Today I'm not sure exactly why I did what I did, which was obey the detective. I'd like to believe it was because, after covering the police for a year, I'd come to trust their judgment. But I'd be disingenuous to say my career didn't figure into the decision. It must have. That night, as I lay in bed with my stomach twisted in a knot and my heart pounding through my eyeballs, the police caught their prey breaking into a first-floor apartment. His intended victim was a 15-year-old girl.
Now, you might think my anxiety would have vanished with the rapist's arrest. But to this day, I still get an uh-oh feeling every time I let myself think, "What if they hadn't caught the rapist that night and a woman had been attacked because of my selfishness?" I still wonder if my decision in Fort Lauderdale was more lucky than right.
What I don't wonder about is why my choice confused me so much at the time. I've learned that most ethical dilemmas are difficult because of insufficient information and overheated deductions. And when the dilemma occurs on the job—the source of your mortgage payment, retirement fund, and medical benefits—it's even more challenging to get to a place where you can make a dispassionate, informed decision about what to do.
That's why your first step, should you find yourself in this particular work nightmare, must be to get all the facts. Because of their very nature—their inherent ambiguity—ethical dilemmas at the office are usually rife with rumor and worst-case-scenario hypothesizing: That coworker padding her expenses? Turns out she's following new tax guidelines for calculating mileage. That threat in Fort Lauderdale about my sources drying up? I later discovered that many police officers on the force, including an assistant chief, wanted to go public with the story. Had I done that, I might actually have earned a few new “friends” in high places. I just didn't know enough.
Nor did a secretary I'll call Carol, whose boss had asked her to prepare severance documents for about a dozen people in her division. The request tormented her. “It's just wrong to give employees one week's notice,” she said. “I know the right thing is to let these poor people know what's coming.”
Not long after, a sheepish Carol contacted me. At lunch one day, she had confided in a friend in HR that she was thinking of quitting because she couldn't bring herself to collude with her boss' ruthless severance plan. Her friend had burst into laughter. The “poor people” on her boss' list, she said, had all elected to take a generous early-retirement package from the company. Carol's conclusion: “You can only do the right thing when you're not looking at things all wrong.”
Obviously, fact-finding isn't always easy. It involves discretion, patience, and savvy. Think more Nancy Drew than Spanish Inquisition. Focus your “investigation” on the people at your company who aren't gossips, but insiders. You know them: Often they're longtime employees, trusted by management and colleagues alike, experienced enough to tell a fire drill from a conflagration, and emotionally invested in keeping the organization on an even keel. Approach these individuals not like a prosecutor ready to go to trial but like a detective new to the case. And remember, such insiders usually don't give information; they trade it. Be prepared to engage in that process without revealing confidences. HR can also be a source of reliable information, if you work in a large enough company. At the very least, like Carol's friend, they can steer you away from significantly misconstrued conclusions.