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Monday, July 02, 2007

THE RIGHT THING: COPYING BAD BEHAVIOR

Let's say that you really, really dislike someone for whom you work, and that you and your colleagues are working really, really hard to build a case against her to management. Then, as if by magic, a piece of information appears that might provide that last extra nudge needed to convince the bigwigs to show her the door.

Do you use it?

A reader from the Southeast -- let's call him "Perry" -- recently found himself in exactly that position when he discovered, in the shared office printer, a letter that his manager "Sue" had written to her personal attorney. After realizing that it wasn't his document, Perry immediately returned it to the printer without reading it. Sue never returned to reclaim it, however, and it remained in the printer all day.

At the end of the day, Perry suffered what he's calling "ethics lapse No. 1": He again removed the letter from the printer, and this time read it. He learned that Sue was going through an ugly divorce and that in her deposition she would be admitting to a substance-abuse problem.

That's when Perry committed "ethics lapse No. 2." He made a copy of Sue's letter and then returned the original to the printer.

Perry went on to "ethics lapse No. 3" when he shared the letter with his co-workers, who were assembling a case against Sue. One of them argued that they should go directly to management with the information, since it would make their case stronger. Another disagreed, arguing that it would make Sue more sympathetic and might postpone management's decision to fire her.

"In the end we agreed that the letter was personal information that we had no business knowing," Perry writes. "The letter was shredded, the case presented, and Sue left the company soon after." But one of Perry's colleagues still believes that they should have shared the information with their office supervisor, who "had a right to know." Perry argued strongly that the letter should be shredded and mentioned no more, but isn't certain of his own motives.

"I'm not sure if I did that because it was the right thing to do," he says, "or if it was because I felt that I needed to make amends for ethics lapses 1 through 3."

I see no reason to doubt Perry's assertion that in Sue he and his colleagues had been dealt "a real lemon." She was inadequate, he reports, was unaware of her own incompetence and had dumped all of her responsibilities onto Perry and his co-workers. Management had appointed the wrong person to this supervisory post.

Assuming this to be the case, Perry and his colleagues were well within their rights to bring their problems to the attention of management. Respect for a superior and for the chain of command doesn't amount to a blanket prohibition of any effort to point out when an error has been made.

That said, I can't approve of Perry's behavior in dealing with Sue's letter. There are times when it may be necessary to do something wrong in an effort to achieve a greater good, but -- regardless of Sue's limitations -- this was not one of those times.

Perry got it right the first time: Having recognized Sue's letter for what it was, he was wrong to read it. He did the right thing in replacing the letter in the printer -- it would have been better yet to place it in Sue's inbox, to ensure that no other third party would see it -- and did the wrong thing in later returning and reading it. That was indeed was an ethical lapse. So was copying the letter, and so was showing the copy to his co-workers.

He can't undo the damage he did by sharing Sue's personal information with others, but Perry did the next best thing in convincing his colleagues not to use the information that he had provided. His co-worker was dead wrong in arguing that the office supervisor "had a right to know" -- the supervisor had a right to know about Sue's slipshod work, but not about her divorce or even her substance-abuse problem, unless it was affecting her work -- and Perry, perhaps spurred by recognition of his three previous ethical lapses, did the right thing by talking his co-workers out of it.

We all make mistakes. But there's a silver lining to those mistakes if we use them to motivate us in doing what's right, once we realize how far we have gone astray.

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