Fair warning to all lawyers: We are going to beat up on you this morning because of a woman named Jane and a former boss of hers named Bill.
Bill called the other day to ask if I'd ever written a reference for a former employee. Many, many times, I told him -- and it has never been anything but a pleasure.
It feels great to place one's shoulder behind a promising young person and push, I told Bill. But it's also a social responsibility.
"Didn't we need a boost when we were kids?" I asked Bill. "Weren't we lucky enough to get one?"
Bill said he has felt the same way for years, and just as passionately. But he now says he will never write another reference. Jane is the reason.
When she worked for Bill, "everything went very well, except for one thing. Jane was in the middle of a divorce -- it was a late teenage marriage, clearly a mistake. When she worked for me, she was about 28 and in the process of reestablishing her social life, shall we say. So she spent a lot of time on the phone making and taking personal calls."
This was never a 20-megaton problem, Bill hastened to point out. Jane got her work done, although more slowly than she should have because she was often busy telling some caller how to find a certain bar in Tysons Corner that evening.
After working for him for a year, Jane thought it was time to search out greener pastures. She asked Bill to write a reference -- not a general one, and not one that Jane would ever see. She asked him to send it to a man who was about to offer Jane a job.
"You can call me fat and you can call me ugly, Bob, but you can't call me a liar," Bill told me. "I wrote a reference for Jane that listed all her strengths. But I also pointed out that she was doing a lot of social phoning on company time."
Jane didn't get the job. The prospective employer told her why.
Perhaps another day, we will debate whether that was wise of him. But there's no debate about what happened next. Jane hired a lawyer and sued Bill, for major money. She accused him of torpedoing her job prospects.
Neither Jane's nor Bill's lawyers would comment on the case, except to say that it was settled out of court. Bill told me that he had to pay "a hefty amount of money, far more than I ever paid Jane." He pronounces himself "extremely upset, because I didn't torpedo her job prospects. She did that to herself, with her telephoning."
Asked to comment on the case, Jane said she "did what I had to do. I was very upset when the man told me why I didn't get the job. He told me that I would have gotten it if that blot hadn't been on that reference. So why shouldn't I have been mad?"
Mad I can understand. Litigious I can't understand. Because Jane will certainly hunt for other jobs in her still-young life. By suing, she is only hurting herself.
Somehow, she will have to explain the year she spent working for Bill. If she doesn't list him as a reference ever again, future employers will wonder why. If she doesn't list any employment during that period, future employers will wonder why even louder.
And if word gets out that Jane pulled the let's-sue trigger, she may have trouble getting any kind of a job. Who wants to hire someone who is radioactive?
If Jane had been totally destroyed as an applicant by Bill's honesty, I could understand her desire for dough. But she got a job shortly after turning the case over to her lawyers. So now she has a salary (better than the one Bill paid her), as well as the pot of money he had to fork over. She won twice when she may not have deserved to win once.
Let's say Bill decides to take a different tack in the future. Let's say he agrees to write references for departing employees but limits his comments to white-bread banalities and safe, general assessments. Who gains from this? Not the future employer, not the prospective employee and not Bill.
I began this column by warning lawyers to take cover. I end it by pointing out what they should have done with Jane's case.
No, they didn't need to decline it. But couldn't they have urged Jane to go back to Bill and discuss the reference? Wasn't peace a better outcome in every way than war and damages?
Why does it have to be Jane in one corner with her boxing gloves on and Bill in the other corner with his on? Neither side wanted a fight, but fighting was the only way Jane's lawyers could think to proceed.
It was all posturing, anyway. I will bet you that in their heart of hearts, Jane's lawyers know that they couldn't have won the case on its merits. Reason: They would have had to show evil intent on the part of Bill. He had none.
Even worse, what do these legal whizzes think would have happened if Jane's case had been argued in open court? Bill's lawyers would have hunted up dirt on her that would have made her unemployable forever. Would that have been the best overall result?
My attitude is Bill's. Honesty is the best policy, even if lawyers and litigation lurk.
I have written references that glowed like a Christmas tree. I have also written references that said the applicant didn't really try and didn't really succeed. I will defend to the death my right to write both kinds. Let them sue me. Truth is a pretty good defense.