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Sunday, November 28, 2010

Severing professional ties with kindness

How much loyalty do we owe the people with whom we work? That's at the heart of a question posed to me by a reader, an editor at a publication that uses a number of freelance writers.

His job is to edit many of these freelancers. "While technically they are nothing more than vendors," he writes, "I have always seen my role as not only to represent the company to them, but also to represent them to the company -- sending information, problems and solutions in both directions on an ongoing basis."

My reader has worked with many of his freelancers for a decade or more. Although in most cases, he hasn't met them face-to-face, he has come to regard some more as friends and co-workers than as vendors.

"Earlier this year my boss told me that she would be terminating the services of one of these freelancers," he writes, "one with whom I have a warm relationship." He was not specifically told not to tell the freelancer what was going on, but it was clearly understood that he shouldn't. "So, I didn't."

A couple of awkward months followed as my reader continued to work with this freelancer while knowing they wouldn't be working together for much longer.

"I felt guilty for not telling him about the situation," he writes, "and was very pleased when the termination date was finally set and my boss notified the freelancer. It was good to have the facts on the table, though his feelings were clearly bruised."

Subsequently, in the freelancer's final days working for my reader's company, my reader advised him about placing his services elsewhere, which he soon did . . . with a major competitor.

My reader is quick to point out that there was nothing illegal about the advice he gave. He had clearly advocated on behalf of his freelancer to his boss to give him more ownership of his work than his contract originally gave him. Still, his boss was unaware that he had coached the freelancer and he was happy to keep it that way.

Now, he is left wondering if he did the right thing. "Should I have dropped a hint to the freelancer earlier, which would have made it easier for him to find work elsewhere?" he asks. "Should I have avoided any discussion of his future prospects outside of our company? Or was the way it worked out a sufficiently ethical way to square this particular circle?"

Deciding whether you owe more loyalty to your employer than to the folks with whom you do business is always a challenge. Sure, the freelancer would have benefitted from an earlier heads up that his services would be terminated. But to do so would have meant violating a trust with a boss that news of the decision would be kept in-house until she decided to make the call. A lot could have happened between the initial decision and that call. The boss could, for example, have decided not to sever ties. If that had been the case and the editor had already spilled the news, it would have made it awkward for all parties.

The editor did the right thing by staying true to his company and also by offering assistance to the freelancer. If he had recommended the competitor before the decision was made to sever ties that would have been wrong. But doing it after the fact displayed both professional courtesy and kindness. Finding a way to show kindness in a difficult situation speaks volumes about my reader.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business, is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net.

(c) 2010 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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