Q. A colleague gave a number of associates permission to provide an objective reference, and as a result we felt justified in giving the prospective employer a complete and partially unfavorable assessment of his abilities. We were mortified to find out that this employer told the applicant that he was refused for the job because of the poor references! This creates a very unpleasant atmosphere whenever we encounter this colleague. Was the employer justified in explaining the reason for not hiring?
A. The issue of references is a very delicate one. When someone is refused for a job, the employer has a difficult ethical dilemma. On the one hand, there is a desire to provide as much information as possible, in order to help the applicant assess his abilities in an accurate way and aid him in finding a suitable position. This is a fulfillment of the Torah commandment, “Surely reprove your neighbor, and don’t bear sin towards him” (Leviticus 19:17).
Against this, there are two other very important considerations: First of all, we want to avoid hurting the applicant’s feelings via excessive criticism. This is one of the meanings of the Torah’s admonition, “Don’t bear sin towards him” in your reproof.
Second of all, we want to avoid creating ill will and possible recrimination. The employer is certainly justified in trying to protect himself from hostile feelings. Most employers conclude that “silence is golden” and reveal very little information.
However, it is definitely impermissible to reveal the information others provided in confidence. This kind of revelation is so serious that it is considered a distinct variety of slander. Many times this column has referred to the classic book on the subject of slander and gossip, “Chafetz Chaim” by Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaKohen. The book is divided into two sections; the first section discusses making denigrating or damaging statements; a second section is devoted solely to the seemingly narrow topic of disclosing negative statements made by others! (A useful, though somewhat imprecise, English rendition is that the book is divided into sections on slander and gossip.)
The Chafetz Chaim writes: “What is a gossip? Someone who bears tales from one to the other, and goes and says: “This is what so-and-so said about you, this is what so-and-so did to you”. The author goes on to say, “Even if there is no disgrace in what is related even according to the gossiper himself, and even if they were to ask the original subject he wouldn’t deny… even so this is considered gossip. And you must know, that the prohibition of gossip applies even if there is no intention to cause animosity towards the subject.” (1)
This description exactly characterizes your situation. The potential employer told the applicant what you and your colleagues said about him — “This is what so-and-so said about you.” Furthermore, there is nothing disgraceful or improper about giving a frank reference — “there is not disgrace in what is related.” Probably the employer didn’t even intend to cause ill will, but only to provide useful information to the applicant — “even if there is no intention to cause animosity towards the subject.”
It is true that the employer had the understandable motivation to deflect blame from himself, and also did not specifically mention any names. The applicant cannot be certain that you individually gave a negative reference. Even so, this behavior is improper. The Mishna states: “Where do we learn that a judge may not say [to a litigant] ‘I voted to acquit, and others to convict, but what can I do — the others were in the majority’? Of this it is written, ‘A gossip reveals secrets’ (Proverbs 11:13).” The judge is not permitted to deflect criticism from himself to others, even if he is not specific in his accusation. (2)
In order to protect the confidentiality of those who give references, and in order to enable employers to obtain accurate information about applicants without having the referrers fear negative consequences, it is vital that the applicant not be given information which would tend to inform them about the content of the references, if this revelation has any chance of causing ill will towards some of those who expressed their judgment.
For more, see the follow-up column: “Further insights on the ethical dimensions in giving references.”