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July 4, 2011 11:09 PM   Subscribe

I just finished grad school and started working a few months ago. Everything's been going great so far, but my company just hired someone new, someone whom I taught last term as a TA. In fact, they plagiarized their term paper, and I was the one who caught it. I'm upset that my company hired them, but even worse, we'll be working together on the same project. My gut's telling me to just let it go, but I feel pretty awkward.

I just really want to tell someone, but I know it doesn't really make sense. They're already hired, it won't make any difference. I'm also worried I'd be breaking some TA-student confidentiality code.

There is one person, more senior than me, who I'm pretty close with, he's also my somewhat-official mentor. I was thinking of running it by him from the perspective of "I feel really awkward". Good idea?

So, Is this something I should bring to HR? Will I just seem like an immature tattletale? Should I just let it go and hope their true colours show later on? Wouldn't it be more professional to ignore it?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (29 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
They did the crime, and presumably the time for their plagiarism when they were at uni. I wouldn't want my youthful peccadilloes following me about for the rest of my life - though I never plagiarised and can see why it would bother you.

Run it by your mentor, by all means. But my corporate advice would be to let it go. Employers are way more interested about malfeasance in the workplace - or criminal records, or records of sexual harrassment etc. Basically, shit that can/will get them in trouble at some point, and this doesnt' really qualify for that.

Assume your former student has learnt from their bad, former mistake - plagiarism is depressingly common at university - and that they're ready to learn even more from you. :)
posted by smoke at 11:15 PM on July 4, 2011 [6 favorites]

I know nothing, but you very well might be breaking FERPA by sharing his academic information with anybody but the student himself. I'd be careful.
posted by floam at 11:17 PM on July 4, 2011 [7 favorites]

Follow your gut and let it go. You'll both feel awkward. Don't hesitate to report unethical behavior if any becomes evident in the workplace, but don't look for it either.
posted by dchrssyr at 11:23 PM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is your chance to be a professional here. If the new hire acts resentful that you discovered their plagiarism, then *they* are the one that is in the wrong, not you. If the new hire doesn't say anything, you should give them the benefit of the doubt. They've already been punished for their acts; there's no reason for you to "rub it in."

You *may* have a valid complaint for them hiring someone you're going to work with without talking with you. However, this is (unfortunately) standard practice at some companies and this may not be unique. If the standard is to internally discuss new hires with you, you might make a comment that you would have preferred to discuss this hire. However, said complaint has nothing to do with the new hire's plagiarism.
posted by saeculorum at 11:26 PM on July 4, 2011

If this person is already hired, it might be more professional to not make a big deal of it for now, because what are you going to do? Certainly, cheating is wrong, bad, etc..., but this person is hardly the first person to plagiarize a term paper and certainly isn't the first person to be caught plagiarizing in college who later gets a job. Plagiarism of various sorts seems to be shockingly common, and in my opinion one such act does not mar a person with such an irreparable stain of deceitfulness that would override their otherwise positive qualities. The University followed whatever procedures they follow, assessed whatever consequences they determined were appropriate, and choose to give this person a degree in spite of his/her actions.

I'd focus on his ability to do his job and try to move on. Doing his job does mean acting ethically and responsibly, including citing sources according to standard practice for your industry and company, but you have to wait until there's strong reason to believe that he cannot meet those standards before you take it up the corporate ladder.
posted by zachlipton at 11:30 PM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

There is no justice in the world, and I feel your pain. I think your urge to tell someone might be rooted in a desire for justice, or perhaps even vengeance, because it is kind of an insult to the prof/TA to turn in a plagiarized paper, and the little snot seems to have gotten away with it, more or less. But of course if these are your motives rather than genuine concern for the company (look inside your soul, and all that), you have to vent this frustration to someone else, and keep things tidy and professional at the workplace by not bringing it up there.
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:52 PM on July 4, 2011

I was plagiarized by a close former friend in a professional (but not academic) capacity. As a result, I did a lot of reading about plagiarism to try to make sense of what happened. From what I understood the typical plagiarist is extremely ambitious and has *total* confidence in the work they have stolen. They may or may not be confident in their own work. The most ambitious among them sometimes plagiarize because they are extremely productive, and have simply run out of ideas.

Typically, outside of academia, few plagiarists suffer much in the way of consequences. I don't know if plagiarism is an activity that tends to recur, certainly in my reading I came across several extremely famous authors who were known to have done it. In my own case, my plagiarist *was* accused of plagiarizing again. But it didn't really matter. I think I was able to embarrass--and perhaps blacklist?--him from one august institution. (I had reams of proof, and the only redress I wanted was the removal of his copy from their Website; unfortunately, it had already gone to print.) Regardless, he is now *very* successful, and moves in equally successful circles. So, you know, at best he's the guy there will always be rumors about, but it's highly doubtful anything else will ever come of it.

