Illustration: Istvan Banyai
Here's a tricky one for you: Imagine that one day, you start to suspect that a woman you work with, the one with the new baby and the newly unemployed husband, is padding her expense account. What would you do? Report her to HR? Admonish her yourself? Probably not. Instead, if you're like most people who find themselves entangled in an ethical dilemma at the office, either as a participant or an observer, you'd do nothing. That is, except agonize and flail, searching for a clean escape from the ambiguous moral mess you've found yourself in.
If there is one.
I have a file in my desk drawer filled with e-mails from people I've met while traveling as a business journalist, all seeking advice about ethical dilemmas at work. Not that they call their problems by that term. Usually they just describe something that has happened on the job that has made them feel vaguely compromised. Something that has given them a gnawing sensation in their gut that will not go away.
Now, to be clear: This “Uh-Oh” file is not filled with letters from people who have stumbled into cases of egregious wrongdoing, like what happened at Enron and Tyco. Those whoppers weren't ethical dilemmas—they were ethical violations in black-and-white. The situations I hear about exist in shades of gray.
Take, for instance, the woman who contacted me from San Francisco, where she worked at a bank. “My manager is extraordinarily political and very adept at covering his back,” she wrote. “I admire him for his intelligence, but I am having some discomfort lately doing what he is asking of me, which amounts to suppressing the opportunities of those who work for him. I would love to stay at this company and move out of my boss' department. But I'm not sure I can. I think I am stuck 'screwing' people who don't deserve it.”
Or consider the woman from Detroit—the head of operations at an automotive parts supplier. “As you can imagine, we have been through many rounds of job cuts over the last few years,” she wrote. “I used to be able to let go of my poor performers first, but now I am being told by the legal department that I have to make cuts based on seniority. It's not fair, and the effect on the performance of my team is devastating. Should I just look the other way?”
Both of these women—and others in the Uh-Oh file—share in the belief that there isn't a good way out. I can relate. I'm a veteran of a few ethical dilemmas myself, as are most people who have worked for any stretch of time (in my case, 26 years). But it is the poignant and sometimes painful stories of the women who've written me and whom I have met across the country that have taught me how common these predicaments are, and how treacherous. Although I've learned that almost no one walks away from one unchanged, I've also come to a three-step approach that makes it possible to emerge from the experience with your nervous system and self-confidence relatively intact.
That's a far cry from what usually happens—as I found when I was a 23-year-old newspaper reporter on the crime beat in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Driving to work one day, I recognized several policemen hanging around my neighborhood. They weren't in uniform, so I figured an undercover operation was under way. I called my best source in the department, who told me a rapist had struck in the area five times and that if my paper reported on the sting, the rapist would skip town, and no cop in the city would ever speak to me again.
“But women are in imminent danger,” I protested. “Someone has to warn them.”
“Any publicity and we'll lose this creep,” came the answer. “He'll go to another city and rape more women. You cannot let that happen.”