Providing unfavorable information in a reference - what is your obligation?

Discussion in 'Archived Threads 2001-2004' started by Janna S, Sep 18, 2002.

  1. Janna S

    Janna S Second Unit

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    Some friends (not extremely close friends, but more than acquaintances) asked if I would give them a reference regarding their application to adopt a child from a foreign country. I agreed to do so. It is reasonable to assume they wanted a reference from me because I would give a credible reference - I am a professional with extensive experience in the field of family law, addictions, child welfare, etc.

    I answered a series of questions asked by the agency. I gave truthful, positive information but I included two cautionary comments.

    First, I mentioned the husband's inability to hold a job. I said I believe this is due to his unwillingness to be disciplined and follow rules (he is one of those guys who is "just too smart" to work for anyone - there's lots of work in his field, but he hasn't worked a steady job for more than a month in the past 6 years, at least). He is, consequently, the primary caretaker for their own 3 year old son, not because he chose that role, but because his wife holds the full-time job which provides them with income, insurance, etc. He has been relatively successful as the caretaker.

    More significantly, I said that I have concerns about his alcohol and drug use. I acknowledged that I might be more than usually sensitive to that due to family experiences. I said I have not specifically seen his addictions cause problems with his own parenting.

    The truth is, I downplayed the drug and alcohol stuff considerably. It is clear to me, and to all their freinds, that this is a guy who drinks daily, and smokes pot daily, and has done so for almost 20 years. When his son was born very prematurely and was in NICU for several months, the nurses had to talk with him and his wife about his condition when he came in to visit the child. A recent physical confirmed liver damage in this guy, and he is now being required to attend treatment. Also, the wife and I had talked openly and honestly about his addiction problems, so she was fully aware that I knew he had problems long before she asked me to give this reference. (It's probable that his drug and alcohol use is part of why he can't hold a job, but I didn't make that link clear.)

    Here's the problem. When the adoption agency began talking with them about drugs and alcohol, the parents asked why these issues were being raised. The adoption caseworker told them there had been a negative reference, and ultimately let them see my reference. The caseworker said she would discard my reference and let them replace it with another, telling them that I had an "attitude" and was "known in the community" for doing this sort of thing. (I discovered this through mutual friends - a couple through whom I met these potential adoptive parents. The couple complained to these mutual friends about what I had done. These mutual friends know the drug and alcohol issues well, they do not allow the husband to care for their own children because of it, and they are supportive of my having told the truth. They told me that had they been asked to give a reference, they would have declined to do so.)

    I will deal with the breach of confidentiality by the adoption caseworker by consulting the agency. However, I am struggling with the issue of whether I did the right thing in regard to this couple. Did I owe them the opportunity to see the reference before I gave it? Should I have declined to give a reference once I reviewed the reference questions and realized that I could not honestly answer them without mentioning negative issues? I am interested in hearing whether folks here think I betrayed these people and should not have told the truth without notice to them.
     
  2. Seth Paxton

    Seth Paxton Lead Actor

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    I think you should have immediately had a talk with them once you realized the path you would have to follow with the questions.
    Uncomfortable to be sure, but isn't it really better for these people to know that friends have these feelings about them. I'm sure they would be upset to hear it, BUT you can always go with my favorite point in situations like these..."look, we are friends for a reason. I think we respect each other, so I think you should at least consider that someone who is similar enough to you to be thought of as a friend sees things this way."
    I know this sort of thinking has made me listen to less than favorable advice/opinions from friends.
    I mean, shouldn't friendship imply some sort of connection in idealologies, thus making your point of view valid to them...or theirs to you even.
    If these problems really exist, and if every friend of theirs handled it this way, they would probably not be able to adopt, which is exactly why the references were asked for in the first place.
    But you shouldn't tank it yourself, simply because maybe not all their friends feel the same way about them as you do, and as qualified as you might be you still represent only one point of view. What if 5 other equally qualified friends disagreed with your POV and would have given them very positive responses? Would you then simply consider all of them wrong too (5-1 vote of qualified judges of character doesn't make it reasonable for you to assume this).
    My point is that if you are right, then they wouldn't be able to find 5 other people (or whatever it takes), and if you are wrong you didn't even give them a chance to find people who were right.
    I doubt it would look very good if they came back and said "we couldn't get any of our friends to vouch for us". [​IMG]
    It is good that you were honest on the form. But you were dishonest with your friends by remaining silent, and I think you should be honest with your friends before strangers.
     
