What should you do when you read something that might negatively affect someone you know but you don’t relish being the bearer of bad news?
I follow many people and institutions on Twitter. Some share views with which I generally agree. Others don’t. I also have alerts set up on my search engine so I am notified when news stories appear about people, institutions, or things in which I am interested. These alerts are set to get combined in one email I receive once a day if there is anything that matches the alert criteria.
A few days ago an alert arrived with a link to an article about a former colleague I’m calling Art that questioned the colleague’s appropriateness for a new position. I was pretty sure that someone else might have seen the article and told Art about it, but I wasn’t positive given that the article was in a publication that wasn’t particularly well known.
My colleague is accomplished, has a fairly high profile, and has been consistent in various things he’s written or spoken about over the years. His Internet footprint is not insignificant. It’s quite likely that other negative pieces had appeared about him over the years, but I had not seen any.
I had no idea how my colleague would react to first learning about this most recent missive about him. We had a good relationship when we worked together and have maintained it over the many years that have passed since then. Did I really want to deal with being the one to deliver the news? He would be none the wiser if I said nothing and left him to discover the article in some other way, if at all. Life is full. Life during the pandemic is even more full. Do I really need to add another unwelcome task to my life? After all, it’s not my job to ensure that my former colleagues’ flanks are covered.
Even though I know I have appreciated it over the years when a friend, colleague, or relative has alerted me to not-so-kind barbs tossed my way online, it still would have been simpler not to let Art know what I had discovered.
Ultimately, any hesitation I had about emailing Art about the article was only to figure out how to word my message as kindly and reassuringly as possible. The right thing was to let him know because his life might be made a tad easier if he didn’t find himself blindsided by receiving the information in some other way. Angry reader emails. Other reporters showing up in the inbox or, worse, at the door.
Those who argue that no good often comes from delivering bad news so it’s best to keep your head down and nose out of other’s business are missing an important point. If we ignore our responsibility to be decent human beings who try to ease someone else’s potential discomfort when we can, we risk becoming immune to the incivilities and disrespect that gets tossed around too easily. We risk becoming the person we swore we never wanted to become.
I emailed Art. He’d already knew about the piece. We had a nice exchange. He knows I am here if he needs to chat and I am confident he would do the same for me were the roles reversed.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to email@example.com.
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