Sunday, April 30, 2017

How much do you disclose being someone's reference?

Is it your obligation to let someone for whom you're serving as a reference know what is said during a conversation with his or her prospective new employer? 

Several weeks ago, B.B., a reader who is a college instructor, agreed to serve as a job reference for a former student. It's the kind of task he regularly takes on, particularly in the spring as commencement draws near. B.B. had no hesitation in agreeing to serve as a reference for this student.

Prior to the call from the prospective employer, the student filled B.B. in on the organization he'd applied to work for and provided some details about the job for which he was being considered.

The telephone conversation between B.B. and the prospective employer went well. They discussed the student, the organization, and how the student might fit with the organization in terms of job responsibilities and organizational culture.

Late on in the conversation, the prospective employer said, "One of his other instructors tells us that he's great when he shows up in class, but that he only shows up when he has a paper or presentation due."

B.B. was taken aback since this wasn't his experience with the student in the classes he had had him in. Still, B.B. didn't want to let the negative observation lie. "That's not been my experience with him," B.B. told the prospective employer. "He was always in class and always prepared."

The prospective employer seems pleased with B.B.'s response, B.B. says, and they moved on to other questions about the student and his potential for the open position. All in all, except for that one observation about his behavior in someone else's class, it was a positive conversation.

But now that he's given the reference, B.B. wonders if he has an ethical responsibility to let his student know about the comment made about his behavior in someone else's class.

"Wouldn't it be helpful for him to know that he'd chosen someone as a reference who wasn't being entirely positive about him?" asks B.B. "Am I obligated to tell him?"

B.B. has no obligation to tell the student what was said during the discussion with his prospective employer. B.B. doesn't know how many other former teachers the student listed as references, so he might be placing them all under suspicion of having commented on the student's attendance. The student knew his behavior in each of his other classes and should have had the good judgment to know that if he didn't show up to class regularly then asking the teacher of that class to serve as a reference was likely not a great idea.

While he has no obligation, unless he agreed to keep the conversation confidential, B.B. is free to tell his student whatever he wants about the reference call.

Once he agreed to be a reference, the right thing is for B.B. to be honest and forthcoming about his former student with his prospective employer. The right thing for the employer is to gather as much information about the student as possible. And the right thing for the student is to choose his references wisely, and to recognize the importance of meeting his obligations by showing up. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

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

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 


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