Continuing my series of responses to the New York Times’, The Ethicist, without imposing values, here is my take on today’s post, “Should I Help an Unjustly Fired Co-Worker?”
A work colleague, a level below me, has managed to succeed despite a pattern of bad performance. She doesn’t seek feedback early or take it well, so her projects consistently become last-minute scrambles that others must fix. She has also been dishonest about timelines and obtaining input from the right people. The pattern continues because she reports to a powerful executive who has not held her accountable for this behavior despite complaints from many co-workers, including me.
Recently, she fired a competent, young, lower-level employee in her group who tried to improve these processes. To fire this employee, my colleague went through proper human-resources channels. In some ways the firing is merciful, as she was, at times, verbally abusive to the employee even as the employee was helping to fix her messes. Understandably, other co-workers who witnessed these incidents were upset by them and felt as if the employee was treated and terminated unfairly. The junior employee retained a lawyer to show that her firing was retaliatory.
I believe this young employee was caught in the impossible situation of trying to make sure work was done well even as her boss wanted it done a different way, one that was clearly not optimal. Now I am being asked by the fired employee’s lawyer to tell what I know of the situation, and my company will ask me not to speak on the subject.
What is my ethical obligation? If I am silent, I am complicit in what I think is an unfair judgment of this young employee, which will certainly have real implications for her and her career. But I cannot openly speak against the company and the way it allowed this situation to develop without damaging my own relationship with the company, which is otherwise good.
I feel like I have to speak up for the “little guy,” but since nothing seems to stick to this colleague, I am afraid I will just hurt myself. Name Withheld
My response: You write the details as if your situation is special. While the details are unique, many people face similar challenges at least once in their careers. Maybe most.
I suggest framing the situation not as ethical but as a problem-solving situation. I suspect you want someone to frame your action as an ethical responsibility so you can say, “I didn’t want to do this, but I had to. It was an ethical responsibility, even the New York Times said so,” which I would describe as trying to absolve yourself of responsibility.
It would be easier to abdicate responsibility if there were an abstract measure of ethical responsibility, but there isn’t—not even New York Times columnists’ opinions. Even if you considered others’ opinions authoritative, no one else has to agree. That’s what different values means—different people think different things are right and wrong.
Even if you got lucky and others agreed and the Times’s opinion resolved this situation. You wouldn’t have learned to solve such problems. You’d have to keep crying to another parent.
I recommend examining your values, developing your relevant skills in communication, problem solving, etc, and figuring out a strategy to work with the people involved. You may find it hard, but the skills you develop will apply to future situations like this.
You sound like you’re asking about ethical obligations because you haven’t developed the relevant skills. Learning any skills starts hard, from learning to play a sport to learning to play an instrument to many other areas, but with practice becomes easier. You may even master them and enjoy them.
Then you might become a leader instead of the follower role you’re reinforcing for yourself by trying to abdicate responsibility.
I have to comment that my book and courses give you a series of exercises to develop these skills because our educational system focuses on intellectual analysis, which aren’t helping you here, but not social and emotional skills, which would help here. Your lacking them leads you to react to what could be a chance to develop yourself and your relationships by retreating and abdicating.
The New York Times response:
Assuming your account is accurate, action should have been taken to correct your incompetent colleague’s bad performance and workplace abuse and to move toward terminating her if she didn’t improve. So why hasn’t this happened? That she’s protected by a powerful executive explains only why she is not in trouble; you can protect someone while also getting her to shape up. Now, as a result of her supervisor’s failure to put things right, the company has exposed itself to liability. In short, you’ve got two problematic employees to contend with, not just one.
Down the road, if you’re required to testify under oath, you will, of course, have to tell the truth, whatever your bosses want. But for the moment, you face a choice: You can help someone who was unjustly fired, by voluntarily cooperating with her lawyer and agreeing to give evidence against your company, or you can protect your own position.
Which way to go depends on at least two considerations. First, does the fired employee have sufficient evidence to get justice without your intervention? (You say that she didn’t do things as her boss preferred; that she followed her own better judgment. That’s not always O.K.) Second, how much damage would helping her do to your relationship with your own supervisors? Basically, if you can help her a lot by sacrificing a little, you ought to do it.
The philosopher Richard W. Miller once imagined a situation in which you see an adult plunging out of a 10th-story window, and you know you can save his life if you cushion his fall — but at the cost to you of assorted broken bones and months of painful, imperfect healing. Doing your moral duty, Miller argued, didn’t oblige you to take the hit. Nor are you required to derail your career in order to assist the young woman’s legal case. But what if the trade-off isn’t so clear: What if you would be helping her somewhat and hurting yourself somewhat?
