Sunday, January 13, 2008


Young athletes train hard to qualify to participate in national events. Only a limited number of spots are held open for the top performers in qualifying events, so competition can be brutal.

One such athlete wants to know whether, if he's scheduled to compete in a qualifying heat for a national event but has no intention of traveling to or participating in that event, he should withdraw so that someone else might have the chance to qualify.

He asks, not because he plans to sit out the national event if he qualifies, but because he was taken aback by the response to an Internet survey on that hypothetical situation when it was posted on a bulletin board for people participating in the same sport as my young reader, who's from Texas.

More than two-thirds of those responding said, "No, compete (and place highly) regardless of your plans," he reports. Only 17 percent would "do the honorable thing and withdraw."

"My gut instinct is to do the honorable thing and withdraw," my reader writes, but he wants to know what I think.

I think he's an honorable young man. He'd be willing to make room for someone else if he knew that he had no intention of taking advantage of any spot he might win to participate nationally. His response suggests that his sense of fairness guides him well.

Does this mean that the majority of his fellow athletes, the ones who responded that they wouldn't give up their spot regardless of their disinclination to follow through, aren't honorable? Not if there's even a remote chance that they might compete at the national event if offered a spot. If they're keeping their options open, then they're on safe ground.

But if they are absolutely certain that they would not take any spot offered them, they're being disingenuous about their intentions and ought, in fairness to others, to withdraw. A qualifying heat is not a random sporting event, but one held for a specific purpose: filling the field for the subsequent event. People who have no intention of participating in that event have no business being in the qualifier.

The same applies to candidates who go on job interviews for positions in which they have no interest. They may plan to use any job offer to wheedle more money out of their current employer, for example, or may want an inside look at the other company. There's nothing wrong with a worker aspiring to a better salary, of course, but this approach is hardly fair to a prospective employer who invests significant time and money in each interview, nor to a viable candidate who may be squeezed off the interview list by the noncandidate's presence. Like the qualifying heat, the job interview has a specific purpose, and to be involved for any other purpose is unfair to the interviewer and to other candidates.

This kind of behavior does in fact occur regularly, of course, and may even be implicitly encouraged by current employers to help them justify increasing a valuable employee's salary by citing another company's offer. It may be common practice, but it's shaky ethics.

Of course, if you're legitimately uncertain about whether you'll go on to compete in a national athletic event or if you'd consider a new job if an amazing offer came up, then all's fair. Participating in a preliminary event or attending a job interview does not impose a mandatory obligation to follow the process to its ultimate end, and being unsure is not the same as knowingly allowing valuable resources to be wasted on your participation.

My reader knows the right thing to do. If more people followed suit, there might be fewer instances of people deliberately misleading others because they believe that it's the only way to win.

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Unless the athlete knows for certain that he will be unable to participate in the national event, there's no harm in his participation in the preliminaries. There is a major flaw with the job hunt analogy, even though both may limit how many go on to the next level. If the job applicant isn't interested, the company may move one fewer person to the next level. In the athletic competition, however, if there are four slots open at the national level and one of the first four withdraws after becoming eligible, the fifth place will be moved up to the fourth slot. Unless only the top eight get to participate in the qualifying competition to reach the top four, the chances that he will eliminate someone else who might have qualified are exceeddingly remote.

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