My Colleague Is Secretly Holding Two Jobs. Should I Expose Her?
I recently joined a fast-growing health care company. I referred a candidate I worked with years ago, also a friend, who was a good match for an open position. My friend was offered the job, but I later learned that she intends to keep the full-time position she currently occupies while signing on for a full-time position at my company. Because each company allows for some remote work, she feels that she’ll be able to balance time for each. This arrangement is clearly against company policy, which requires, among other things, disclosure and approval of all other employment. My friend intends to keep her plans a secret from both companies.
When I made the referral, I had no reason to believe my friend would behave in this manner, and she remains undeterred despite my advice. I’m worried about the potential fallout for her and also that my reputation in the company could be tarnished if her deception comes to light. Now that I’m aware of her plans, should I warn my employer? Name Withheld
Business bigamy of this sort, to judge from recent news reports, may not be so very uncommon. There’s now a website, Overemployed, that, in a disabused tone somewhere between “Office Space” and “Fight Club,” offers practical tips for aspiring two-timers, while elevating mediocrity to a point of principle. (Because, you know, the Man.) But what your friend is doing is wrong in all sorts of ways. She’s being dishonest in deceiving both employers. She’s taking advantage of the trust these companies place in their employees and of colleagues who don’t abuse this trust. And although she says she’s capable of doing both jobs at the level required, her judgment about this is unlikely to be objective; either way, were she fully devoted to one of the jobs, she could surely do it better. Finally, she is, as you make clear, specifically wronging you, the person who effectively vouched for her.
You’ve urged her to mend her ways, to no avail. At this point, you could tell her that you’ll report her hustle if she doesn’t give it up — but you’d also be justified in reporting her without giving her further notice. True, she let you know what was going on in the expectation that you’d keep it to yourself. Yet she wasn’t entitled to this expectation, and you didn’t consent to withholding information from the company that its managers would expect you to share. What she did was an imposition: It saddled you with the reputational risk of being associated with her duplicity — of facing the question, “Did you know about this?” And oh, yes, it was definitely a violation of Overemployed’s Rule No. 1: “Don’t talk about working two remote jobs.”
I’m a staff member at a large public university. Like many similar institutions, the university suffers from decades of disinvestment from the state, an antiquated system and general bureaucratic dysfunction. Regardless, I’m proud to work there, as, I believe, are most people who do. During the seven years I’ve worked there, conditions — for myself, my colleagues and the team I manage — have deteriorated significantly. Leadership seems to have little regard for collaboration, communication or empowering staff. Only spotty efforts are made to solve perennial problems that hurt productivity and negatively affect morale.
Despite this difficult environment, my team and I have exceeded our goals annually (including during the pandemic). I am plagued, however, by some measure of guilt. I’m able to meet and/or exceed my goals and manage and mentor my team in less than 40 hours a week. If I worked elsewhere, I would use the remaining time to spearhead new projects, set more challenging goals for the team, etc., but given the toxic work environment, I don’t want to extend myself in these ways (or ask my team to extend themselves further when they work hard already). When leadership doesn’t solve ongoing problems, creating new projects or growing our existing work only brings more difficulty, and I can do only so much from my position. I’m run down and depressed by the environment but can’t leave this job at the moment.
Am I ethically obligated to create new projects or set and achieve bigger goals with this “extra” time in my workweek, despite meeting or exceeding my existing goals, when leadership does not respond to ongoing issues and concerns? Name Withheld
Your story demonstrates how important institutional leadership can be in creating an atmosphere in which employees will give their best. The longstanding union tactic of “working to rule” — in which workers do only exactly what is required by their employment contracts and, as a result, slow things down so much that management has to take notice — reflects the fact that workplaces falter unless people do more than is strictly required. A well-functioning organization, whether in the private sector or the public, is full of people doing things they don’t have a formal obligation to do.
If morality is the realm of what we must do, ethics is the realm of what it would be good to do.
But being inspired by the bosses isn’t the only reason to do more than you must. Perhaps, despite poor leadership, straitened circumstances and declining conditions, you believe deeply in your university and its mission of public education, and you know that your work can contribute to it. Perhaps you care about the students who will benefit from your additional efforts. Perhaps your work relationships are foremost in your mind; you care about the colleagues whose work lives you can make more meaningful. Unlike people stuck in what the anthropologist David Graeber called “bullshit jobs,” you don’t think your work is pointless. You might want to expand your ambitions, then, because you want to be the kind of person who does an excellent job, because you believe in the mission, because you want to live a life of greater significance and achievement.
Again, we’re not talking about your obligations. If morality is the realm of what we must do, ethics is the realm of what it would be good to do. For ethics, in the classical tradition, is about what it means to live a good life. Considerations of significance, achievement, mission, what kind of person you are: All these are ethical. If they apply, they ought to move you, in part, because of what they mean to the life you’re living — roughly a third of which will be spent at work.
A few obvious caveats. When your ambitions involve other people, you need to make sure that what you have in mind makes sense for those it would affect; a manager with extra time on her hands should think twice before giving more work to staff members who don’t. And of course, for plenty of people the sources of significance in their lives have little to do with their job. You’re unfortunate to be working at a place that suffers from public disinvestment and lackluster leadership; you’re fortunate to be able to take pride in what you and the larger institution can accomplish.
We’re living, so they say, amid “the Great Resignation.” There are something like 10 million open jobs in the U.S. economy, and though the reasons are complex, it has been suggested that places with a better workplace culture are more likely to retain employees. Many potential employees, to be sure, have probably been stymied by pandemic-related difficulties in securing child care. Other people say they have withdrawn, emotionally, from the whole career concept. Paradoxically, the Overemployed folks fall into this category, staying at once busy and disengaged. A few people yearn to be lotus-eaters, although the ones we hear about will be those Stakhanovite souls who tirelessly churn out a daily Substack newsletter about the joys of doing nothing. Still, the take-this-job-and-shove-it contingent will surely be dwarfed by the keep-this-job-and-do-just-enough-to-get-by crowd.
In rare instances — notably, the sort of union action I mentioned — underperforming may be part of a concerted, collective action to achieve a specific outcome. That, too, can be a meaningful project, but it doesn’t describe your situation. A year from now, you may well find a new workplace where you (and your colleagues) will be better appreciated, enabled and supported. In the meantime, though, you might start by asking yourself what will make your work life a source of satisfaction and self-respect. Not because you owe it to management but because you owe it to yourself.
Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.” To submit a query: Send an email to [email protected]; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)
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