The Ethicist: Should I Speak Up About My Client’s Drinking Problem?

August 19, 2018 by Joshua
in Ethicist

My series answering the New York Times’ Ethicist column with an active, leadership approach instead of an analytical, philosophical perspective continues with “Should I Speak Up About My Client’s Drinking Problem?”.

I work in the architecture field as a designer, and I meet with clients in their homes and throughout the construction process to select materials and review designs. Over a period of months or even years, you become very familiar with these clients. Beyond their likes and dislikes, you learn a lot about them and their lives. It’s usually a very pleasant process; however, a client has presented our firm with an unusual situation.

Other professionals and I have often noted that this client (the wife in a heterosexual couple) appears out of it at meetings and even, at times, as if she might be intoxicated or under the influence of drugs. At a recent meeting at the construction site, the client appeared coherent and sober when our meeting began, but as the meeting progressed, she became more and more belligerent, and by the end of the meeting, she was slurring her words, hiccupping, unable to focus on people or ideas and dropping things; she had also become argumentative. She seemed highly intoxicated. Throughout the meeting, she had been drinking from a water bottle, which we suspect was full of alcohol.

While there are protocols in place for dealing with professionals who are on site and under the influence of drugs or alcohol, there isn’t anything in place (to my knowledge) about the responsibility a professional has toward clients who present themselves in a state of intoxication.

Do we mention this beyond the meeting? Hope it doesn’t happen again? Those in attendance took detailed notes, but do we have any other ethical responsibilities?

Worth noting: The husband was at this meeting and clearly knew what was happening, and while I can’t say that I have ever seen his wife in this state while her children were present, she does have very young children who are often with her. Name Withheld

My response: When I started playing sports and had no skills, I enjoyed playing in practice but feared playing in games for fear of being responsible for messing up and failing the team. After mastering the game and becoming one of the top players on the team, I loved playing the big points against the big teams. I could still mess up but my skills were great.

When you master a skill, you look for challenging situations. The problem with this situation isn’t that you don’t know what to do. The problem is that if you don’t have the skills, you could mess up. Even with skills, you could mess up. With more confidence in your leadership skills—that is, the social and emotional skills to behave and communicate with the relevant people to create and implement an outcome that all would feel that, if not desirable, was the best achievable given the situation—you would act with confidence. Sadly, you don’t.

I would categorize this situation as a problem-solving, not an ethics, issue. Abstract questions of philosophy won’t resolve this issue as effectively as adopting a problem-solving approach. As with most of life, each potential action has results and you want to find an outcome most acceptable to the most number of people. What helps solve problems? In this case, probably talking to people with experience, developing social and emotional skills to communicate with the people affected, empathy for how potential results will affect different people. I would start with those things before writing a newspaper ethics columnist.

 What should you do? I recommend:

  1. Figuring out what resources you have—relationships, time, etc
  2. Figuring what skills you have and can create
  3. Creating as many options as you can
  4. Considering what outcomes each option will result in
  5. Choosing which option to act on based on those outcomes, evaluating them using empathy
  6. Implement the option you like most
  7. Do the best you can, knowing that problems will arise

In this case, I think you start with her. The question is not if you talk to her but when and what you say, maybe starting with the husband.

The New York Times response:

The last reason for concern you allude to may be low-probability, but it’s first in ethical priority. You have, as you say, no basis as yet for thinking the mother, who appears to have an alcohol problem, is a danger to her children. But you and your colleagues may be present in the household when the husband isn’t. You should certainly report to him any serious grounds for concern. (I understand that this is a difficult thing to do in a relationship with a client, but if it’s courteously handled, he’ll have no basis for objection.) If it became clear that the kids were in actual danger and that the father wasn’t going to do anything, you might even have to inform child welfare.

Short of that? When professional people enter our private worlds, we reasonably expect that they won’t feel free to report every problem they see to the authorities. Only where there’s a risk of significant harm is the obligation of professional discretion overridden by a concern for the welfare of vulnerable parties.

As for the woman’s behavior toward you and your colleagues: What she really owes you all is an apology, although your business relationship means you probably won’t try to exact one. Your story doesn’t include any acknowledgment by her husband of her misbehavior. He may have been embarrassed or oblivious, but if he failed to intervene or apologize in any way, this, too, was an incivility. Of course, maybe he has tried and failed to get her to behave better in the past and has now given up.

But treating people respectfully is not just a matter of etiquette. We owe those we deal with the sort of treatment that is appropriate in the context of our relationships. While people are not fully responsible for their actions when drunk, it isn’t too much to expect them to take responsibility for those actions when they are sober. What makes her conduct especially unattractive is precisely the fact that, as a bill-paying client, she has been able to get away with it.

Adam Smith thought that it was greatly to the credit of commerce that it relieved people from relationships of “servile dependence”: The market meant that the tradesperson had many customers, not one. In the absence of an actual threat of harm, then, it’s up to you and your colleagues to decide how to balance pride and profit. If you remonstrate, however politely, there’s a chance that you’ll lose these clients. Then again, doing so might push her to get the help she evidently needs.


