“Pass the Trash” Ethics

School superintendents included.

Nancy Sebring was hired to be the new Omaha, Nebraska school superintendent and was scheduled to move into her position on July 1, having been hired in April.  Meanwhile, she was finishing up as outgoing Superintendent of Schools in Des Moines, Iowa. When Sebring suddenly resigned her Iowa post, which she had held for six years, on May 10, she and Des Moines school board president Teree Caldwell-Johnson explained that Sebring had stepped down early so she could attend to pressing family affairs before moving to Nebraska.

The real reason, however, was that Sebring had resigned as an alternative to being fired. The school board had discovered that she had used the school’s computer system to send more than forty e-mails to a man with whom she was having an adulterous affair, many of them sexually explicit. The e-mail trail began shortly before she announced her new job, and continued until she was forced to resign. Now Omaha knows about the e-mails too, thanks to a newspaper report. Sebring’s new job has ended before it started, and Omaha is desperately behind in finding a school superintendent.

Obviously, Nancy Sebring was dishonest and unfair to her new employers by hiding the events behind her resignation, but the more significant miscreant is Caldwell-Johnson, and presumably the rest of the Des Moines school board. They perpetrated a hoax on their Omaha counterparts by aiding and abetting Sebring’s efforts to conceal a significant part of her employment record, a part that makes her quite a bit less than a prime catch. Did Caldwell-Johnson endorse the cover story to help a friend and once-valuable employee who had made a mistake? Did she do it in response to threats of legal action by Sebring? I don’t have that information, but whatever the reason, she was engaged in the all-too-common employment practice of “pass the trash.”

The current practice among employers, dictated by fearful legal departments, is to provide the bare minimum to future employers requesting information about a current or former employee being considered for a job, even when the employee has shown dishonest or unreliable tendencies. “Pass the Trash” is not just a cowardly practice, and an unethical one that violates the Golden Rule,  it is also costly. It allows bad employees to win jobs over more reliable and trustworthy applicants, harms their new employers, and wastes resources and time. In some cases, employers affirmatively misrepresent untrustworthy workers as good ones simply to hasten their departure, and avoid the the hassle of laws suits, hearings and documentation that firing for cause often creates.

Employers who know of misconduct by an outgoing employee should be legally as well as ethically required to divulge it to any and all potential future employers, and be subject to paying damages to the the employer who loses time or money after hiring an employee whose proven propensities for misconduct were not divulged. The revolting thing about the Des Moines/Omaha episode is that Omaha’s school board probably would have done the same thing to Sebring’s next employer.

When a potential employer has asked a direct question about the trustworthiness and work habits of a former employee who was asked to leave for cause, I have always answered the question completely and directly, as in,

“Did you find the applicant to be a reliable and honest employee?”

Answer: “No. Not in my experience.”

“Would you hire this individual again?” 


“Would you recommend that we hire this individual?”

“No, I would not.”

This is the candor and professional courtesy I would want a colleague to extend to me.  It is absurd that the workplace has accepted a system that encourages the opposite of candor, and passively accepts the kind of destructive deception Teree Caldwell-Johnson engaged in to the detriment of  Omaha’s schools.

No, I wouldn’t hire her, either.

The tradition of “pass the trash” is unethical, and needs to end.


Pointer: Fark

Facts: WCF Currier

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at  jamproethics@verizon.net.

11 thoughts on ““Pass the Trash” Ethics

  1. What especially annoys me about stories like these is that taken together they help confuse the hiring process so that trustworthy, principled individuals are less likely to be distinguishable in terms of those qualities.

    • 1) Violating school policy by using her employer’s e-mail account to send personal messages of a sexual nature, violating policy, using work hours for personal activities, and
      2) Not informing an employer that she had been, in effect, dismissed for cause, setting the employer up for embarrassment.

      I don’t think what she did necessarily blackballs her from positions of responsibility, but that’s for employers to decide, not her, and not you. What your question seems to be asking is…”Doesn’t she have the right to hide facts about her past employment that she believes potential employers will judge her by unfairly and excessively?” And the answer to that is, “No, she doesn’t.”

  2. Unforgiving words, you have strong opinions on this one. But I think you said nothing that would make me to think that there are not serious ethical questions about the domain of moral answerability (to whom and for what we owe explanation for our acts) and about what kind of consequences we deserve from our wrongdoings.

    • It’s not your domain to tell an employer what kind of employee they want to hire. An employer has the right to know the facts, and why an applicant left her last job is one of the facts it has a right to know. The questions you raise are irrelevant to the question at hand, valid as they are.

  3. Well, I don’t think the questions I raised were irrelevant, bit too general of course. To make my kind of Northern European guy to nod while reading you block you should have used an example where someone has clearly been lousy employee, haven’t been up to her important work related duties, or have done something warranting stringent reaction form the other members of moral community.

  4. Her conduct was enough to get her fired (sorry, force her to resign), so it is hard to pretend it isn’t relevant to her next employer since it is the same position. The next employer may chose to overlook it, but that is their call to make. Sending sexually explicit e-mails using your work computer usually will get you at least reprimanded.

  5. In my experience, in the US military, dishonest offiicers are gotten rid of post haste (“duty,, honor, country”). But in cases where it is not dishonesty or behavior discrediting the uniform, but just incompetence of one kind or another, with no evil intent, the military plays “pass the trash”, by putting the person in positiions of little or no command responsibility, where their incompetence won’t get anybody killed. For example, the new assignment of the fictional Captain Queeg, in “The Caine Muutiny”.

    • OK, if you’ve never read it: In WW II, Lt. Cmdr. Philip Queeg goes from command of a US warship in combat, to bossing a minor supply depot in the southwestern desert. Do get it and read it — it’s a classic.

      • OK, if you’ve never read it: In WW II, Lt. Cmdr. Philip Queeg goes from command of a US warship in combat, to bossing a minor supply depot in the southwestern desert. Do get it and read it — it’s a classic.

        It was a supply depot in Iowa.

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