What to Do with Illicit Information

Say you know something that you really aren't supposed to. Is it okay to use that information? This week, New York Times Magazine Ethicist Randy Cohen answers a listener who's not sure how to handle a piece of illicit information.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Those little satisfaction surveys you fill in at work, in restaurants or at the end of a semester of classes are supposed to be anonymous. But as we learn from one listener, you shouldn't assume that your identity will remain secret. Rich, who asks that we not use his last name, is a teacher who figured out which student gave him a bad evaluation. He wrote this week's letter to the ethicist. We have Rich on the line, along with ethicist Randy Cohen. Hello to both of you.

RICH (caller): Hi Randy, how are you?

Mr. RANDY COHEN (Ethicist): Hello. Hi, Rich. Hi, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: So Rich, tell us what happened with this student.

RICH: I live in New York. I work during the day and I teach a class at night in my industry. It's a lot of fun. And on the last day of class, out of my 20 students, one of my evaluations said I've taken a lot of classes in my life and I've had some real clunkers, but this one takes the cake.

ELLIOTT: No mincing of words there.

RICH: Right. And the evaluation that the student filled out was filled out in a unique green felt tip pen with distinctive penmanship. And the evaluations were filled out the same day as the final exam, so it was pretty easy for me to figure out who the student was with these comments. A week after the course ended, that same student sent me his resume by e-mail, said he enjoyed the course, and could I help him get a new job in my business. When I got his e-mail looking for a job, I was pretty flabbergasted, so I deleted the e-mail. And I guess as a footnote, by the way, this student actually has a degree from an Ivy League school and his background on paper was very good. And several weeks later I put the student in touch with an employer who called me looking for me to work for them. I said I'm not interested, would you be interested in a new person? You know, he's looking for a job. This person's looking to hire someone. You know, you guys can talk and make your own decisions.

My question is, you know, what about the student's lack of integrity for what he said in the evaluation and then coming back to me?

ELLIOTT: So Randy, how do you weigh in on this? It seems like the lesson here is don't use a green felt pen when you fill out your exam and your evaluation.

Mr. COHEN: Well, I've just thrown away - while you were speaking I threw away the gold glitter pen I normally use. I can see the perils of that. Well, here's what strikes me, that if Rich, if you think this student is a liar, then it seems to me you acted very badly indeed by giving him a reference to some poor unsuspecting employer. And if you don't think he's a liar, you shouldn't have given him a hard time to begin with. It seems to me either way you're in kind of thin ice.

I'd also quibble with your characterizing the student as having a lack of integrity. I think Debbie came a little closer when she said he had a lack of sincerity. But in the situation, it seems a situation when no one could be completely frank, when you're appealing for a reference, and I don't think less of him for that. I'm not sure what we can expect him to do. Denounce you to your face? I would call it prudence or politeness. I'm not so sure I'd call it a lack of integrity.

I mean if there were some other problem, that he cheated or, you know, you had some reason to doubt his honesty, then you shouldn't give him a reference. But in this case, I don't think you have one. No, I don't think any teacher has any obligation to give a reference to a student. But you should decide that kind of thing on the student's merits, not in a fit of pique because a student gave you, well, what you have to call a bad grade. I know that's upsetting but you shouldn't take it out on the student. And I admire that you, I think, came around to that idea.

ELLIOTT: Rich, thank you for your letter.

RICH: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you Randy and thank you Deb.

ELLIOTT: Randy Cohen won't give you a reference, but he will answer your burning ethical questions. You can reach him by going to our Web site, npr.org. Click on Contact Us. Select Weekend ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Put the word ethics in the subject line. And don't forget to include a phone number where we can reach you. Randy, thank you, as always.

Mr. COHEN: Thanks very much Debbie.

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