Continuing my series of alternative responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicists, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on others, here is a take on today’s post,”Do You Tell a Friend His Daughter Is Sexually Active?”
A man told me he was approached by his best friend’s daughter, a minor, who confided that she and her boyfriend had become sexually active. She wanted his opinion on birth control. The man says he would want to know if it were his daughter, but to tell the parents would violate the girl’s trust. What do I tell him? NAME WITHHELD, CONNECTICUT
My response: Another question the New York Times accepted where they person wasn’t asking for a label, like “obligation” or “ethical”, for their behavior. The person is still asking for someone else to think for them, so they’re still treating themselves like a child instead of using the opportunity to mature, but it’s a start.
You can usually rely on the Golden Rule, but applying it with the girl tells you not to tell the father and applying it to the father tells you to tell him. Involving a minor of an unknown age increases the challenge too. The younger the girl is and the more dependent on the father she is, the more telling him makes sense to me. The older she is, the more treating her like an adult means respecting her wishes. It’s not like she’s a toddler until she gets to vote and then is suddenly an adult.
The letter doesn’t say what conditions she asked for or he agreed to when she confided. That matters. The first thing I’d say to the guy is to suggest not to agree to conditions before you know what you’re agreeing to. I stopped doing that a long time ago and found I could help people more than by saying yes to requests like “If I tell you something, will you promise not to tell anyone?” I respond with something like “How do I know you’re not going to tell me you murdered someone?” I would not keep that secret for anyone. They tell me they didn’t murder anyone, but I still respond, “I have no idea what you’ll say or if we’ll agree it should be secret. I’m not taking the risk that I’ll find your burden acceptable. If you want to risk it, tell me. If not, don’t.” Usually they tell me and everything is fine. Sometimes they don’t and everything is still fine.
As for other advice, I’d probably tell the guy to get the girl to see a health care professional who could give better advice than he could. I’d probably also suggest talking to the father about hypothetical cases to learn the father’s views. Maybe the father would outright say he believes kids should be able to get advice from others besides parents.
I wouldn’t plan past those steps because they seem like effective first steps and following steps depend on their results.
The New York Times response:
Amy Bloom: The age of the minor has some impact on my answer, but without knowing that, I would encourage the man to go back to the girl and strongly encourage her to tell her father or her mother. If she were 14 or 15, I would give it a full-court press. Is it right to tell the father or the mother if I’ve been asked in confidence? I don’t think so, but I would very much push the girl to release me from that. The other thing is that it’s kind to talk with her. I would want to engage her in a couple of conversations about why she chose to come to me rather than anyone else.
Jack Shafer: Just because a best friend’s daughter has informed you that she and her boyfriend are getting frisky doesn’t give you automatic cause to intervene in her relationship — unless she’s 14 or 15, but I gather from this question that she’s not that minor of a minor.
Bloom: I don’t think we can gather that. I don’t think there’s any indication of how young a minor she is.
Shafer: If someone is going to pose an ethical question like this, they would include that she’s 13 or 14, if she were really a minor minor. So because there’s not that emphasis, I’m going on the assumption that she’s 16 or 17 or maybe a few weeks shy of 18.
In any event, I would limit interventions to directing her to the most reliable sources of opinion on birth control: a doctor, Planned Parenthood, maybe a clergyman. But as long as her boyfriend is also a minor, nothing necessarily illegal or wildly immoral is going on here, and I don’t think her question is a sufficient trigger to violate her confidence.
Kenji Yoshino: I’m curious about the fact that both of you have focused on the question of how minor a minor she is. If she were a 13-year-old with the maturity to ask this question, would you betray the confidence or no?
Shafer: If the letter writer had said “an adolescent,” then we could pursue the question with real vigor. But we have no evidence that she is an adolescent.
Bloom: Her being 15 or 16 or 17 actually is not the pivotal thing for me. This is a young person who’s troubled by something, who comes to an adult to talk about a problem. If we’re talking about ethics, you don’t turn your back on somebody who has come to you to talk. Part of what I want to encourage is kindness, because that is part of an ethical life as well as being aware of your obligations.
Yoshino: Both of you persuaded me. I was agonizing about whether or not the fact that she was a minor would allow the man to break the confidence, but after listening to you, you have to respect the girl’s maturity in coming to you in the first place. You don’t want to chill people from coming to you in the future.
Shafer: The girl is in no immediate harm. I mean, if she said, “I don’t want my dad to know, but I purchased a handgun, and I’m going to blow my brains out unless the Detroit Tigers win the World Series, don’t tell my dad,” I think that you can violate the confidence there. I don’t think this rises to the threshold.
I work in a small, family-owned retail furniture store with one other employee, my manager. From time to time, she will bring in one or both of her children, who are 11 and 13. She made it clear to me that the owner would be quite unhappy if he became aware of this. I have been in a quandary because it doesn’t seem fair to the kids, and there have been times that I was unable to access computer equipment because one of them needed to do schoolwork. And there is also the question of safety, as I have had to climb over blanketed children to get to supplies. My excuse for not reporting these visits is that my manager is a single working mom. But my conscience tells me I should tell the store owner about the situation. NAME WITHHELD
My response: Two questions in a row not asking for labels! I don’t remember seeing that in the months I’ve done this column. This letter also doesn’t ask for someone to think for them, though it doesn’t ask anything else either. Did the Times edit the question out of the letter?
Anyway, I recommend not looking at this situation as having two choices and trying to figure out what to do. I wrote about that situation in “Business school’s first major lesson: how to resolve ethical dilemmas“, which I still stand by.
Create more options.
If the game has no winning moves, change its rules.
