Ethical Educator

Embellishing the Past
School Administrator, March 2021

Scenario: The superintendent received a request from an admired former colleague from another school district where both had once worked together two decades earlier. He is asking the superintendent to be listed as a job reference. The superintendent grants the request but then discovers the former colleague’s LinkedIn page greatly embellishes his duties and accomplishments during their time together. The superintendent wonders if she is obligated to point out the falsehoods or solely focus on positive experiences together.

Max McGee:

An ounce of prevention would have been a wise choice. Prior to writing the reference letter, the superintendent should have had a long conversation with her former colleague about why he was seeking the new job, his future goals and his present and past achievements. She also should have reviewed his LinkedIn page to see what he had accomplished since they worked together as well as during their mutual tenure in the former district. She then could have written a more accurate letter or declined to write one.

As for the pound of cure, now that the superintendent has written the letter, she should leave it alone.  The hiring authority should be astute enough to pick out differences between the LinkedIn profile and the recommendation letter and then would call the superintendent for a more detailed reference.  Even if the future employer does not catch discrepancies, it is likely they would call references. In either case, once the superintendent receives a phone call, she should then point out her misgivings about the former colleague’s embellishments and falsehoods and apologize for not digging deeper before writing the recommendation letter.

Maggie Lopez:

Because she already has agreed to serve as a reference for her colleague, the most ethical approach for the superintendent to take would be for her to talk to him and share her concerns. She might tell him she wants to support him but thinks the LinkedIn posting doesn’t capture what she remembers as the work they did when they worked together. It was a decade ago — is there something she’s not remembering, are there some things that to her appear embellished but about which he might have information that would show her the justification in the posting? 

The bottom line is that for the superintendent to serve as a reference, she has to feel comfortable with how her colleague is presenting himself professionally.

A benefit of this discussion for the superintendent will be to observe how the colleague responds to what could be a difficult conversation, a skill all good leaders must possess.  She actually will see an example of the colleague’s ability to deal with criticism and determine whether the person she admired is still whom she remembers him to be. His response hopefully will confirm that she will serve as a reference for her colleague without reservation. 

If at the end of the discussion, neither the superintendent nor colleague come to resolution or feel comfortable with the reference request, then each needs to withdraw from the reference request.

MaryEllen Elia:

It’s common for leaders to be asked to be a reference for a colleague with whom they worked at some point in their career.  It was smart of the superintendent to check out the former colleague’s LinkedIn page to refresh her memory on the work they once performed together before she responded to the request. Now that she sees discrepancies in the LinkedIn resume, she should call the former colleague to talk through what they recollect from the experiences. That way she will know if she feels comfortable providing a job reference. The candidate also might choose to not include the superintendent’s name in the applications.

In the future, when you’re asked to be a reference, ask the colleague to send you their resume as well as the key elements they believe would be most helpful in their job search before you commit to be included as a reference. Being upfront and honest is to everyone’s benefit — the future employer, the candidate and you.

Shelley Berman:

If contacted for a reference, the superintendent should honestly discuss what she knows of her former colleague’s work. First, however, it is important that she pause and consider her colleague’s perspective. Although she may believe he is taking credit for achievements that were the result of others’ efforts or is misrepresenting the work that was accomplished, he may view the situation differently. If she has a significant concern, it would be appropriate to call her colleague and discuss the variations in their recollections so that she can adequately address questions that may arise in giving the reference. After talking with her colleague, if she feels that sharing her perspective with a prospective employer would negatively impact her colleague’s chances of securing the position, she should let him know it would be best that she not serve as a reference.

On the other hand, if she concludes that what she considered exaggerations or inaccuracies simply represent a difference in perspective, she need not proactively raise them when contacted for the reference. It is the prospective employer’s responsibility to conduct sufficient research and ask the questions that enable individuals providing a reference to address someone’s background material. If asked about specific matters, she can truthfully share what she perceived as the colleague’s role and achievements in the former district without diminishing the admiration she has for him or the accomplishments she credits to him. 

Each month, School Administrator draws on actual circumstances to raise an ethical decision-making dilemma in K-12 education. Our distinguished panelists provide their own resolutions to each dilemma. Do you have a suggestion for a dilemma to be considered? Send it to:

The Ethical Educator panel consists of Shelley Berman, superintendent, Andover, Mass.; MaryEllen Elia, senior fellow, International Center for Leadership in Education and retired superintendent; Maggie Lopez, retired superintendent in Colorado Springs, Colo.; and Glenn "Max" McGee, a former superintendent and regional president of Hazard, Young, Attea, and Associates in Schaumburg, Ill.