As for you, I'd do as the majority has opined here, and not publicize your encounter with him, except, perhaps, with your mentor, depending on how much you trust him. It would be good to have him on your side, in the event that anything should go wrong.

I would definitely not engage in any discussion of this with the plagiarist. Plagiarists know what they've done. Or at least that was clearly the case in my situation. And, of course, it embarrasses them, and they have their regrets. Again, I saw evidence of this. But it doesn't seem to matter. Perhaps there's an element of narcissism in plagiarism? A feeling that they deserve because they need...? Certainly, there's an element of sneakiness.... Anyway, I think you're far better off taking the high road, and being above it. If nothing else, it reads as professional.

As for your actual work together, I'd be very careful. I haven't read anything to confirm this, but I'd bet that someone who has plagiarized would be that much more likely to credit grab. In my case, the plagiarist was never overtly competitive, which is one of the many reasons his actions surprised me so much. But that may have been situation-dependent: We were both working independently, and not at a job together. As for you, any sort of vengeful or spiteful activity on the part of the plagiarist would depend on the rest of the person's nature. I hope for your sake you will have some seniority over this person, if only by virtue of having preceded him at the company.
posted by Violet Blue at 12:12 AM on July 5, 2011 [5 favorites]

I really hate to say this, because I hate plagiarism, but it doesn't have anything to do with the job therefore it cannot be made into an issue on the job.
posted by mleigh at 1:16 AM on July 5, 2011

You assessed a particular piece of work, you didn't assess the student as a human being. You don't know the background to what he did, so I would just file the incident as useful information and let it lie as far as the two of you are concerned. You don't have to like or even trust colleagues, but you do have to build a working relationship. But you have been put on your guard. This sounds an occasion where it may be good to do things by the book and with a "paper" trail -- confirmation emails setting out what was agreed in the meeting this morning, that phone call etc. as well as journalling your work.

I think I would put down a marker with your mentor just in case of later problems. "I taught him, I don't think I would have hired him" seems sufficient.
posted by Idcoytco at 3:24 AM on July 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

I wouldn't bring something like this up. Plagiarism isn't that nice, but...but oh, jeez, I have the idea of a youthful mistake messing up someone's job in this economy; you don't know why the kid cheated (unless you do?) and it might have been anything from evil ambition as described above to sheer panic (I've dealt with some plagiarists and never met the clever ambitious type); and if the kid was punished for plagiarism through school, they should have another chance. No crime - especially not one as culturally-condoned as plagiarism - deserves a vengeful angel at work.
posted by Frowner at 5:05 AM on July 5, 2011

Let it go as part of their educational experience. You are the best reminder possible for this person not to do it again.
posted by about_time at 5:36 AM on July 5, 2011

Whoa, what the hell? This guy is a known thief and liar who has had all of one year to mature, and metafilter's take is "eh, just let it go already"? What would you do if he'd been embezzling or if he falsified his resume? This is no different.

Maybe you can't get him unhired, but you definitely ought to bring HR's attention to the situation -- as a paper trail for the inevitable moment when he returns to his dishonesty, as a means of covering your ass in the event the two of you have a falling-out, and most importantly because it's the right thing to do. Ideal outcome is he gets fired and someone honest gets hired in his place.
posted by foursentences at 5:44 AM on July 5, 2011 [6 favorites]

Don't narc out the new girl; that will seem immature. And if you haven't even inquired about the university's privacy policy, there's a real chance that you aren't allowed to disclose this information -- so if you do, you could face consequences.

No one out in the working world cares about what happened in school. You were a grad student, so you're more connected to it than others, but really, no one cares. Let it go.
posted by J. Wilson at 5:55 AM on July 5, 2011

You are the best reminder possible for this person not to do it again.

Exactly, unless this guy is a psychopath, he's probably freaking out that he's working with the TA who caught him cheating.

I think if you were to report him (for what really?), you'd have more scrutiny drawn onto you. It looks like you're questioning the judgement of those doing the hiring, while looking incredibly petty.
posted by geoff. at 6:00 AM on July 5, 2011

I'd talk to your mentor and get their advice, they know the corporate culture where you work better than strangers. This covers you just in case, and gives you more knowledgeable guidance on how to proceed. Either that, or go to HR and pose it to them as a hypothetical and find out their policy.