I am a school psychologist in a high-need, underresourced district that typically has difficulty filling its vacancies. I applied to doctoral programs and was accepted to a few full-time programs and wait-listed for a few part-time programs. Going to a full-time program would preclude me from continuing in my job. It was my hope that I would be accepted into a part-time program that would enable me to continue to work. I will not know my status on the wait-listed programs until the school year has begun. Is it unethical of me to start working and getting paychecks before I know whether I will be accepted into a part-time program? If accepted into a part-time program, I will undoubtedly accept, but I will not know if that is an option until a few weeks into the new school year. Name Withheld

My response: You ask what’s ethical. Since everyone has different values, you’ll just get a label that not everyone agrees on. I suggest you want not a label but a practical plan to resolve your situation as best you can by your values and the values of others affected as best you can tell using empathy and projecting possible outcomes.

Labeling something doesn’t change your situation. You probably want to resolve it more than label it. I suggest that more than a New York Times columnist labeling something for you, you’d benefit from developing the social and emotional skills to resolve the situation and improve your emotional well-being. You’ll lose the excuse to say, “But the New York Times told me to” but gain the ability to resolve these inevitable parts of life without needing others’ help. You’ll make mistakes, but you’ll learn from them. Experience is the best way to learn these things, I’ve found, as have millions of others. I recommend accepting the missteps you’ll make, looking at them as learning experiences, and using them to learn and grow.

I think the plan depends on your relationships with the people you report to whom you would put on the hook, considering things like how difficult your leaving would make their lives, how supportive they’d be to your involving them in the process at personal risk, and such. If they can easily replace you or your absence wouldn’t complicate their jobs, you’d more likely tell them. If they’re bureaucrats who wouldn’t care and might fire you without a second thought, you’d less likely tell them.

I see this issue as about relationships and your relationship skills, not philosophy.

The New York Times response:

It sounds as if you’re considering two options. Option A: You stay on, tell the school nothing and wait and see whether you are admitted to a part-time program or have to attend a full-time one. Here, there are two possible outcomes: 1) You get into a part-time program, the school continues to have your services and you and the school benefit from your professional development. Everyone wins. 2) You aren’t admitted to a part-time program, enroll instead in a full-time program and announce your departure after the new term has begun. The school loses your services when classes are in session and has to scramble to find someone to fill in. You might have to take on some educational debt too, given that you’ll lose your income.

Now let’s look at Option B: You decide instead to enter a full-time graduate program to which you’ve already been accepted, and you inform the school when you’ll be leaving. This gives the school notice that it will need to find a replacement for you, so it’s less bad for them than A(2) but not as good as A(1). If you asked your employers, they might reasonably choose a shot at keeping you over the certainty of losing you. (We’re assuming you’ve got a decent chance of coming off a wait list.)

A natural question to ask is why you haven’t considered discussing this with the school administrators. It would have given them an opportunity to look into making temporary arrangements if the worst happens and you leave for a full-time program. Perhaps you think that you would be fired and replaced pre-emptively, ruling out your part-time plan. But how grounded is this fear?

Generally speaking, if you face a choice that brings risk to others, the best option is to seek their permission to take that risk and allow them, like you, to prepare for the worst while hoping for the best. If consulting them would be costly for you, however, sometimes a passable second-best option is simply to consider whether it would be reasonable for the other party to accept your risky decision. There will be exceptions here, of course: Depending on the odds and the magnitude of the risk, you may have an outright duty to consult others. As Aristotle observed, ethical propositions are only true “for the most part.”


An old friend has been confiding in me about her husband, who has early-onset Alzheimer’s, and her difficulty in dealing with him. He is refusing to let her tell anyone, including their children, about the depth of his problem. They have terrible arguments, and he has said that they should separate. Their son, whom I know, visits them a few times a year. Do I wait for him to pick up on this, or should I tell him in confidence what is going on? Name Withheld

My response: Again a false dichotomy. Unskilled people see issues as black and white: should I do A or B? Skilled people see nuance and subtlety: what options do I have? What resources do I have? Can I create more options or resources. Masters look forward to acting, even when they don’t know what to do, because they know that they’ll do the best they can.

What helps solve problems? In this case, probably talking to people with experience, developing social and emotional skills to communicate with the people affected, empathy for how potential results will affect different people. I would start with those things before writing a newspaper ethics columnist.

What should you do? I recommend:

  1. Figuring out what resources you have—relationships, time, etc
  2. Figuring what skills you have and can create
  3. Creating as many options as you can
  4. Considering what outcomes each option will result in
  5. Choosing which option to act on based on those outcomes, evaluating them using empathy
  6. Implement the option you like most
  7. Do the best you can, knowing that problems will arise

The New York Times response:

You have learned all this in confidence from your friend (who, yes, seems to have been breaking the confidences of her husband). So you would need to talk to her about what she would permit you to do with the information you have. And whatever she decides, it’s also relevant that her husband doesn’t want news of his condition to spread. He may be irritable, but plainly he hasn’t reached the point at which his autonomy is in doubt and his views may be discounted. It may well be that the son ought to be told; this doesn’t mean that you’re the right person to tell him.

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