  3. brentl

    brentl Cinematographer

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    I think you did the right thing.

    It's a little obvious that they were hoping for a great recommendation based on your friendship. I wouldn't feel bad that you told the truth.

    Children from an adoption have it the toughest of all. While it's great for them to get a home and family, possibly something they never had, getting the wrong family can hurt them alot more..

    I would take the breach up with the adoption agency. I'd bet there are laws to deal with this situation.

    You cared enough for the child that quick possibly saved the child alot of heartache.

    Brent
     
  4. AllanN

    AllanN Supporting Actor

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    I also think you did the right think. You may have helped your friends not to make a huge mistake. If I knew that a adopted child was going to have a drinker and a pot smoker for a daily caregiver and I could do something about it I would. Even if it was my best friend. They have obviously made bad decisions about there own life, so what is to say they will not make a bad decisions in adopting this child.
     
  5. Dave_Brown

    Dave_Brown Supporting Actor

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    I think that while your intentions were honorable, the path taken may have been the wrong one.

    Looking at it from the outside, as soon as your friends approached you would have been the perfect time to say that you'll be a reference but their are certain concerns you will have and then lay them out for them. After that is done, you can follow up with "do you still want to list me as a reference knowing that these are the things I will bring forward?"

    As for him not holding a job, I'm a bit torn on what to make of that. First, it sounds like his other problems may interefere with his ability to stay employed. However, when I first read your post I came away thinking there is something wrong with a stay at home dad where the mother brings in the income to support the family. I see nothing wrong with him being without a job if the wife is able to provide income and insurance for the family.

    And finally, I don't know if you will have much of a case on the breach of confidentiality concerns. Did it say anywhere that the information you provide will not be shared back to the applying couple? Normally, people have a right to see what was said about them in these interviews along with who was making the statements. I had to be a part of a number of background checks for government agencies and one of the first things I was told when being used as a reference was due to the freedom of information acts and other regulations, everything I said can and will be shared at the request of the applying party.

    Overall, I think you acted with the best interests of the child in mind, which is never a bad thing at all. It sounds like it may have cost you their friendship but I also get the impression that you may not have been overly close with them anyway.
     
  6. Jeff Braddock

    Jeff Braddock Second Unit

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    You did the right thing. Think not of how you may have inconvienced your aquatiances, but how you possibly saved this child from traumatic experience(s). Also, the worker for the agency may have signed some sort of non-discloser statement or something like, don't know the procedure. You also might want to pursue them discarding your refrence. Seems like it would be a liability in the future if they adopt and he gets strung out and hurts the child. Of course I may be wrong.
     
  7. MickeS

    MickeS Producer

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    I think you did the right thing with regards to the drugs, but I agree with Dave Brown above that the comments about the dad's ability to hold a job might have been unnecessary. Would you have made the same comment if it had been the mom who was the stay-at-home caregiver, and the dad worked full time? If so, maybe you did the right thing.

    Maybe you should have brought these things up with the parents first, but I wouldn't have, it's really hard to talk about stuff like that. IMO you don't have an obligation to tell them about what your reference letter will look like.

    Most of all though, I feel you did the right thing overall, because you said what you feel about them, and isn't that what the purpose of a reference is?
     
