Q. A job applicant reported a college degree, but we couldn't verify it with the college and the applicant gave some lame excuse. I know she is now applying for a job with a colleague. Should I tell him she's a liar?

A. Publicizing the misdeeds of others is a trying ethical decision because it upholds one important ethical responsibility while possibly violating another. You would like to protect your colleague from a bad experience with this candidate, yet also protect the privacy and good name of the candidate herself. This tension is expressed in the two sides of a single verse from the Torah: "Don't go about as a talebearer among your people; don't stand idly by the blood of your fellow" (Leviticus 19:16). The first half warns us against malicious gossip, which can harm someone's reputation or invade their privacy. Yet the second half warns us not to stand idly by when our fellow man faces loss or danger; we are bidden to take action to protect him.

The way we balance these two ethical duties is the subject of much discussion in our tradition; the book Chafetz Chaim by Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaKohen of Radin is in large measure devoted to precisely this task. According to Rabbi HaKohen, disclosing someone's wrongdoing is justified only when:

  • It is indispensable for a constructive purpose;
  • It will not cause disproportionate harm to the person being discussed.

If you had a firm basis to believe that your colleague was likely to hire this individual, and that hiring her presented a clear and present danger of loss, then the first condition would be fulfilled. If you were sure that your colleague's response would be limited to taking your information into account in the hiring decision, then the second condition would be fulfilled.

This kind of inferential evidence would not be a sufficient basis to inform someone else, unless there was a compelling reason to think that damage would result.

However, as you describe the case the first condition is doubtful. First of all, let us point out that you don't have definite proof that this applicant is lying. You have convincing evidence, which is certainly sufficient to justify your decision not to hire her. But this kind of inferential evidence would not be sufficient to go ahead and inform someone else, unless there was a really compelling reason to think that damage would result. But that doesn't seem likely in the case you describe. There is no particular reason to assume that this person will be hired; perhaps your colleague will carry out the same background check you did and come up with the same information. Even if the person is hired, lying on a resume is certainly a devious practice but does not guarantee the person will not be an effective worker; only recently we have a seen a number of high-profile cases of prominent and successful managers who lied on their resumes.

The second condition also needs to be examined. You have to know the person you are talking to. For example, if there is some danger that the information you provide would be publicized, or recorded where it could be used later, there is a good chance it could cause undeserved harm to the applicant. It is fair that she be turned down for a job if she can't back up her story, but it's not fair that she have her reputation ruined in the long term.

Under the circumstances, it would be acceptable to say nothing. Another possibility is to encourage your colleague to study the matter without expressing yourself in a clearly negative way. For example, you could say, "We didn't get around to verifying this applicant's credentials; it might be a good idea to contact the college." Again, this depends on your colleague. If this statement will cause him to do more thorough checking than usual, then it is constructive and not harmful. But if it will cause him to throw out the application summarily it might be excessive.

In any case, in this scenario stating that the applicant is "a liar" is certainly exaggerated and unjustified.

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The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.