When a Thumbs Up Poses Problems

You hire a roofer. He shows up late and takes two days longer than expected. He does an adequate job but isn’t very good about cleaning up. As he leaves, he offers you a $50 rebate for any referrals who sign with him. Do your recommend him to your neighbors? If you do, do you tell the neighbors you’re getting a rebate? Do you split the rebate?

Your hairdresser is a struggling single mom. You’re not crazy about the way she does your hair, but you’re willing to live with it because she’s a nice person and you know she needs the money. She asks you to recommend her to your friends. Do you?

Your best friend has written a book and asks you to write a five-star review on Amazon and Goodreads. You love the book and are well aware of how hard she worked in writing it. Do you write the review? Do you disclose your relationship?

These kinds of conflicts of interest are growing more commonplace, forcing many of us to confront situations every week that run the gamut from rewarding a good deed to outright bribery. When personal relationships are involved, the stakes are often raised, with good friendships sometimes on the line.

Are they ethical problems? Absolutely. How do you navigate through them? Carefully. The key elements are honesty and disclosure. If you love your new roof, your haircut, or your friend’s book, there’s no reason not to talk it up everywhere you go. If your roofer couldn’t keep to the promised schedule but ultimately did an okay job, give your neighbor the full picture and let him decide what’s more important. If your friend’s book is great, talk it up as much as you can. If your hairdresser is only mediocre, you may want to keep quiet, no matter how much you sympathize with her financial plight (better to compensate with big tips if you want).

But in recommending someone, be sure to disclose the relationship. You should tell your neighbor you’re getting a rebate and if you can, explain how much or how little that influenced your referral. You’re not obliged to split it with him, but you can if you want to. If your friend isn’t choosy about his haircuts (maybe he’s 80 percent bald), you can tell him about your hairdresser and why you think he might want to make an appointment. And you should feel free to praise your friend’s book to your other friends, but mention your ties to the author, at least in passing.

But a book review online is more troublesome because your comments are aimed at strangers. Disclosure seems appropriate, but the chances are pretty good that someone who doesn’t know you will disregard your recommendation if you disclose the relationship, making it useless or even harmful. It may smack of desperation on the part of the author, even though your review is honest and heartfelt (which, of course, it must be). On the other hand, this puts new writers in a bind. Initially no one is going to read their books but friends and word-of-mouth publicity is crucial to bringing the book to a wider audience. So those first few reviews become essential, hopefully prompting strangers to read the book and leading to reviews free from any relationship taint. If you don’t review it, or the disclosure negates your review, you may be helping to doom the book.

As a struggling writer myself with my first novel due out next year, I have a lot at stake in this answer (that’s my disclosure). So I’m going to ask for your help in determining the right thing to do in this situation. Because of the writing associations and critique groups I belong to, I’m acquainted with a lot of new writers and there are many instances when I genuinely like their books. I hope they like the one I’ll soon publish. Should we review each other? Should we disclose the relationship?

I’d appreciate your thoughts and advice below.


8 thoughts on “When a Thumbs Up Poses Problems

  1. I agree that in the examples cited above one ought to be honest both in making recommendations and disclosing relationships. Here are a couple of examples from the academic world. A student asks for a recommendation, but I, the professor, have reservations, If I think the student is not a good candidate for the position, I decline to write. If I can recommend with qualifications, I agree to write but I advise student he may want to ask someone else to write on his behalf, and uncomfortable as this may be, it seems the ethical response. As for reviewing a colleague’s work? This happens all the time in the close- knit world of academia. Frequently and appropriately. the reviewer discloses the prior relationship (which might be either confrontational or friendly). Since the reviewer’s reputation for scholarship is at stake, reviews are generally honest. But if a friend (or editors) wants you not truly to review but rather to recommend work about which you have reservations, say sorry and decline.

    • This seems a very appropriate and ethical response, especially the disclosure of the relationship when you publish a review. The question is whether disclosing a friendship unfairly weakens the impact of the review. In the close knit world of scholarship, the reviewer’s reputation may carry weight no matter what the relationship is, but that won’t be the case in the anonymous world of online reviews.

  2. I always say, if you are not willing to be honest it is safer to say nothing. There are many ways to look at this one, but I am going to only give my view. Even the worst criticism has something good within. Give advice yes, but do not sugar coat it, if the friendship goes sour the person is not yet ready for the hard truth, because if they think you are cruel, they need to meet the real world out there. I know it sounds heartless but look at me, I am an Aspiring Writer and only giving me good reviews will not better me but only cripple me.

  3. I think more of Yelp reviews of restaurants and hotels. There’s no telling the relationship between the diner and the restaurant owner when you read it. At our B&B, we ask people to write reviews, and frankly, some are our friends. If they don’t seem to like their visit, we don’t encourage it.

    • I agree there’s no reason why you can’t ask a friend to write a review — and to selectively pick friends in doing so. Obviously, they need to be honest in their comments. The harder issue for me — and the one I can’t decide — is whether disclosure of the relationship is required.

  4. I believe disclosure of the relationship is best and will help more than harm — ‘they’ say exposure is the key factor. And surely the validity of any given review, including academic, is subjective. Even Siskel and Ebert could disagree. (Reviews often reveal more about the reviewer than the thing: such as review of a three-star hotel based on five-star quality and service.) (My comment, of course, is not based upon a knowledge of ethics. Perhaps I should not comment?)

    • I’ve tried to make the point that this web site is not only for professional ethicists. These are issues in which everyone’s views are relevant. On many of the issues we discuss, there is no “right” answer.

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