My family has gone through a lot these past couple of years. My mother died of cancer after a yearlong battle, during which my father had a midlife crisis and an affair. The family business went under, and though we’re not exactly in poverty, we did lose our comfortable upper-middle-class lifestyle. Thankfully, my younger brother, and I (we are in our mid-20s) both have stable white-collar jobs that pay well enough. I do earn more than my brother and at times, I have helped him and my father financially. (I am happy to do so.)
Last Christmas, I visited my maternal grandmother, who has had some financial quandaries of her own. She lives with my 40-year-old uncle, who has neither a career nor, it’s safe to say, much money; my parents had been their financial safety net until things started going downhill for my father’s business. During my visit, she asked me for a loan to invest in her small business. I would have given her the money as a gift — except that she’s asking for roughly two-thirds of my monthly salary, way more than what my brother or my father have ever asked for, and the amount is also something that I would feel.
And now, I’m torn. She is my grandmother, after all, and I feel a sense of responsibility to help take care of her, but the amount she’s asking for is not something I can just give away. On another note, my late mother would be furious about this request. What should I do? Name Withheld
My response: Talk to her. Negotiate. Just because someone asks for something doesn’t mean you have to shut your mind down and only say yes or no.
Find out her interests and if you can help her in other ways. Can she find other investors? Is the business successful? Usually people looking for investment suggest some return on investment. Is she offering a return? If not, she’s asking for a gift, not an investment. If she is, does it make the investment worth it? It sounds more like it makes her sound less credible, which would reinforce that she’s asking for a handout, not an investment.
It’s sad for me to read an adult asking “What should I do?”. After writing about how our educational system teaches compliance instead of thinking for ourselves and learning to act responsibly, I guess I can’t blame you.
I guess I feel more compassion than sadness. I hope you learn to take more responsibility so you can ask more useful questions than what you should do.
The New York Times response:
There’s a simple rule here. If you put money in the business of a family member just because she asks for it, it’s not really an investment; it’s a gift. And like all gifts, it should be something you can reasonably afford. An investment, by contrast, should be evaluated as such, and if you wouldn’t invest in your grandmother’s business if she weren’t your grandmother, you shouldn’t invest in it, period. Because, as you judge, it isn’t reasonable for a family member to ask you for a sum equal to two-thirds of your monthly income, and because you clearly wouldn’t invest in her business if she weren’t your grandmother, you shouldn’t feel obliged to give her the money. Your late mother would have had a point.
Recently, I met a man on OkCupid who said that he was single and looking for a casual relationship. We hit it off and ended up going out on two dates within the span of a week. (We did not have sex.) We had a third date planned until I found out, through some online sleuthing, that the name he gave me was completely false and he is in fact married with two children. I immediately confronted him about this via text and never heard from him again. I also noticed that he disabled his profile. However, I’ve discovered that he has since reactivated his account, and he’s still advertising himself as a single guy. Am I morally obligated to inform his wife of his actions? The photos I found on Facebook suggest only a happy, loving marriage, but I don’t feel it’s right for such a deception to occur. On the other hand, I don’t want to be responsible for ruining this woman’s life. What should I do? Name Withheld, Brooklyn, N.Y.
My response: This letter further illustrates the bankruptcy of an educational system that blinds itself and everyone in it from things other than intellectual challenge. It values and teaches compliance and doesn’t prepare people for social and emotional challenges, which is the foundation of creating a life and relationships by your values.
In particular, people who learn values abstractly may score high marks on papers comparing Plato’s, Aristotle’s, Confucius’s, and Maya Angelou’s approach to them, but only learn about values. Until you face your values conflict with each other where others rely on how you resolve the conflict and you have to act, you haven’t learned your values.
We all value honesty, fidelity, justice, and all the other relevant values here. What about when they conflict? You sound like you haven’t learned how to figure out for yourself what you value more in this situation and what to do about it. Writing an analytical paper won’t help, yet few schools or teachers prepare students for what would help. Practicing developing these skills, which it sounds like you haven’t done, will enable you to handle such situations (again, I recommend my book’s and courses’ approach)
Again, I feel compassion for you sounding so unprepared to resolve the internal conflict you feel, looking outside instead of inside, asking someone else to solve your problem instead of developing skills to handle it yourself.
The New York Times response:
You don’t know very much about this man or his situation and so, as you imply, you have no idea what the effect would be of his wife’s hearing from a stranger that her husband is on a dating site. For that reason, it would be irresponsible to inform her.
OkCupid’s contract says that a profile should be for “bona fide relationship-seeking purposes” and urges all members to report “fraudulent registration or profiles.” They don’t explicitly mention pretending to be unmarried, but you might think that that was mala fide (i.e., the opposite of bona fide). So you could try telling OkCupid. And there’s a small chance you might be able to do something for other women in your situation by contacting this Lothario through the site and suggesting that, rather than pretending to be single, he should admit he’s after a little discreet adultery. Some people, alas, will indeed regard this as seeking a “bona fide relationship.”
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