Q: I've always worked hard through high school, college and at work. I've asked for help when I needed it, but I was the one who did the work. I work in a large, busy office. One person has recently seemed much busier than normal, so I walked by her desk several times to see what she was working on. The work was not for work at all.
She was working on her husband's papers for graduate school, which I know because I saw his syllabus hidden under her own work. It's not directly my business, but it sort of is. Because she always looks busy, she gets excused from taking on new assignments, while the rest of us keep receiving more.
I am torn between reporting her and talking to her about it. If I talk to her and she refuses to stop, I'll have to report her, and she'll know it was me. If I anonymously tell the boss, he can walk by her desk and discover it himself. Then it won't really be me reporting her. I equate reporting her to stopping a bank robber, because she's stealing time from the company and her co-workers.
The other part of me wonders if there are special circumstances. Maybe her husband is stressed because of his workload and pressures her to do this for him. Some wives can never say no to their husbands, even if what they've been asked to do is wrong. I don't like her secretly working on personal projects at work, but I do question my motive for wanting to report it.
I've recently joined some new groups — an online meditation group and a Bible study and fellowship — to expand my awareness and be a better person. I want to be a better leader so I can advance, but I also want to be ethical and authentic. I am still having trouble deciding the right thing to do.
A: Identifying and understanding ethical behavior is neither easy nor obvious. But you are on the right path of questioning your motives before you act. People often regret actions they make when they respond to negative emotions without thinking about others involved and the potential harm that could result. You clearly care about doing the right thing, but sometimes the right decision may not initially feel right.
Before you take action on anything involving others, put yourself in each person's position and consider all possibilities. Adopting this thought process will help you decide on the best course of action. In this situation, the boss could be grateful for the information and the opportunity to decide how to handle it or annoyed that a subordinate ran to complain about a situation he or she should've handled privately.
The woman who is secretly working on her husband's schoolwork at work may feel betrayed that her co-worker didn't approach her first to privately question the activity. You may think the husband is behind in school because he is lazy or in over his head in the class, but he could've experienced health problems about which you will never know. Talking to her directly would give her the chance to explain her reasoning, and she will then rely on your sympathy or empathy to let this pass without punishment. It may also help her to see the repercussions it has on her co-workers' workloads. She can then choose to help her husband on her own time, if at all.
No situation is clear-cut — at work or in one's personal life. Many factors exist that a person will never share unless confronted. But openly and willfully sharing details at work of one's home situation is not wise; a co-worker is first a co-worker, not a friend. There are four winning rules to remember. No. 1: All people make mistakes. No. 2: Some mistakes are not retractable. No. 3: Know what you have to gain and what you have to lose before taking action. No. 4: When in doubt, don't.
Email career and life coach: [email protected] with your workplace problems and issues. Ms. Novak responds to all emails. For more information, visit www.lindseynovak.com and for past columns, see www.creators.com/read/At-Work-Lindsey-Novak.
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