Sunday, May 27, 2007

THE RIGHT THING: WHEN LOYALTY LOOSENS ITS GRIP

From childhood it's hammered into us that we shouldn't be tattletales, ratting out friends for every minor infraction. As adults we continue to prize loyalty to friends and colleagues, but we increasingly feel obliged to right the wrongs around us, even if doing so sometimes tests that loyalty. The tricky part is deciding when enough is enough, when loyalty must be set aside because we've got to speak up.

Loyalty is a virtue, of course, but taken to an extreme it can become a fault, leading us to a code of silence even when truly bad behavior is at issue. In the rap community, for example, the "Stop Snitchin"' campaign asks those who see violent crimes not to cooperate with law enforcement, leaving crimes unsolved. [In a segment on 60 Minutes on April 22, Anderson Cooper reported on the Stop Snitchin' movement. You can view his report at http://www.cbsnews.com/sections/i_video/main500251.shtml?id=2715238n.] That's hardly a new trend, needless to say: For decades various groups or neighborhoods have embraced silence rather than give up one of their own.

In the workplace, employees rarely discover wrongdoing that rises to the level of violent crime, but they still face a tough dilemma when trying to decide when it's time to set aside loyalty to company and colleagues in order to expose wrongdoing.

A reader who works for a large, far-flung company writes me that she has been sending information about her company to a media contact who is covering a class-action suit against her firm. The suit was brought against a division on the West Coast that is accused of mistreating employees by failing to pay minimum wage. My reader works for a division on the East Coast that, by her own account, treats its employees very well.

Because she finds it reprehensible that any division might not be paying minimum wage, she wrote to the reporter to correct some erroneous information in one of his articles. She has continued to provide him with information.

"I am giving only information that is true," she writes. "It is not secret, although it would not be easy for him to find out otherwise."

My reader has grown increasingly uneasy about helping him, however, as he adopts what she considers "a more attack-like posture toward the company."

She now wonders how she can judge whether to help him, and where her obligation to her own company may lie.

In part my reader has already made an ethical call, and made it correctly: The first time she contacted the reporter, she had already decided -- whether or not she had articulated that decision -- that, if her company wasn't treating its employees fairly, this reporter should have whatever information she could give him without violating company secrets. She has a greater obligation to her company and its employees than to the reporter, but her personal ethics are an even greater obligation. Trying to ensure that employees on the West Coast are paid fairly does nothing to violate the company's trust in her.

Even if she's breaking company policy by e-mailing a reporter, there is no ethical breach so long as her motives are to help right a wrong rather than any personal gain.

Her decision to do the right thing was not a one-shot, "make it and live with it" call, however. Her concern about the reporter's "attack-like posture" is legitimate, and if she concludes that he's now seeking to damage the company rather than to end illegal practices, she's under no obligation to continue supplying him with information.

She need not apologize for her past cooperation with the reporter, which was done under the best of motives. Ideally her actions will work to the benefit of those employees on the West Coast who weren't making minimum wage. But she's free to stop cooperating with him if, in her judgment, his current work is not consistent with that motivation.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Jeffrey, having worked in business (insurance administration) for over 40 years, I have strong opinions about loyalty. In my opinion, as workers, we decide what type of business we are going to be in, and over time, we learn what the ethics are of the type of business we choose. In all businesses, there are ethical decisions that are made every day and many times, every single act by companies may not be totally ethical and it doesn't take long before, especially if you are in a position of authority, whether management or higher support, you learn the foibles and types of decisions that are made in the company or even if something illegal is going on. The whistle blower in question, who has been feeding information OVER COMPANY COMPUTER E-MAILS!, is nothing but a common sneak, regardless of her high intentions. Who appointed her as judge and jury? By her actions, eventually she is going to have to quit or be fired for her actions. Here is how I view it - you join a company, and in so doing, you implicitly promise to be a faithful and loyal employee. If you find out the company is doing something ethically or legally wrong that you cannot live with by your moral standards, it is not your duty to act like a spy and feed information about the company to a reporter or police, in which case, you become not just a sneak but also a wretched snitch, even if the information you are providing is true. I hate whistle blowers because what usually happens is there is a blowup and the person is fired and ends up suing the company or in other ways expects to profit by the act of disloyalty. When you take a job, your job duties are not to act as detective and policeman. If you see things that aren't right, you report it to your boss. If that doesn't result in a correction satisfactory to you, if that doesn't set things right, your duty is then to quit the company, not become a Mata Hari. After you quit, what you do about what you have found out is then your business to do with what you wish. But nothing like that is going to happen because there is no profit in it. I have never seen any result of a whistle blower that was justified even when the company whistled against was grossly in the wrong. These days, everyone wants to be a Carl Bernstein or Bob Woodward, who in their own ways were just as unethical as the people they reported against. Our society makes heros of the most unethical people imaginable.

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC

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