Sunday, May 19, 2013
Do you hear what I hear?
When you hear people talking about you when you know you were not meant to hear them, is it OK to keep listening? That's what a reader from Utah wants to know.
The reader is an employee of a publicly funded institution whose board is required to hold open and public meetings. She was attending one such meeting when the board decided to go into closed session.
The reader left the room where the board was meeting and moved about 10 feet down the hall with others to wait until the end of the closed session. The door to the boardroom was closed.
"I was chatting in the hallway with another employee," she writes. "After a while, because of raised voices, I became aware that they were talking about me and my performance."
At the end of the board meeting, the reader told the members of the board that she was aware of the general topics they discussed because she had overhead parts of their conversation.
Several days later she was told by a board member that it had been unethical for her to stay in the hallway where she was standing because she could overhear.
"Under normal circumstances, I would not have been able to hear the conversation if they had been talking in normal tones," she writes. "I don't feel I have an ethical obligation to move away from a conversation if the conversation becomes loud enough for me to hear when I have taken normal precautions not to hear."
She makes clear that she was not able to hear all of the conversation, just bits and pieces.
Because other members of the public could have just as easily been in the hallway with the reader, she believes that they would "certainly not have had any obligation to move."
"Was it unethical for me to stay where I was knowing they were talking about me?" she asks.
My reader shouldn't be held accountable for board members who chose to go into closed session and lacked the judgment to keep overheated and loud conversations in check. Because they went into the closed session presumably to protect the privacy of whomever it was they were discussing, they should have made sure that their discussion did not result in violating that privacy.
Was it wrong for the reader to stand 10 feet down the hall and not move when she realized she and others could hear? Not exactly.
But given that it was clear to those in attendance that the closed session was intended to be among the board members and no one else, once it became clear that the board's conversation was emanating into the hallway, the right thing would have been for someone to interrupt them and tell them that they were talking loudly enough that their voices were carrying through the closed door and well down the hall.
It might have been embarrassing for the reader to be the one reminding them of this since it became clear she was the subject of their discussion. But she could have encouraged someone else to inform the board. And that would have allowed the board members to show the judgment and discretion they should have shown when they entered the closed session in the first place.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.
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