Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: What to Do About a Co-Worker Who Drinks on the Job?

posted by Joshua on February 5, 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, “What to Do About a Co-Worker Who Drinks on the Job?

A co-worker of mine has recently adopted the habit of having a glass of wine at lunch. She is the only one of our small group who drinks alcohol at lunch; others of our group find this behavior quite odd or even outright wrong. I have not said anything to my co-worker about this and have written it off as a peculiarity. But now I have learned that she is drinking surreptitiously at her desk in the afternoon. I have no way of knowing how intoxicated she is when she leaves the office, but I believe that she drives herself home at least a few days a week.

As you might expect, it is clearly against our company’s policy to drink at the office; I am not inclined, however, to disclose what I know to her superiors under the general precept that she is an adult capable of making her own decisions and assuming whatever risks she may choose to assume. Nor do I feel that I have any responsibility to discuss my opinion of her behavior with her directly.

Do I have the ethical responsibility to do something in order to reduce the chances that she hurts herself or others driving while intoxicated? Or more generally, do I have any responsibility to alert her directly to the inappropriateness of her behavior? Name Withheld

My response: Your implying a glass of wine at lunch as possibly wrong, however obfuscated by ascribing it to a coworker, implies to me that your message overstates the situation. Many cultures are fine with a glass of wine with lunch. I remember it common in France. Are you suggesting these millions of people in other countries are “quite odd or even outright wrong” or peculiar?

Your moralistic tone cast suspicion on the rest of what you wrote. I’ll answer assuming she drinks surreptitiously at her desk the rest of the day and drives drunk home, though only you and she know.

Your questions about an “ethical responsibility” are just questions about another person’s opinion about an abstract philosophical concept. If there were an absolute measure, you’d use it and not write a newspaper columnist, whose opinion is no more absolute than yours.

As usual, instead of labels and abstract philosophy, I recommend considering your options and their effects on others—that is, empathy, compassion, problem-solving, etc. In any case, there seems little doubt what you consider your responsibility. In your view she’s driving home drunk and risking killing people. You feel a responsibility. The question I see you trying to avoid is how to act on it effectively, which is a question of skill, not ethics.

I recommend you developing the skills of having difficult conversations and speaking authentically. With skills to act on your perspective effectively, you would, instead of asking third parties to label your hunches without talking to the person a few yards from you.

The New York Times response:

It’s clearly in her interests to get her to see these things. So if you care about her, you should do something to help her stop. Even if you don’t much care about her, impaired driving is something you need to worry about. Were she to harm someone (or herself) in a traffic accident, you would rightly feel bad for having done nothing.

Of course, all those with whom you’ve discussed this are in the same position as you. They have whatever responsibilities you have. So you can reasonably say to them, “Come on, we need to intervene here.”

Perhaps the best outcome would be one in which a group of you tell her that you’ve noticed she has this problem and you’re worried about its consequences for her and for others. If there are any recovering alcoholics in your office, they could be particularly helpful in guiding you here.

But co-workers you have lunch with are people with whom you have the kind of relationship that generates obligations. You — plural — ought to help.

I am the director of a small library, and we have a staff of three, including me. One of our staff (call her A) left to have a baby, and wants to return in 2017. She was employed for four hours a week and is a delightful person and responsible employee. I advertised and found someone to fill in for her (B).

Employee B is a model employee, even more hardworking and independent than A — with lots of initiative. Employee A had said she’d like to return to work in early 2017, most likely in the spring. She just sent me an email stating that because of family gatherings, she would like to return a month later. Basically, that means she’ll be on a leave of absence for four months. During the last year she took several weeks’ leave to go see distant family, putting me at an inconvenience.

I am torn. Should I simply accede to her wishes as to when she returns, and let Employee B go then? I have been considering keeping Employee B for two and a half hours a week and letting A return for two and a half hours a week. This may seem like a paltry number of hours, but our library is only open a few days a week, and this is a very small town.

Can you give me some guidance as to what is appropriate in this situation? Name Withheld

My response: Not being a lawyer, I don’t know the legal implications, but my gut tells me letting a new mother go isn’t going to win many court cases if she feels wronged and fights back, no matter what the law says. If going after the library gives her access to government deep pockets, she may have motivation to do so.