  8. Cees Alons

    Cees Alons Moderator
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    Janna,
    I had a similar problem some years ago. A former co-worker had given my name (as his former boss) to a government institution where he had applied for a job. Apparently he was one of two (or perhaps even 1) candidate(s) selected to be left at the end.
    The (let's call him: ) general manager phoned me up and asked my opinion. I gave a very truthful and generally positive opinion, but when specifically asked for the abilities in a function he described in detail (he also mentioned some of the prerequisites they believed to be important), I had to express a few honest doubts.
    He didn't get the job.
    In this case, of course, I could not have "shown" my reference to the person involved beforehand apparently, but like you, I think I did the honest and truthful thing. One must be able to trust a reference - or else it will not be of any value at all (I myself, when when part of a selection team, almost never ask specific personal references for exactly that reason, BTW - hardly ever to be trusted).
    Also, you did well to help achieve a proper outcome: it's no good to let inappropriate parents receive a child - not for the child, not for those parents, in the end (nor is it proper to let someone be appointed in a function that will make all involved unhappy).
    Whether you should have confronted them with your written reference beforehand, is a different matter. Obviously, had you done that, they would have suppressed your opinion. It's your moral duty to weigh what you consider important.
    Another consideration, in fact of quite another nature, is this: do you want to stay friends with those people afterwards? Of course this has hardly anything to do with morals [​IMG]. But it's also not entirely your problem or fault: if their conduct had been impeccable in all respects that mattered, you wouldn't have had to face that problem in the first place.
    Cees
     
  9. PatrickM

    PatrickM Screenwriter

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    Janna, my wife and I wrote a reference letter for friends of ours who were attempting to adopt a child internationally. Luckily these friends would be excellent parents and are very good and loving people so it was easy for me to write a glowing and accurate reference.

    I think you did the right thing. Since you are a person who has experience with family issues you know its the child's welfare that we should be thinking about not the parents.

    You did the right thing.

    Patrick
     
  10. Jeff Ulmer

    Jeff Ulmer Producer

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    I also think you did the right thing. While using alcohol or pot is not a big deal when in moderation and on occasion, this guy is obviously abusing them, and if it were up to me to make a call on, I would not want to subject a child to those conditions by choice.

    Children are not trophies, and those looking to adopt are hopefully being screened for lifestyles that are dangerous to the child's well being. If the guy really wants to be a father, perhaps he should grow up a bit and take responsibility for his own behaviour first.
     
  11. Mark Schermerhorn

    Mark Schermerhorn Second Unit

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    Janna, what needed to come out came out, I mean, that's what references are for.

    Then again, there is a tacit assumption in our culture that if you agree to provide a reference, it will be a positive reference. I've seen a few aquaintances have the same problem. People are very suprised and often angry if they find out someone gave them a negative reference.

    The whole "reference" procedure is dysfunctional in that way, but at the same time I think people that examine references take that bias into account.

    I'm sure the caseworker was equally suprised, especially given that she was willing to toss your reference aside. That, along with the terrible breach of confidentiality, should prevent the caseworker from contining at that or any other similar job.

    So it's a tough call. You could have told them beforehand, and at the same time, there are subtle ways to suggest that they aren't fit (although granted being subtle about drug/alcohol probs isn't easy). Of course, in this case the caseworker is deciding to ignore your concerns, which renders the reference process into nothing more than busywork anyway. It's an all around bad situation created completely by the caseworker.
     
  12. Tom Meyer

    Tom Meyer Second Unit

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    I think the agency worker should be fired for showing them the reference !! Total B.S !! I'd be mad as hell.
    [​IMG]
     
  13. Ryan Wright

    Ryan Wright Screenwriter

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    Janna: I applaud you.

    I had a guy ask me for a reference once. He is an acquaintance, and is not someone I would give a favorable reference for. It really seemed to me like he was fishing for someone - anyone - to say, "Yeah, he's a great guy." I declined to give him a reference. I made up some excuse about not knowing him well enough to be comfortable giving any sort of reference. I know him well enough, but any reference I gave would not have been what he wanted me to say, and I refuse to attach my name to a lie.

    Sitting these people down and talking to them before issuing your reference would have been the best way to go. You didn't, but I don't fault you for it. I'm not sure I could have done so. (Then again, I tend to open my mouth and piss people off when I shouldn't, so perhaps I would have.) The problem is that people don't want to be made aware of their faults. Sitting them down and talking to them would have had the same reaction: They'd be upset with you and probably not want to talk with you again. They'd bad-mouth your name all over town ("She claims my husband.. blah blah blah... and refused to give us a reference!") just the same as they're doing now.

