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Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Should You Expose a Charity That Exploits Its Employees?

posted by Joshua on May 28, 2017 in Ethicist, Nonjudgment
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Continuing my series of responses to the New York Times’, The Ethicist, without imposing values, here is my take on today’s post, “Should You Expose a Charity That Exploits Its Employees?

I recently began training for a staff position at a nonprofit that offers services to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. I was very happy to be offered this position, particularly in light of the current political climate. The job required several weeks of training, followed by on-the-job training, to become state-certified.

When filling out payroll paperwork, I asked when we would receive our first paycheck. I was told that we wouldn’t until the training was complete, including the on-the-job time. I asked the staff person if she was aware this was illegal in our state, that mandatory training must be paid. She said that the training was not mandatory and informed me that the center had had a problem in the past with new hires who did the training and then went to work elsewhere. I was tempted to say: Perhaps that’s because the other jobs pay more than the minimum wage you’re offering. But I stopped myself. I decided to drop the matter, as I really needed the job, even though I was giving up paid shifts elsewhere to attend the training.

I diligently attended the training and did the homework (for which time we were not compensated, another violation). During one session, the subject of sexual harassment on the job came up. During the break, I mentioned that I was very knowledgeable about workers’ rights and might be of help to some clients.

When I came for the next training, the director called me into her office to tell me that they were letting me go, that I wasn’t a “team player.” I inquired how they knew this from my sitting quietly and always being prepared. Then I asked if I was being let go because I expected to be paid for training. She assured me that this was not the case.

I was very upset, particularly because the same organization laid me off after one year of employment decades ago, after I mentioned at a staff meeting that comp time was illegal, if it’s used to avoid paying overtime. I’m still upset because this is a nonprofit organization that claims its mission is to empower and support victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, and yet they have abused the rights of their employees, most of whom are women and many of whom are survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault themselves.

Meanwhile, the organization is housed in a grand building. During training, meals are ordered from local restaurants. The number of clients served is not impressive, given that the organization is based in a working-class city.

In a case like this, I would normally report the employer’s infractions to the state attorney general’s office. My problem is that I believe this organization does do good in the community. I don’t want to set off a chain of events that might end with its closure, but I find the way it treats employees abominable and hypocritical and believe it should be addressed.

Do I write a letter to their board? My experience in the past was that the board was not involved in day-to-day operations. Or do I file a report with the attorney general? Name Withheld

My response: A union represents adjunct professors at NYU, including me. Last year one of the support staff wrote me an email that everyone who sees it considers unprofessional, mean, and uncalled for. When I politely asked for clarification, her supervisor repeated the same pattern. Nobody understands where it came from, except that it was self-serving.

I’ve talked to several people about it and we generally conclude that given all the details and relationships, which aren’t worth going into here, letting it slide is the best course.

Except the union people I spoke to. They talked about filing grievances and escalating.

My reason for asking advice wasn’t to punish these people but to create a more productive working environment—that is, to solve problems, not to create more. I don’t think the support staff intended to be unprofessional and mean. I suspect they were trying to make their jobs easier and didn’t think about the consequences.

The union people just seemed interested in confrontation. They seemed to see the other people as adversaries first, human beings second, and their role as fighting to win.

They reminded me of the phrases, “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” and “When you have a gun, everyone is asking for it.”

Only you know what your goal is, but the tools you’re considering using seem confrontational, adversarial, and designed to escalate. They don’t seem empathetic, understanding, or, most importantly, effective at resolution.

In the language of the hammer phrase, you’re asking how to get a screw into a piece of wood with a hammer. I’d advise you to learn to use some other tools designed for your goals, like screwdrivers and drills, not to use a hammer for what it isn’t designed for.

I’d suggest you learn other social tools to resolve this conflict than what look to me like escalation and domination to defeat and win. When you learn those tools, you’ll see how to use them.

The New York Times response:

I have only your account of what happened, of course. But if your account is right, the board really ought to know about this, because the duty of its members, as fiduciaries for the organization, is to ensure it lives up to relevant legal and ethical standards. Perhaps they don’t know that not paying for mandatory training is illegal. You would be serving the organization’s real mission if you informed them. It’s possible that they are aware of the practice but, like the senior managers, are hoping that it will continue to escape legal scrutiny. By registering your objection formally, you make that position harder to maintain.

The staff members who do know what is going on may dismiss your complaints as those of a disgruntled job applicant and former employee, and it will be tempting for the board to accept that rather than look further. I wouldn’t assume, therefore, that you will see change as a result of your complaint. Copying the attorney general might increase the chance of board members looking into the matter properly. Another way to go is to talk to a local journalist, on or off the record. Sunlight is sometimes the best disinfectant.

What about the risk this poses to an organization that helps the community? I don’t know that your complaint is likely to end with its closure, but it could have other consequences that affect its mission. You’d have the organization spend more on its employees — abiding by fair-labor standards and perhaps paying more than minimum wage. Maybe you’re convinced that by economizing elsewhere, it could maintain its current client load, maybe even increase it. But you don’t know that. What if, after its labor costs went up, it could serve even fewer clients? A calculation of consequences — gains to the people it hires, losses to the victims it helps — might show an overall shrinkage in social benefits.

None of this would absolve the charity from its obligations as an employer. Legitimate laws create presumptive obligations. We don’t, as a rule, exempt charitable organizations from laws that govern their activities. A soup kitchen has to abide by health regulations, even if it could otherwise feed more mouths. A homeless shelter has to abide by fire codes, even if it could otherwise house more bodies. The ethical principle in this case is simple and stubborn: Employees are owed the protections that legislators have reasonably provided for them.


When my diabetic husband had a heart attack, with subsequent open-heart surgery, he was told to give up cigarettes. I quit smoking as well. Given the steep price of cigarettes, would it have been unfriendly of me to offer my unused cigarettes to someone who couldn’t afford them? Name Withheld

My response: Oh brother.

The New York Times response:

Seriously? Propping up the price of cigarettes is a good thing, because it discourages their consumption. The C.D.C. says that about one in five deaths in our country each year is caused by smoking. True, “sin taxes” disproportionately affect less affluent people, but, given that they have less access to health care, so does illness. If you wanted to help your low-income acquaintances, a gift of cigarettes isn’t the place to start. It’s possible that, having smoked when I was in my 20s, I may be overreacting. The effect of a few cigarettes on the prognosis of someone already committed to smoking is marginal. And if someone who is impoverished is going to smoke anyway, it’s a generous thought to want to save them some money. But wouldn’t a better response be to ask them to join you in quitting?

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