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As stated I know the answer to the title is a hard no, but hear me out.

I started a side business setting up video game clubs for libraries and schools in my area while I was in college. Eventually I graduated and picked up a full time job and no longer had as much time to answer emails, develop content, troubleshoot, etc. I tapped a couple of friends to help me with the process. Over time, I handed over more of the work to one friend in particular, we'll call her Rose.

Rose has been handling the lion's share of the business under my supervision for about two years now. She's just starting to job hunt, and her experiences working for me make up a decent portion of her work experience. If the case were that cut and dry I'd certainly be willing to be a reference for her due to her great work ethic and the quality of work she's been producing.

But there's a twist; we're girlfriends as of about five months ago. Now there's a clear conflict of interest, even though at the time she started working for me and for the duration of about a year and a half we were just friends.

Can I ethically be a reference for her now? I'd like to think I can be objective based on her performance before we got together, although I accept that I probably carry some bias. Obviously it looks worse if she can't put someone down as a point of contact for the work she did, but I'm not sure if I'm "allowed" to speak about her now. If I can, should I be disclosing our relationship or not?

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    I'd like to avoid any conversations as to the ethics of her working for me; at this point it's a casual partnership as we EOL the few clients we have left since neither of us has time to maintain the business so that aspect will quickly stop being an issue. – Alex Oct 17 '18 at 22:52
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Can I ethically be a reference for her now?

Of course!

If you are concerned about ethics, simply disclose your relationship to whoever is checking her references. That way, they can decide for themselves how much it would impact what you are saying on her behalf.

Honesty always provides an ethical path.

I'd like to think I can be objective based on her performance before we got together, although I accept that I probably carry some bias.

It's to your credit that you understand the bias inherent in the situation. We all have biases.

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I'd like to think I can be objective based on her performance before we got together, although I accept that I probably carry some bias.

That's the point exactly. If you are aware and accept you carry bias, the "ethical" thing to do is to abstain from being her reference.

Even though you were capable to be as objective as you could, the current relationship you share makes it extremely hard to completely separate both contexts, and thus abstaining is the way to avoid falling into bias and ethical conflicts.

However, we must be aware that there is a difference between a personal/professional reference and mentioning a former supervisor when listing past jobs. Actively serving as a reference (in general) I believe should be avoided here, but being contacted during BG check because you were her manager is perhaps unavoidable.

In such case, do disclose your relationship to the one reaching out so they are aware of the possible bias. You could also redirect them to other colleague that knows her well and could give a more unbiased review.

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    If I know someone well enough to serve as a reference, I'm going to be biased due to knowing the person and probably liking him or her. Moreover, if I write a recommendation and include information on my relationship with the applicant, the receiving company can take that into account. I see nothing unethical here. – David Thornley Oct 18 '18 at 17:19
  • The point is that it's important to be clear. Disclosing this would dismiss any possible chance of this being unethical or unprofessional – DarkCygnus Oct 18 '18 at 17:20
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I would say the answer is an unequivocal yes. You can certainly be a reference, there is nothing (in the US at least) that makes it illegal, immoral or unethical.

But....

Others have mentioned bias, which I wouldn’t consider all that important, everyone is somewhat biased about everything. More concerning, you absolutely have several conflict of interests. You shouldn’t try to hide that. While I wouldn’t necessarily make that the first thing I said, if it comes out from someone else or they already know and it seems like you were trying to hide that, you probably might as well not have bothered, so it probably needs to come out sooner rather than later.

Handled appropriately, it could be a plus. You need to disclose that you are in a relationship, but reassure the questioner that you honestly believe whatever you have to say and won’t be deliberately padding your answers in any way. Then you need to live up to that as best you can.

You need to do this not out of ethical concerns about being a reference, but because if you don’t do so you are just about guaranteeing a rejection.

I would consider any lie or obvious misleading statements to be the equivalent of coming from the applicant.

OTOH, you have worked together for more than a year, and can obviously speak to both professional and interpersonal skills.

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As Joe Strazzere says "Of course [you can be a reference]!" And as he and others have said you could disclose that you're in a relationship now and therefore you acknowledge your answer might be biased. But I have a couple of other thoughts to add.

Firstly, Consider a connection...

Presumably you're in a relationship with her because you actually like her ;-) and so is it possible part of why you like her includes her work ethic and quality of work? Is it possible that those qualities are a reflection of her character?

So is it possible that your relationship is, at least in part, a result of all the positive things you want to say about her professionally?

I was in your shoes once, and the answers to those questions were yes for me. My reference was something along these lines:

"I'd highly recommend her professionally. Yes we're in a relationship now and I can confidently say that a large part of the reason for that, at least from my perspective, is because of how amazing a person she is both professionally and personally. She's a great worker and did a fantastic job... [gave some specific details]. She has integrity, and a whole lot of other great qualities [more details], and I admit, all those are part of what attracted me to her personally and romantically. Of course I'd recommend her professionally for all those reasons, and I'd hire her again in an instant regardless of whether we're together or not."

I worded it a lot better at the time and this is just off the top of my head right now. In the same situation again I'd give it a lot more thought and word it better than the above, but something along those lines is the general gist of what I presented.

(The outcome was very good for everyone. She got the new job, and, not surprisingly, excelled at it.)

Secondly, I can also say that as an employer, when I'm seeking a reference for someone I might hire, I'm as interested in what's not said as what is, plus all the other aspects of communication - tone, etc. I think a good potential employer or recruiter should be able to tell when someone is BS'ing with bias rather than speaking the truth with integrity, regardless of the circumstances.

YMMV, but if your answers to those questions above are true, then I see no reason not to express it.

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