That said, she may want to take yet longer off. I don’t know why you don’t talk to A and work things out with her. Maybe she wants to leave. You called her delightful and responsible and B sounds available in the meantime. If your worst case is to keep a delightful and responsible employee after a month extra of someone yet more so, I don’t see the problem as staffing the library but your ability to enjoy your relationships and, probably, life.

The New York Times response:

You and your employee had a mutual expectation that you’d take her back after her maternity leave on the same terms. Absent a good reason, you owe it to her to respect that expectation. This isn’t a legal point: A lawyer could tell you what legal obligations you may or may not have. But it’s particularly important to respect your ethical obligations to employees when they have no legal recourse. To do otherwise is to abuse your power over them.

Your ethical obligation survives only as long as she seeks to return within a reasonable time, to be sure. If she announced she was taking another job for a period or going off around the world before returning, your obligations would disappear. But all she’s asking for is an extra month or so of time off. As you have a temporary replacement who can stay on, this isn’t going to inconvenience you: Indeed, you’ll have someone you prefer in the job for a while longer. So it’s hard to see why you should refuse her this additional time in these circumstances, even if it isn’t what you agreed to.

But Employee B is better, in your view, and that’s surely the real issue. It’s why you’re tempted to insist on new terms of employment. You think Employee A’s request for time off with the family (with its reminder that she has inconvenienced you by doing this before) gives you an excuse not to respect your earlier understanding.

It doesn’t. You could play hardball and tell her that she can come back for the full four hours only if she comes back at the time you originally agreed. But that’s difficult to justify, given that, as I say, she’s asking you to vary the terms of the agreement in a way that is actually to your advantage. This doesn’t mean that you can’t make staffing changes down the road. But the onus on a manager is to manage expectations.

My son (10) recently admitted to me that a classmate showed him how to hack into their math-homework website to change his score and how many problems he’d solved. When I looked incredulous, my son showed me how it was done. I think at some point my son has used this tool to change his own homework scores, but he’s not fessing up. He told me his friend said he’s been doing it since third grade. They’re both now in fifth grade.

I let my son know that what he was doing was cheating and that it had to stop. I’m a bit appalled that the site is so easy to hack that a third grader could do it, and I’d like to let someone in the administration know that students are getting into the system and changing their homework scores. At the same time, I’m worried that if I contact the principal or administrator, I’ll be “fingering” my son, and I’d rather he not get in trouble for this.

Should I get in touch with the principal and not worry that my son will take the fall for something that he just learned about, but that has been going on for some time? Name Withheld

My response: As usual, I suggest you ask not what you should do but how to do what you consider right effectively. That is, to view the situation as a problem you, as an adult, can solve. Your question, as posed, is a yes or no question. I don’t think either answer would satisfy you and the perspective reduces your infinite options into a false dichotomy. I think you want to know how to act effectively. If you posed your question from that perspective, I think you’d more likely figure out what to do.

Personally, I would tell the teacher or whatever administrator you considered responsible that you found evidence of tampering but would want amnesty for the people involved for honestly reporting their results. Without the amnesty, I’d keep it to myself. First, I’d reward my son for speaking openly, because I’d want him sharing such things with me in the future, though as part of a longer conversation about the issues I considered important.

The New York Times response:

Your instincts here are right: You want to do something to stop this sort of cheating without turning in your own kid, especially given that he’s apparently not the only offender. (Actually, you have only a hunch that he’s an offender at all.) Your duty to see justice done is qualified by your special relationship with your child. After all, he trusted you with this information on the reasonable assumption that you weren’t going to use it against him, and trust between mother and son is worth protecting. So you can send the school an anonymous report that explains how it’s done. (There are lots of websites that make anonymous emailing easy.) You can also say truthfully that you learned this from your child, but you don’t know that he has used this technique, and you’ve chosen the anonymous route to protect him.

One thing: I wonder if this is a case of lousy security on the website rather than actual “hacking.” That wouldn’t mitigate the offense of those who exploited it, but administrators who are careless about such things merit reproach, too.

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