Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Can My Workplace Ask Me for a Donation?

November 22, 2015 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment

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 my take on today’s post, “Can My Workplace Ask Me for a Donation?


Every year, members of the faculty and staff at my university are asked to make a donation to support the university. Letters and brochures are sent by mail and email and posted on the website.

The request is sent just before the end of the fiscal year, when all employees are under review for performance and raises. The gifts are not anonymous; the university has a list of those who give and in what amount. A posted comment from one of the campaign managers notes that employees’ participation is a measure of their support for the university. I am among a group of employees in the lower- to midlevel manager range, and we fear that our employment, salary and potential for advancement will be limited if we don’t give. Is it ethical for an employer to do this? Name Withheld

My response: What you care about is what alternatives you have and the consequences of your actions. What does it matter what you label it?

Instead of abstract philosophical concepts, why don’t you think about what you can do? Seriously, what options do you have? Now think of more. Now think of more again.

Now think of all the people, connections, and other resources available. How can you use them? Now think of more options.

Now think of all your skills and experience. Imagine others you can learn and create. Now use your imagination to think of more you could create.

Now with all the resources you can use, all the skills you can use, all your experience, and your imagination, think of more options.

Now think of all the possible results of these actions. What results do you like the most and have the highest chances of working out for you?

Oh yeah, think of your role models and heroes. What would they do now? Would they ponder which philosophical labels to attach to the other person’s behavior? I don’t know if you look up to people like Napoleon and Alexander the Great, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Susan Anthony and Oprah, JFK and Lincoln, or any of countless others, but they probably succeeded through thoughtful action based on following a process like I described.

Does the answer to your labeling question matter?

The New York Times response:

Employee-giving campaigns are not uncommon in the nonprofit world. But they go wrong when they hint at obligation. If your boss asks you for ‘‘gifts’’ in a way that intimates a threat to your prospects, you’re not exactly volunteering; you’re being, as they say, volunteered. The campaign manager’s remark that employees’ giving was ‘‘a measure of their support for the university’’ could well invite the thought, Who is doing the measuring? You might think that in an ideal system, employee donations would be kept confidential, to avoid both coercion and currying favor. But that is more radical than necessary. The university should make it plain that nobody will be circulating a list of donors to supervisors. Those supervisors should then establish that performance evaluations aren’t linked to the campaign. Because these things didn’t happen, you detect a scent of extortion in the air.

All this, I’d wager, is the result of thoughtlessness, rather than anything more malign. But the brass should be alerted to the problem. You might send a copy of our exchange — anonymously, to preserve your privacy — to a few relevant university administrators. As nobody should need reminding, the best indicator of a university employee’s support for the institution is her commitment to her job.

My wife and I hired a nanny — I’ll call her Abby — to care for our infant for a period of a few months. She seemed very competent, and we liked her a lot, both personally and professionally. One evening we got a call from her boyfriend, saying that she was seriously ill, had been hospitalized and would be returning to her home state immediately. Of course we were very concerned for her, but we didn’t press for any more details at the time; we just asked him to call us when he knew more about her condition. We heard nothing more from either of them. Emails and phone calls went unreturned. Eventually, hoping to find out whether she was alive and healthy, my wife called one of her references, with whom Abby was close — and Abby answered the phone! (She’d gone back to working for this former employer.) My wife panicked and hung up, and then called back and identified herself. This time, Abby hung up. She later told us via email that she had been struggling with depression for a long time and had been hospitalized.

So now I knew that she may have severe depression, which seems material to her ability to safely care for children. And, purely by chance, I knew who her employer was. What was I to do with this information? Was I obligated to tell her employer about her medical condition — which is certainly something I would want to know about someone caring for my children — knowing that it might well get her fired?

Eventually I concluded that medical information is private. If she had been working for any of the millions of families in the state other than the one whose phone number I happened to have, I would not even have had the option to divulge her illness, and that coincidence did not entitle me to violate her privacy. But I would be very interested to hear other opinions, since many months later the decision does not sit entirely easy with me. Name Withheld

My response: Your former nanny deceived you about taking care of your child and ignored you.

I have found I improved my life tremendously by removing people who act like that from my life and not taking responsibility for the actions and choices of other adults.

If I were in your place, I would consider your questions minor compared to the strategy of living my life without her.

You sound like you like to meddle. I would cut you out of my life too if you were more than an anonymous letter-writer. If I were you, I would work on improving your emotional skills so when a “decision does not sit entirely easy with” you, you could learn to handle it.

The New York Times response:

Your situation reflects an unsettling fact of ethical life: Chance can impose obligations on you. It doesn’t matter that you learned of Abby’s condition by happenstance, or that you know her current employer by luck. You know what you know. You can do what you can do.

There are general considerations that might weigh against your saying anything. One is the issue of confidentiality that has already raised its reviled head. When people tell you something, they can place reasonable conditions on what you may do with the information. You don’t say that Abby explicitly spoke to you in confidence, though, and you’re not a health professional, bound by physician-patient privilege.

But privacy is another concern. Here, what matters is not how you came by the information but the nature of the information itself. Depending on the context, information about people’s health often falls into this category. Abby’s struggle with severe depression, you feel, is private in just this way. Does that trump your worry about the safety of leaving children in her care?

A lot of what people fear about people with mental illness is unwarranted. The trouble is that you’re not in a position to say whether those with her condition are likelier than others to neglect or otherwise harm children in their care. You don’t know whether her condition is now well controlled.

You’re not in doubt on one point: You’d want to know if a nanny of yours had her medical problems. Of course you would. And, if you did know, you could ask for reassurance from her doctor — which she could permit — about her ability to do her job safely and reliably. What about extending that courtesy to her new employer? (In most states, mental-health professionals have a ‘‘duty to protect’’ that can trump medical confidentiality, where there’s a risk to third parties. But her doctors may not be in the loop about her current occupation.) You’re a compassionate person, and you fear that your candor could get Abby fired. That’s a possibility. Another is that Abby has earned the confidence of her employer. It’s hard to guess how he or she will react. Your own counsel could play a role here.

Finally, suppose this person — having learned Abby’s history, and the fact that you were aware of it — asked you why you hadn’t shared the information. Would your answer be persuasive? Were the tables turned, would it satisfy you? If you genuinely think that Abby’s condition is material to her ability to safely take care of children, a concern for those children should take precedence.

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