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As a Job Reference, Tell the Whole Truth

Knight Kiplinger answers your questions about recommending former employees and when it's okay to use company letterhead.

I was recently called by a human-resources manager checking the references of an applicant who used to work for me. The person had been a poor performer and was "counseled out" of our firm. What's the most ethical way to respond?

In these litigious times, employment lawyers often advise against saying anything negative about a former employee, lest you be vulnerable to a defamation charge. They suggest that you confirm nothing more than dates of employment and job description. Although that's the safe thing to do, it leads to poor performers being passed along from one job to the next. I prefer to give a balanced account of the former employee's work, sticking to the facts -- and trusting in confidentiality. Wouldn't you appreciate this candor if you were the one making the hiring decision?

I have a friend who uses his corporate stationery for virtually all his correspondence, including consumer complaints, college-alumni work and club-membership recommendations, even soliciting friends' support for charities. Is this acceptable?

Not only is it poor etiquette, but it's also unethical to trade on the stature of his employer for his own purposes (especially in a personal consumer complaint). Companies should make it clear that their letterhead is for business correspondence only.

Have a money-and-ethics question you'd like answered in this column? Write editor in chief Knight Kiplinger at