I tend to agree that this is not something to just be ignored. I can't imagine any company wouldn't want to know something like this about a new hire.
posted by lemniskate at 6:03 AM on July 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Whoa, what the hell? This guy is a known thief and liar who has had all of one year to mature, and metafilter's take is "eh, just let it go already"? What would you do if he'd been embezzling or if he falsified his resume? This is no different.

Sure it is. We're not talking about Jayson Blair here; we're talking about a college student. Mistakes made in school are not supposed to be as crippling to one's future as mistakes made in The Real World. Otherwise, there wouldn't be much learning going on. (Well, okay, there would be even less learning going on...) Not to mention that plagiarism has to be about as common as trying pot. I'm not saying this is how it should be, but this is how it is, and everyone in the academy knows it.

But to get less philosophical:

I'm also worried I'd be breaking some TA-student confidentiality code.

You very well might. FERPA is a harsh mistress. If I were you, I would probably attempt to have an informal chat with the campus academic integrity officer (or whatever the title is of the person you reported the incident to); they might have a better idea of the etiquette of the situation than us AskMe types, and they will have a better idea of whether you're opening yourself up for legal trouble by breathing a word of it to anyone at the company.
posted by AugieAugustus at 6:09 AM on July 5, 2011

Don't narc on the new hire, as she has already been hired. Instead, talk to her and sort of feel her out. If she brings up the incident in a genuinely appologetic way, thank her for her honesty and call it done. If she doesn't, just kindly remind her that you won't be letting her past get in the way of her present, but that sort of behavior isn't cool in your group.
posted by gjc at 6:33 AM on July 5, 2011

FERPA is the only answer here. Regardless of whether you'd *like* to say something, you can't say anything.
posted by gerryblog at 6:43 AM on July 5, 2011

I agree that I wouldn't say anything beyond what Idcoyto suggested, and also that your presence will remind the former student of their mistake. I also agree with you that plagiarism is a BIG DEAL, especially depending on what your current line of work is and how public-facing the work being done is.

Were I you, I'd quietly go about my business, not bring it up with former student, but 1) document my own work and 2) periodically spot check former student's work (which really, a more experienced team member should be doing anyway, especially with a new hire...albeit for things other than plagiarism).
posted by smirkette at 7:11 AM on July 5, 2011

Even if you're no longer employed by the university where you were a TA, I'm fairly certain that you would have signed a teaching agreement/contract that bound you to observe your students' privacy not only while you were employed, but after you left as well. That being said, nothing prevents you from carefully documenting your own contributions to team-produced work (develop a compulsive habit of sending out 'clarification' emails after meetings, 'just to note down what we discussed and what we agreed we would do next,' 'so-and-so, I just had a quick question about that great idea you had for such-and-such' or using your own emails to yourself to 'keep track of your ideas' on a time-stamped basis) or from subjecting this person's work to some scrutiny on your own.

Make sure that if this person's past academic dishonesty ever comes up, you aren't the one to bring it up - let this person's actions from now on tell you whether or not they deserve your trust and/or their continued employment with this company. If you find something fishy, let your former student be the one to have to explain why you might have been checking in the first place.
posted by amy lecteur at 7:34 AM on July 5, 2011

If you're in the U.S. and you were employed by the University, then FERPA would in all likelihood apply to this situation. When I taught as an adjunct, a similar situation was explicitly discussed. I would keep the student's past performance to yourself.
posted by foggy out there now at 7:45 AM on July 5, 2011

IANAL, but I think a lot of this talk of FERPA is somewhat overblown. As I understand it, the only enforcement mechanism for FERPA is action taken against consistently noncompliant institutions by DoED. There is no mechanism where the plagiarizing student could sue either you or the school, nor would you be at risk for criminal penalties. The most they could do is file a complaint with DoED. Although you'd be in violation of the spirit of the thing, you really wouldn't be taking a legal risk - especially since you know longer work for the school.

(This is not legal advice, and there may be other applicable laws, such as state laws.)
posted by kickingtheground at 8:08 AM on July 5, 2011

Regardless of actual legal culpability or the likelihood of specific consequences, FERPA outlines an ethical guideline for college instructors that should absolutely be respected here. It would be very inappropriate to talk about your former student's academic performance at their new workplace.
posted by gerryblog at 8:12 AM on July 5, 2011

Here's an anecdote that may or may not help.

At one point, I was a working professional during the day and teaching graduate school at night. My first day on the job at a new (day) job, I walked in and noticed that the receptionist was a former student. Not just a former student, but one I had failed.

