement before having the letter sent to him, and the letter itself imposes no obligation on him.

Few people are comfortable turning down such requests from friends, no matter how distant they have become. If the volunteer wife had been more forthcoming about the type of reference she wanted, my reader might have felt more comfortable in telling her that she was not the best choice. If she now sends back the form only confirming her friend's address, it will likely speak volumes to those who asked for the reference -- but that's the volunteer wife's own fault for not being more forthcoming.

Everyone seeking a reference would be wise to choose their references carefully and not to mislead them about what they are being asked for. A bad or mixed reference is worse than no reference at all.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

1 comment:

alohame said...

honesty is what references are all about. if the couple only agreed to one reference, the fact of address to the woman who is asking for it, then they are obligated to only give that,if that's all they can vouch for honestly. to reference the personality or integrity of someone you mistrust, well, that kind of confirmation on paper is only done if you the one who is referencing can vouch for it. in this particular case here, I don't see that they trusted their so called friend.

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