Recommendations, References, Evaluations and Slander

In the workplace environment and in denominational circles Christians often need to report on the workplace performance of others. This can be a Christian manager reporting on the performance of an employee, a Christian employee reporting on the performance of a colleague on a team project, or a denominational official reporting on the performance of a pastor whose church was in his district. Often, when someone is seeking employment, that person may request a reference or a recommendation from someone else who is a believer. So, what are the standards of what a believer is to say or write about the other person?
The scriptural standard for believers is to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). This would at least mean refraining from any kind of slander: "Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward all men . . . " (Titus 3:1-2).
 I’ve often found that many Christians in the workplace fall into the ways of self promotion (how can I make myself look good?) and backstabbing (how can I hold back, defeat or demean someone I see as a rival?) when it comes to giving references, recommendations and evaluations. They may treat this responsibility as a way to make themselves look good at someone else’s expense or a way to hold back, demean or harm someone that they feel is a rival or whom they dislike. And it’s entirely possible, based upon my previous experience with Christians and Christian organizations, that many personnel files contain information which is slander in the scriptural meaning of the term, and perhaps even in the legal sense.
Here are some suggestions on how to approach giving an evaluation, reference or recommendation:
  • Make sure that whatever is shared in a reference, evaluation or recommendation is the truth, without exaggeration or minimization. This means at the least not presenting isolated incidents as long term problems or offhand or intentionally humorous remarks as deeply held convictions or intentions.
  • Make sure, if you are in a managerial or supervisory position, that clear, realistic and workable expectations are being set forth in any kind of performance plans or tasks given to the employee. Be sure, in addition, to build the kind of working relationship with the employee where further questions to clarify the expectations or to share obstacles to a task being completed are open to a professional and charitable discussion.
  • Make sure that any extenuating circumstances are taken into account if a task cannot be completed. For instance, projects are cancelled and postponed due to no fault of the employee. In fact, it’s entirely possible that a person can put in exemplary performance on a project which ends up failing or being cancelled. In this case that performance needs to be recognized despite the ultimate outcome of the project.
  • Make sure that anything done beyond the original performance plans or tasks is included, and suitably recognized and rewarded. If a person puts in an exemplary performance, make sure that that is recognized. Turnover of the best people often comes when they and their colleagues recognize that they are going above and beyond everyone else, but their contributions are not being suitably recognized and rewarded. (Or even worse, that others of more mediocre performance are being recognized and rewarded ahead of them.) Build the kind of positive professional relationship with the best performers so that the rewards and recognition will be suitable for them.
  • Make sure that whatever is shared is timely and relevant to the information needed by the audience of the reference, recommendation, or evaluation. What is needed is usually to determine whether a person is qualified professionally and personally for a current or future position. Keep personal likes, dislikes and disagreements out of the picture as much as possible. If the information is some years out of date, it’s reasonable to say that one’s acquaintance with that person was within a certain time period.
  • Be willing to forgo giving a reference, evaluation or recommendation. This should most likely happen if it is not a duty of one’s current position or if one does not have sufficient or accurate information to give an accurate account of the other person’s performance and qualifications.
  • Make sure that the information which is given is first hand. Do not pass on second hand information, especially if there is any evidence or likelihood that the source is maliciously inclined or duplicitious. Slander which originated with another defiles the heart and life of the person who passes it on.
  • Treat any area in which your estimation is that the person lacks qualification at the least as an area of potential improvement, not as a permanent weakness or disqualification. People can, when given the chance, often make up for their weaknesses in the future. No believer is the final authority on what another person can or cannot achieve in this lifetime.
  • Share any areas of potential improvement with that person before a reference, recommendation or evaluation is passed on to others. Generally, human resources departments continually advise managers and supervisors that nothing on a performance review should come as a surprise. Nothing that is shared should blindside the subject of the reference, recommendation or evaluation. Moreover, anyone in a supervisory position should be addressing these areas of potential improvement before a performance review.
  • Do not share what is in evaluations, references and recommendations in any personnel files with others, especially as a matter of casual conversation. Certainly no one who does not need the information in these files should ever hear what is in them as a matter of office gossip or denominational politics. Certainly it is unethical and probably slanderous and libelous that anything in these files that should not be shared casually with others. 
  • Confirm the whole story about strengths and weaknesses of a person when making use of the references, recommendations and evaluations in a file. They should be a guide to conversations, rather than a substitute, when they are part of the basis of an evaluation of a person’s job performance or qualifications. If the person overcame a weakness or an initial mistake while learning something, the positive result should be there rather than just the mistake or weakness. References, recommendations and evaluations should certainly not be a list of everything that anyone has found wrong with something else and all the ways in which others think that they need to shape up. Any document which appears to be like that, especially when contradicted by positive reports, should immediately be suspected as being slanderous and libelous.
  • Anyone who has given a dishonest and malicious reference, recommendation or evaluation needs to offer a retraction and correction as a matter of genuine repentance and restitution toward that person’s personal and professional reputation. I believe that one mark that revival truly has hit the lives of people and leaders in our churches will be that letters of confession, retraction and correction will begin to appear in the personnel files of many denominations and Christian organizations.
  • Denominations and Christian organizations need to make it a matter of discipline and possible termination when they discover that dishonest and malicious references, recommendations and evaluations have been made. At the minimum a letter of confession, retraction and correction needs to be provided. A letter of reprimand could be added to the file of the person who previously provided the dishonest and malicious communication. If this has been a persistent pattern or egregious and aggravated in the depth of dishonesty and malice, termination and revocation of ministry credentials should definitely be under consideration as part of the disciplinary process.

I am of the opinion that Christian organizations should, as much as possible, have any personnel files as open as possible to the people who are the subjects of these files. I fear that a number may contain anonymous letters, letters expressing ‘concerns’ and skewed, possibly malicious, evaluations about many Christian leaders and employees. Some of these may be holding them back from many good opportunities and places of ministry which God has for them. Moreover, the leaders of Christian organizations and denominations need constantly to rebuke the practice of anonymous and backstabbing letters and dishonest evaluations as contrary to Galatians 6:1 and Matthew 18:15-17 as well as Titus 3:1-2. Unfortunately, in these cases, it’s very difficult for a believer to defend himself against slander which comes in this way, but it’s only fair that there should be some way that the believer should have the opportunity to set the record straight.

All scripture references taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION, copyright 1973, 1978 by the International Bible Society and used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

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