Sunday, April 11, 2010

THE RIGHT THING: WHEN A FRIEND OF A FRIEND CROSSES THE LINE

A reader from Ohio tells me that, several years ago, he was "involuntarily separated" from his job because of layoffs at the company. His department was shrunk from 22 employees to 12. At the time he was 59, had put in almost 26 years with his company and had received good performance reviews.

About two years after the layoffs, the staffing of his former department was increased and four people got their old jobs back. All of them were younger than 40.

"My messages concerning rehiring requests went ignored," he writes. "Because of verbal remarks made to me and being treated differently when requesting interviews, I decided to file age-discrimination charges."

His age-discrimination suit, however, is only the backdrop for his real questions to me.

"Several of my former fellow workers run with me weekly on weekends," he writes. "Each of them knows of my age-discrimination lawsuit. One of them is a very close friend to one of the two managers who discriminated against me. I have a lot of resentment against these two former managers, because of the reasons given for my not being considered for my old position."

So here are the questions he asked - in boldface type - in his e-mail: "How do I accept my running buddy when I want to tell him how his friend is treating my professional reputation in the company's response to my charges? Should I tell him how I feel about his friend or leave him out of all of this?"

His first question strikes me as simple to answer in theory, but not necessarily in practice.

His running mate is not the one with whom he has a beef, and my reader can "accept" him by bearing that in mind. So his running mate is friends with someone whom my reader doesn't respect - who among us hasn't had a friend with a friend or two we weren't particularly fond of? He may question his friend's judgment, of course, but his own friendship with that person should be based on his friend's qualities and actions, not on those of other people with whom he chooses to associate.

Ethics isn't a game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. We are obligated to judge our own conduct rigorously, and well-advised to judge that of our friends, since association with people who misbehave is a good way to risk unethical behavior of our own. But the conduct of our friends' friends, or for that matter our friends' friends' friends? That's outside any reasonable ethical expectation.

Should he tell his running mate how he feels about his friend? That's his call. There is no ethical imperative to do so, nor not to do so.

Personally, though, I'd advise against it. It might be a relief to vent, but otherwise it's hard to imagine what good could come from disclosing his feelings. In fact, it would most likely turn an enjoyable run into an awkward slog.

If the running mate brings up his friend, my reader shouldn't lie about his feelings, of course. He can respond honestly or, better yet, simply say, "I'd rather not talk about that fellow." You know the old saw: If you can't say something nice about someone ...

It's possible, of course, that the fact that his running mate is friends with his professional nemesis will get in the way of a good run regardless of my reader's attempts to put this issue aside. If that's the case, the right thing for him to do is to find himself a new running mate.

c.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

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