    So, if you're an honest person confronted with this, it's a lose/lose situation. I applaud you for having the guts to give an honest reference, though. You did nothing wrong here.
     
  14. Ted Lee

    Ted Lee Lead Actor

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    hmm....tough issue. just some of my random thoughts.
    first and foremost, i (overall) agree with your actions. you should not have to lie for anyone. a childs future is (potentially) at stake - is that a risk you were/are willing to take?
    but i think i would have discussed with your friends as soon as they asked to use you as a reference. clearly his habits were on your mind from the start, so perhaps you could have brought it up? or did you not think about it until it was "too late"?
    another very important question though (that i think touches on seth's post): how reputable are you? are you a good judge of character? did you really need to throw that out there? (not being accusatory...just asking as devil's advocate.)
    anyway, the "damage" has been done. i don't think the agency should have revealed you as the reference. definitely not from an ethical pov and probably not from a legal pov. but i don't know...
    so, ultimately, i do feel you did the right thing, but perhaps you could have taken a less "condemning" (sp?) path.
    just out of curiosity, what is your relationship with these people. are you close? they must have liked you enough to ask you in the first place.
     
  15. Bill_D

    Bill_D Supporting Actor

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    Without weighing in specifically:

    When someone asks me for a reference, I ALWAYS ask them what they want me to say. I then tell them what I will say. It is then up to them to use me as a reference if there is a mismatch.
     
  16. Janna S

    Janna S Second Unit

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    Thank you to everyone for your thoughtful comments.

    Other info about the situation:

    I have been friends with these people for about 6 years - I see them or talk with them once a month or so, at their home or mine. I visited a lot when their son was in the hospital. We do dinner together. We exchange Christmas presents. I drop in to chat (we don't stand on ceremony).

    Because I am almost a nondrinker and I don't smoke dope, I am not a hard partier at their home, but am certainly there when drinking is occuring (he is a little more subtle about smoking in front of me, possibly because it is illegal, although it's not like I'd "turn him in" and he knows that.)

    They call on me frequently for friendly (free) legal advice (about a complicated home purchase, about how to handle a belligerent and violent neighbor, etc.) But my concerns about the problems that drug and alcohol use CAN lead to (don't always) are pretty well known by them and other friends - my sister had a liver transplant a year ago, when she was less than a week from death due to alcoholism and untreated depression.

    Among all my friends I am known for facing facts and problems actively. If people want to stay in denial or spout bullshit, they know not to hang with me. I have extensive experience (professional and otherwise) with human behavior and people in crisis - have taken in several folks who were in serious (life-threatening) legal and health trouble and gave them respite and a home so they could get themselves turned around - and I have a reputation for being tough but compassionate.

    The request for a reference came with very short notice - and it was written in direct response to specific questions about which parent works, does one stay at home, what are the income sources and issues, etc. That's why the fact that the husband hasn't held a job came up. His inability to stick with work is an active topic of conversation in their household and with friends - everyone including him jokes about how long he will last whenever he takes a new job. (His incessant smoking and drinking is also openly discussed and acknowledged.)

    I am not sure if it was clear in my first post, but as a direct result of the adoption application process, including the references and a routine physical, the husband's liver damage was identified and the adoption agency is requiring him to seek treatment for (at least) alcohol abuse. So even if the friendship is gone, and regardless of whether they get a child or not, this might turn out to be a good thing. But I still appreciate the fact that I maybe should have handled it differently.
     
  17. Ted Lee

    Ted Lee Lead Actor

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  18. Mike Voigt

    Mike Voigt Supporting Actor

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    You did the right thing.

    Mike
     
  19. Philip_G

    Philip_G Producer

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    You offered complete, truthfull answers to their questions, that is what a reference is for. Did the couple expect you to lie or something? That just isn't reasonable.

    I can NOT believe the agency gave the couple your reference to read. That just blows my mind.
     
  20. Cees Alons

    Cees Alons Moderator
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    And to answer your original question:
     

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