Sunday, October 19, 2014
Should you help those who don't help you?
About four years ago, L.S., was considering a career change. He liked his job, but internal politics had taken their toll and, after a decade at the same job, he decided it was time to consider other options.
Once he decided what he wanted to do next, he sought the advice of friends, current and former colleagues, and others who with some experience in the field. One former colleague in particular was among those with whom he wanted to chat. She'd left their company a few years earlier and had successfully carved out a new career path in the field L.S. hoped to enter.
L.S. emailed this former colleague, with whom he'd been friendly when they worked together. She acknowledged receipt of his email and promised to set up a time to speak. Weeks passed, and L.S. heard nothing. He followed up with another email, and this time received no response. After a few more failed attempts to seek the woman's advice, L.S. gave up and moved on.
A few months later, L.S. was offered a new position. He's managed to make the transition well and is thriving in his new position.
There are many reasons L.S.'s former colleague might not have responded. She could have been consumed with her own work and simply did not have time. He may have misinterpreted how close they'd been when they worked together. She might not have understood how urgent L.S.'s request for help had been. Or she simply might have forgotten to respond. The right thing would have been for her to let L.S. know she didn't have time to talk.
Four years later, L.S. found himself in a curious position after receiving an email from the former colleague. She filled him in a bit on what she'd been doing for the past several years professionally, closing by telling him she was planning to apply for a position at the company where L.S. now worked. She wondered if he might consider speaking with her and writing a reference.
No mention was made in the message about her failure to respond to his request for help four years before. While she'd clearly knew where he was working, she didn't ask how his career shift had gone or how he was faring in his new job.
L.S. now wonders what is the right thing for him to do. Should he treat his former colleague as she had treated him and ignore her request for help? Should he indicate he's busy and maybe they can talk later and then never make the time?
Ultimately, the decision for L.S. proved simple. He responded by telling her he'd be glad to talk with her about her interest in his company. He knew the right thing to do was behave in the manner he wished she had four years earlier. He was right to stay true to what he deemed appropriate, rather than let his former colleague's earlier actions define his own.
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 programat Harvard's Kennedy School.
Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin
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