Sunday, March 11, 2012

Must you fully disclose what the future might bring?

Comedian David Brenner used to tell a joke about lying awake at night when he heard mosquitoes buzzing, fearful that he would get bitten. Then he remembered reading somewhere that only male mosquitoes buzz and that they don't bite. He then figured he could relax whenever he heard buzzing. But, he punch-lined, it's when he heard nothing he knew he had to worry.

It's a joke that plays on the impossibility of knowing the unknowable, but a desire nevertheless to control the outcome. (Forget for a second that while male mosquitoes indeed don't bite, both the male and female do apparently make a buzzing sound. Brenner didn't let this fact stand in the way of a good joke.)

How do you make a decision about doing the right thing when unknowable variables involved?

A reader from the Midwest tells me that he might be changing jobs and relocating to the Northeast sometime over the next several months. He loves his current job, but there's potential for a great opportunity. While he's a finalist for the new job, he hasn't been offered it yet, so he's not 100 percent sure he'll be moving away. He expects to hear within the next two to three weeks.

As his future is up in the air, he finds himself being offered positions of increasing importance, most recently to serve as a board member for a foundation in his current city. If he accepts the board seat, he knows there's a better than even chance he will have to resign the position and inconvenience the rest of the board which will soon have to replace him. On the other hand, should he limit his participation on this board - and with other local opportunities - on the chance that he will relocate?

"If I don't move, I've cut myself off from some opportunities by saying no to the chances," he says. "If I say yes and do move, I'm running the risk of being perceived as duplicitous of misleading."

He wants to know if it would be wrong to accept the board position knowing there's a chance he may soon move away.

If it's a board with which he really wants to work and he believes he can do some good, then I believe he should proceed with the opportunity to serve on the board and not cut himself off from such opportunities entirely.

Since he is expecting to hear about the new job offer within a few weeks, the right thing is to let the foundation members know that he needs a few weeks to consider their offer. That will give him time to find out if he's gotten the new job. If he gets the job and plans to take it, he can turn down the offer to sit on the board or let the members know of the offer and that since he would be leaving the region within a few months, he feels it best to decline the offer. That gives the board the opportunity to respond with either a thank you, or a request that he give them whatever time he has over the next few months.

But he needn't give a response until the silence about his prospective position turns into an audible buzz.

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. Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin

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(c) 2012 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.


Anonymous said...

With so many people looking for work, this guy seems to be "betwixed and between" as the saying goes. Another old saying applies also: "Don't count your chickens before they're hatched" and another "don't look a gift horse in the mouth". All this goes to say you can' have everything and that's what our friend seems to want. Surely he understands "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush" and this applies to the job he has as well as the possible future. I've always felt you can't plan out your life to this degree. Make the best decision possible and quit trying to "have your cake and eat it too"!

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC

JacquelineC said...

This story reminds me of the saw "never let the truth get in the way of a good story." But possibly we're full up with old saws...

good answer and it's quite possible that he knows someone personally on that board. He may be able to get a little more info informally on their timetable, his chances in the future if he should decline and not move, etc. but then, would that put his friend in a compromising position?