The Uh-Oh Feeling: Sticky Situations at Work
Once you've completed your fact-finding mission, it's time to move to the second phase of this process, determining whether this is an ethical dilemma or a crisis that is more personal or political in nature. Yes, some instances are about principles. If Carol had discovered that the people on her boss's list were, in fact, about to get fired without adequate warning, her choice would have been a true moral quandary. But other so-called ethical dilemmas are made of fuzzier stuff.
I know a corporate executive, a woman I'll call Margaret, who was forced out of her job after a co-worker accused her of not following the company's procedure for picking a firm to handle regional distribution, saying she blatantly favored a firm where she had close friends. Margaret strongly denied the charges, but, concerned about looking soft on integrity issues, her boss asked her to go. And guess who immediately made a quiet and successful play for the newly vacated job? Margaret's accuser, of course.
Maybe his motives were pure. I don't believe Margaret is the only one thinking they were not, and in some cases it will be difficult, if not impossible, to determine if a person is acting out of self-interest. But in other instances, it might be apparent that the conflict isn't about ethics; it's about ambition, payback, or other interoffice jockeying. In loaded situations, it never hurts to pull back and ask, “Is this about principles or a power play?”
The third and final step in handling an ethical dilemma is the most straightforward: It's taking your dilemma to a “Yoda”—a confidant with wisdom and insight but no skin in your particular game. The fact is, ethical dilemmas can be so fraught, it's often impossible to make sense of them alone—even after fact-finding and asking yourself who stands to benefit most.
Your instinct, of course, will be to sort it all out with a trusted ally, like your husband or a friend from work. Forget that. They're about as close to the fire as you are. What you need is someone at a cool distance. In Fort Lauderdale, for example, I could have called an old journalism professor for advice, or my best friend in Boston, who was in the process of earning a PhD in ethics. Either could have provided the 20,000-foot view and helped me focus on my choices and their consequences. Maybe I still would have elected to remain silent, but at least I would have understood why.