How truthful do I have to be when giving a job reference?

August 20, 2009
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Question: A friend of mine asked me to be a referee for a job. He is desperately in need of work at this time but I know something that, if I were his prospective employer, would make me have reservations. Should I simply gloss over this and give him a glowing reference?

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is rabbi at Borehamwood and Elstree United Synagogue.

This is a very difficult ethical dilemma. On the one hand, you do not want to betray your friend who is desperate for work while on the other hand you feel duty bound to be honest with his prospective employer.

In order to navigate your way through this we must examine several Jewish principles. The first is the prohibition against spreading gossip (Leviticus 19:16). Maimonides points out that even if the negative information is true, one is still forbidden from passing it on to another. If we were to apply this principle alone to your dilemma, you would not be allowed to share with the prospective employer any negative information about your friend.

However there are another two principles to consider. Leviticus 19:14 warns against setting a stumbling block before the visually impaired. Maimonides extends the scope of this prohibition to include giving poor or misleading advice to the unsuspecting.

Leviticus 19:16 also proscribes standing ideally by one’s fellow’s blood, which is interpreted to mean that one must not remain silent or inactive when that may result in causing physical or financial harm to another.

In a number of modern halachic responsa, these last two principles are used to qualify the first. One of these is Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s response to a doctor who is conflicted because his patient who has epileptic seizures had successfully concealed this vital information from the authorities so that he could procure a driver’s licence. The rabbi’s position is unequivocal; the doctor must notify the authorities at once. A similar dilemma was brought before the Chief Rabbi of Zurich, Rabbi Ya’akov Breisch, concerning a doctor who had a terminally ill patient who had got engaged to a young women with no idea of his illness. Rabbi Breisch’s position was that the doctor was morally bound to disclose this information to the unwitting bride.

Returning to your dilemma, the answer very much depends on the nature of the information you think you should disclose. If this information could in any way harm the business of the prospective employer, you have no choice but to come clean. If, on the other hand, the information is unlikely to have any real impact and if it remains undisclosed no one would be the wiser, then leave it alone.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

It looks like you are caught between loyalty and honesty. Both are important values, but when they clash and one has to take preference, it is harder but better to pursue honesty.

The fact that you are in contact with the person concerned and want to maintain the relationship makes it very difficult if you feel you are letting him down; but it is even worse to lie: “every word of smooth talk and misrepresentation is forbidden” (Maimonides).

But could you solve the dilemma by being economical with the truth? There is biblical precedent for telling a white lie: when Sarah laughed at the thought of bearing a child, saying that both she and Abraham were too old, God relayed her remarks to Abraham but left out that she thought Abraham was also past being fertile. The commentators cite this as indicating that it is sometimes worth editing the truth for the sake of domestic peace.

Much depends on the nature of the knowledge you possess. If it is something that looks bad and might cause him to be rejected, but which you know is an aberration from the past and does not affect his current life — for example, he went to prison for a stupid act in younger days that is now long behind him — then you are within your rights to use your judgment and not mention that which is irrelevant to his character today.

However, if it is a character defect that will affect his ability to perform the job, then that cannot be withheld. As the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch puts it very bluntly: “Just as it is forbidden to wrong another in buying and selling, it is forbidden to wrong him with words.”

There is also a practical element to this: if your friend is unsuited for the job, then it is probably better that he does not apply for it in the first place, as he will either fail the interview or be accepted but be dismissed later on.

Of course, if you do have to give a mixed reference, it will be sent confidentially to the employer and your friend might never find out; but rather than leave it at that, you might be a truer friend if you advised him to look for a different type of job more appropriate to both his talents and his weaknesses.

    Last updated: 4:36pm, August 20 2009