Sunday, February 12, 2012

Before questioning someone's reputation, check your facts

In a casual conversation with a friend, a reader learns that a local honcho at a not-for-profit organization might not have the credentials he claims.

The friend has known the honcho for 40 years or so. She is a former faculty member at the college from which the honcho says he graduated. She claims that he dropped out before earning any of the degrees he says he earned.

"I very seriously doubt that she would make up this information," my reader writes. He believes the honcho has duped the not-for-profit and the community it serves.

The registrar for the college verified that the honcho did graduate. In fact, my reader is told he graduated with distinction.

"I have a strong suspicion that somebody has fiddled with the records," writes my reader, convinced that his friend would never give him misinformation. "Nobody seems interested in verifying the information. What should I do?"

In addition to the registrar, the honcho's former wife, as well as a friend of his, insist to my reader that the guy did graduate. But my reader is having none of it. "I still don't believe it," he writes. He plans to continue his hunt for the truth.

My reader's instinct to want to make sure that a community is not being defrauded is not a bad one - but by the time he asks the honcho's friend and former wife, he has already spread unconfirmed information.

"I would not like to have him sue me for blowing the whistle on him," my reader writes. "He is a fraud."

You can't blame the guy for not liking a fraud and wanting him exposed. But again, he still doesn't know if his friend's facts are correct and he's now got the word of two people and the college registrar that the honcho didn't lie about his record.

There's an old saw that reporters have shared with newcomers for years: "If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out."

Before he started talking to others about the honcho's credentials, my reader had failed to check with his original source: the friend who raised the issue in the first place.

He emailed her to verify what she told him and to tell her that his checking contradicted her claim. Her email arrived the next morning: "I did not say that," she wrote.

"Now I'm in the position of having to decide if I want to have a friend who lies to me," my reader writes.

For whatever reason she chose to drop the bomb that this honcho was fabricating his background, the friend was wrong. But before spreading that concern to others, the right thing for my reader to do was to confirm with her that she indeed intended to say what she said - to check the facts with the original source.

Short of that, getting confirmation from the registrar should have been enough for him to return to the original friend who made the comment and ask her to confirm her observation rather than begin asking others and thus raising concern about the honcho further.

In thinking he was trying to right a wrong, my reader went too far. It was his friend's comments he should have been checking out rather than the recipient of her barbs. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal
Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

(c) 2012 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.

No comments: