Sunday, January 07, 2018

Would you lie to help a former colleague?

How far would you go to help a former colleague who asks for your assistance in trying to advance her career?

After R.A. received an email from her former colleague, F.E., she was at a loss about how to respond. F.E. was, she wrote to R.A., in the process of trying to pull together documentation so she could receive professional licensing. One of the licensing requirements was for F.E. to have received regular supervision from someone who already held the license F.E. sought.

Because R.A. already held the same license, F.E. emailed her to ask her to sign off on documentation that said she had been F.E.'s supervisor for the several years they worked together before F.E. had left to take a job elsewhere. The problem, R.A. writes, is that she was never F.E.'s supervisor. They did work together on a project, but as colleagues, not as supervisor and supervisee.

R.A., is not inclined to indicate that she performed a role that she never held in relation to F.E. Partly, she does not believe it's right to misrepresent work that she never did. She also has no desire to run afoul of the licensing agency that issued R.A.'s own credentials.

"I don't want to tell F.E. that I will not lie for her," writes R.A., but she's at a loss for how to tell F.E. why she is not willing to sign off on supervisory hours she never conducted. "Once I figure out how to tell her 'no,' am I obligated to alert the licensing agency that F.E. might be trying to lie to get her license?"

R.A. is doing the right thing by refusing to sign off on something that never happened. She could simply be direct and tell F.E. that she believes it would be dishonest to misrepresent their roles as former colleagues. But if she doesn't want to come right out and suggest F.E. is a liar, she can simply decline F.E.'s request, remind her that she wasn't her supervisor when they worked together, and leave it at that. By reminding F.E. she wasn't her supervisor, F.E. might still take that as R.A. suggesting she was trying to lie, but ultimately F.E. should ask herself why her own action was wrong.

Even if R.A. and F.E. were friends outside of work, which they are not, refusing to misrepresent their professional relationship to a licensing board is the right thing to do. No former colleague or current friend should ask a friend to lie for them to get something they want that they haven't rightly earned. F.E. may be willing to try to commit fraud to get what she wants, but she shouldn't expect that R.A. or anyone else should want to do the same.

If R.A. learns that F.E. lied on the documents she provided to the licensing board and she has evidence to prove it, then the right thing would be to alert the licensing board. But right now all that R.A. knows is that F.E. asked her to do something R.A. believes to be wrong. The right thing to do right now is to simply tell F.E. she will not do it. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior 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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