You have so many more options than accepting the situation and telling the owners. You can talk to the mother and work out an arrangement where the kids don’t bother you, or at least try. You can at least tell her the problems the situation is causing you—not to complain but to try to collaborate to solve the problem. Maybe she can find alternatives, like childcare, involving the father, and so on. You can try to understand her more. She probably doesn’t like this situation either. Maybe together you can find a better solution. I’m guessing working in retail means you have spare time to visit.
Anyway, those are my top-line suggestions. Instead of accepting your first perspective of feeling trapped, use your problem-solving skills to create more options and change how you look at the situation. People have solved much harder problems before where everyone emerged happy, often happier than before.
The New York Times response:
Shafer: It wouldn’t be unethical for you to complain to your manager’s boss about your manager’s workplace conduct. Millions do it every second. But a question to the letter writer: Are you afraid that you’ll get fired if you complain? Self-preservation has its ethical dimension too.
Bloom: That was actually one of the things that I thought of, which is: Are you afraid that you will get fired if you do complain? Or are you afraid that you will get fired if you don’t complain and Big Boss finds out? It’s kind of a drag for her to have these kids around and to have to tactfully kick a 13-year-old off the computer while the mother is standing there. It would be ethical for the letter writer to go to her co-worker, to Single Mom, and say: “I’m really uncomfortable with the kids coming in, given that you’ve told me that Big Boss would be very unhappy about this. How about if we go in together, and you say you need to bring your kids in, and I say that it’s O.K. with me if you bring your kids in when you have to. If it goes well, you will tell your kids to stay off the work computer when I need it and make every effort to behave themselves beautifully.”
Yoshino: That sounds like a great solution, except I’m intuiting that there’s some kind of power dynamic going on here, where the boss is not going to respond favorably to this. So what’s Plan B? What if the single-mother manager turns to the letter writer and says: “Look, I’m your boss. This is not my problem.” Then what?
Shafer: I don’t know that there’s a huge problem in going and telling your big boss that your manager is violating company policy or directives or anything like that.
Bloom: Oh, I don’t think there’s any problem with that at all. Talk to the problem person first and then go to Big Boss.
My sister-in-law recently quit her job. She is three months pregnant and actively seeking new employment. She is considering job offers and would potentially start a new job and almost immediately go on maternity leave. Is it ethical to withhold this information from a new employer? NAME WITHHELD
My response: Sigh. Back to labeling questions.
I expect your main question is not if it’s ethical but if it’s legal. Then a lawyer will know your answer better than anyone. Most lawyers give you an hour free consultation and this question sounds like you’ll get an answer in a few minutes.
I also would have liked to have seen the question more gender-neutral since among parents I know, the fathers take time off to take care of children too, and they call it parental leave. Whatever the law is, I hope all parents get somewhat equal rights to take parental leave, acknowledging that differences between men and women may create some differences in the law.
Also, more relevant to the abstract question of if it’s ethical, even if there were an absolute answer, is how the people involved feel and are affected. I would guess a multinational wouldn’t care. They’d just refer you to HR. A mom-and-pop teetering on the verge of bankruptcy might mind, especially if the cost in time and money of hiring her and then seeing her go on leave might bankrupt them. Whatever law there is on parental leave, I expect there are exceptions for small companies. I’d consider how my actions affect others and myself besides just the law.
I looked up maternity leave on Wikipedia—which I was glad to see redirected to parental leave. It says “The United States is the only high income country not to provide such leave.” It also describes conditions on size, location, and length on employment:
Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 includes all public agencies and private companies with 50 or more employees within 75 miles. Employee must have worked for covered employer for at least 12 months prior, and at least 1250 hours in previous 12 months. Other restrictions apply. See Maternity leave in the United States for more details. See Paid Family Leave (California) for details in California.
Looks complicated, like a parent might not have a right to parental leave if they worked there less than a year. I’d talk to a lawyer about the law, not to newspaper columnists about philosophy.
The New York Times response:
Bloom: Kenji, would you mind filling us in a little bit on the legal part of this?
Yoshino: Congress enacted the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, which said that not only is pregnancy discrimination not permissible for covered workplaces under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but also that pregnancy discrimination is defined as sex discrimination. So she’s perfectly within her rights to do this. But that still leaves open the question of whether or not she is behaving ethically if she knows that she is going to be taking a leave when accepting this job.
Bloom: She presumes that the pregnancy will go well — not every pregnancy does — and that she will be at work for six months and then she will return after a break, which in America sometimes is as short as three weeks, depending on your job. I also understand that the employer would be very annoyed not to have this information. On the other hand, as the employer I would also want a wide range of people to reveal to me the many other qualities they have that will prove disruptive to our workplace — and they do not do so and they never will. So it’s legal for her to withhold this information, and it’s ethical as well.
Yoshino: I want to make a different case. The reason that Congress got so wound up about this is that it’s impossible to have real sex equality unless we have a pregnancy-discrimination act. I am supportive of the letter writer’s sister-in-law not because pregnancy is so much like other things, but precisely because it’s not like other things. It is something that only women have to deal with. If we want true equality for women in the workplace, we have to allow individuals to have discretion about this, because employers will discriminate against them.
Bloom: I like your answer better. Yours is the more positive case, which is that it is legal and ethical to withhold and, given the greater issues about employment equality, it’s important to withhold the information.
Shafer: Well, because it’s illegal, it sort of moots the whole topic doesn’t it? This specific case is almost out of the realm of an ethical quandary.
Yoshino: But is that true? The employer is certainly legally barred from asking, but the prospective employee is not legally barred from volunteering the information. So you could argue that she has an ethical obligation to give the employer a heads-up.
Shafer: I think it’s probably ethical to withhold a whole host of information from a prospective employer.
Bloom: Right, and that’s what I was trying to say, that there are lots of things that people don’t reveal and they’re not ethically required to.
This conversation is an edited and condensed version of a podcast in which the panelists engage in further debate.
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