Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

The Case of the Reference Request

By Jim Balassone

A former employee who was fired due to poor quality work, absences, and lateness related to her drinking problem, informs you that she has applied for a position at another company and has already given your name as a reference. She desperately needs a job (she is a single parent with three children), and she asks you to give her a good recommendation and not mention her drinking, which she assures you is now under control.

She also asks you to say that she voluntarily left the company to address a family medical crisis, and that the company was pleased with her work. You like this person and believe she is a good worker when she is not drinking. You doubt that she really has overcome her drinking problem, however, and you would not recommend your own company hire her back.

  • What do you say to this woman?
  • What do you say to an employer who calls you for a reference?
  • What if the prospective employer was a friend?
  • Suppose the problem was a theft?
  • Suppose she had asked you to be a reference prior to supplying your name to her prospective employer?
  • What values are at stake? Do some of the values conflict with one another?
  • Jim Balassone is executive-in-residence at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

    March 2011


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