(OPRAH.com) -- 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?
Sometimes just seeing part of the situation can give you the wrong perception on an issue.
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. Oprah.com: How to handle life's stickiest situations
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?" Oprah.com: What to do about a boss who lies like a rug
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."
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.
Get all the facts
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. Oprah.com: 48 decisions we've made for you
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.
Ethical, personal or political
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?"
Outside opinion from a cool distance
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.
As for the women in my Uh-Oh file, they too might have benefited from a Yoda. Unable to find another position in a different division, the bank employee from San Francisco who felt compromised by her "extraordinarily political" boss eventually quit.
She is running her own small consulting firm now, happy but still occasionally haunted by the unplanned way her corporate career ended. "I love being my own boss," she wrote me recently. "Sometimes I think that leaving was the luckiest accident that ever happened to me. But sometimes, usually when I am at my computer still working at 10 at night, I wonder if I should have just stuck it out."
As for the operations manager from Detroit who was forced to conduct layoffs by seniority, she ceded to the company's lawyers. When I contacted her recently, she simply explained, "I'm used to it now. I need my job." I asked if she still had an uh-oh feeling. She paused for a long time, then finally said, "When I'm driving home."
Happy endings? Well, real ones. Ethical dilemmas rarely wrap themselves up, with loose ends neatly tied. Like life itself, they are usually messy and complex, and many of us muddle through until a messy and complex ending emerges from the ether. Sometimes, however, we can find better endings if we take charge instead of muddling through. With careful fact-finding, the thoughtful sorting of real agendas and sound outside counsel, an ethical dilemma doesn't have to disrupt your career or linger in your gut. Oprah.com: What to do when the roof falls in
That uh-oh feeling may sure feel like it is telling you to run or hide. You can answer it back by rising to the occasion.
By Suzy Welch O, The Oprah Magazine © 2009
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