One of the department heads told me that she was not only the receptionist, but someone who was being trained to move into the department.

I was filled with dread and fear and icky feelings. And, well, she was awesome. She was sweet to me, told people I was her former instructor and was totally competent at her job -- even good at it.

She is now good at her chosen profession and we have a very friendly relationship even as we've both moved on to other jobs.

Given that experience, my advice would be to hope for the best, plan for the worst. Be friendly with him, but make sure that your manager knows you have a former academic relationship -- end of story -- in case he's a dick to you or a future conflict comes up. And, well, treat him with respect and expectations that he will perform as well as any new employee. If you have to address it, don't apologize to him for busting him (if you truly feel you were in the right), don't be fakely friendly and don't lord it over him. He's probably terrified you'll out him, so don't do anything that would make him feel like he's backed into a corner.

We do stupid things in our 20s. Hopefully he's learned, grown and seeing you again is a reminder that he's got to give his all. And if he acts otherwise, it'll be that action, not his previous actions, that will be a problem.
posted by Gucky at 8:55 AM on July 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

You really can't talk about it.

Oh, but you can know about it, and know that she knows that you know. So few people get to experience their pigeons coming home to roost in such a real-world kind of way. Enjoy it, and then also accept that theft is pretty much how most businesses do business and she'll probably go far.

The impression I've gotten from my professor friends is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to even get students to understand what plagiarism is and why it's bad, so maybe she is or was more dense than evil.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:01 AM on July 5, 2011

Do not tell anyone at the company. It is a violation of FERPA. kickingtheground is right that you won't get in legal trouble, but it's ethically wrong and will make you look bad to the company to be violating the law.
posted by thirteenkiller at 10:43 AM on July 5, 2011

It is morally wrong to assist a thief in prospering due to his theft. The plagiarist stole:
1) from whoever wrote the works he plagiarized;
2) from the students he was competing with for GPA rank;
3) from other job candidates who attained their credentials honestly; and
4) from everyone who has written an academic paper, who therefore has a stake in the general perception that academics are honest.
This is not small potatoes and it is not a long-buried youthful indiscretion (and if the company incorrectly believes it is, they always have the option of shrugging it off).

I do not know what your FERPA responsibilities are -- although this seems wholly distinct from the spirit of the privacy FERPA is trying to protect -- but you know what the morally right choice is here. People who advise the easier path of tolerating thievery because "everybody does it nowadays" are part of the problem.

One other point. If I were your boss, and I later learned that you had chosen not to tell me about my new hire's dishonesty, I would lose enormous amounts of respect for you, and would become much more inclined to fire you as a liability in the future.
posted by foursentences at 11:49 AM on July 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Be friendly with him, but make sure that your manager knows you have a former academic relationship -- end of story -- in case he's a dick to you or a future conflict comes up.

I second this. I can't help but at least think the odds are 50/50 that the former student will have a problem with this (might act like an asshole to you, might be afraid of you, whatever), and that it will be noticeable on the job if they don't/can't suck it up and act like nothing happened, and that would affect the company. I think it's fair to say ahead of time to a higher-up that you had some kind of ... something... with this student, so that they are not utterly shocked and surprised if something goes wrong. Beats me how you'd phrase it, though, what with the FERPA problem.

Does this student know ahead of time that they're going to be working with you? Or are they going to be very unpleasantly surprised on day one? If they know ahead of time, at least they have an idea of what they're going in for. If they don't, that kind of worries me.
posted by jenfullmoon at 12:35 PM on July 5, 2011

Calling this guy a "thief" and saying that his plagiarism (about which we have no details, and which we have no reason to think he snuck past the employer by, e.g., falsifying his transcript) is "no different" than embezzlement is hyperbolic and unhelpful. Sure, plagiarism isn't cool, but he didn't commit a crime, he didn't commit financial fraud, and I'm going to go out on a limb and say he also didn't kill Jack Kennedy.

As for your own legal liability -- without doing any research beyond a quick Google to see that FERPA would likely bar the school from disclosing this information without his consent, I'm going to go out on a limb and say I'd take my chances suing you. Something in contract or tort would stick, and if he got fired and struggled to find a new job, you're looking at substantial damages.

When considering telling your mentor, keep in mind that telling him is tantamount to telling the company. He might or might not tell anyone else, and you have to assume that he will. Your call, but unless you have a mentor-type person at some other company, this isn't going to be a private conversation seeking advice.
posted by J. Wilson at 5:40 PM on July 5, 2011

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