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On Ethics

I was having a conversation recently with a friend and former co-worker of mine. He's bounced around here and there, looking for better positions. And when he first began that journey, it looked like he was heading in the right direction. But with the down turn in the economy, his choices have become more and more limited and he's had to accept less than what he has wanted. He has also faced the fact that he's been cut loose when the company wasn't doing as well as it wanted. That's the way it is with this industry or any other industry. But that's not the point of this post.

My friend had recently been laid off from a full-time position at one job. His old job extended his benefits and pay as part of a severance package, which admittedly they didn't have to do. In South Carolina they can just say, "Your services are no longer needed," and that's that. Now my friend took advantage of a loophole in the benefits coverage and maximized that loophole. What he did was completely within his employment conditions as well as the law for this state. Nothing is at issue there. My friend didn't do anything illegal. Let's clear that up right away. But whether or not it was ethical is a good question.

The former employer was upset at my friend for using the loophole when they extended benefits and pay for my friend's benefit. And because of the fact that my friend used that loophole, it will come out of the employer's pocket. It's not a lot of money, but when you're a small business (as this employer is), every little bit hurts. The employer has a new part time opportunity that might have gone to my friend. However, after what he did, my friend doubts that he will get that part time opportunity. Knowing the employer personally, I doubt that my friend will get the job, unless the employer can find no one else. In the employer's eyes, I'm sure my friend has burned his bridges.

A good rule of thumb I try to follow in life is, "How I would react if the situation were reversed?" We call this the golden rule (and not the one from Aladdin), and in Christian Scripture it's the second greatest commandment ("Love your neighbor as yourself"). When I posed the situation to my friend, for him to imagine he was the employer, he did understand why the employer was upset. He would be, too. And this raises the question, "Then why did you do it?" I never asked my friend that question, because I wasn't sure I would like the answer. I would surely get a lot of justifications, and there are extenuating circumstances in play, but justification is another word for excuse. At the end of the day, what my friend did would be considered a violation of trust. I know that's how his former employer would see it. That's how I see it. And both his former employer and I think alike on this one: if you violate my trust I wil forgive you and move on, but I will be very careful not to put myself in a similar position unless you can, over an extended period of time, prove somehow that I can trust you again. How exactly one proves that he or she is trustworthy again is not a question I can answer. And that's the situation my friend finds himself in with his former employer.

And this comes down to the question of what is legal versus what is ethical. Several of my co-workers and I discuss this distinction at least a couple of times a week. What is legal is pretty clear cut. What is ethical isn't so easy to determine. Everyone looks at situations differently. For one of my co-workers, squeezing in within the boundaries of the law is enough. For me, it goes back to the rule of thumb question. If I know it's not how I would like to be treated or if the situation was reversed I would be angry or offended, then likely it's not ethical. If it's not ethical in our minds, even if it is legal, we ought not be doing it. That's where I think my friend made a mistake. If he applied my rule of thumb, he would have felt the former employee would have been treating him unfairly and violating his trust. So to turn around and do it himself would certainly fit that unethical side of things. But because he didn't sto himself, he has burned a valuable bridge. I'm just hoping that doesn't come back to haunt him in the future. I know in some ways it will. I was the one who recommended my friend to his former employer. After seeing what my friend has done, I am very hesitant to do that again. It's something I'll have to think long and hard about. How do you give a recommendation properly without giving some type of warning? That's something else I don't have a good answer to.


K. Brian Kelley - Databases, Infrastructure, and Security

IT Security, MySQL, Perl, SQL Server, and Windows technologies.


Posted by Steve Jones on 19 February 2010

Excellent post, and I agree with you. There is the spirit of the law and the letter of the law. I think too many people have started to use the letter of the law as a guideline (especially lawyers), instead of the spirit of the law.

Moral guidance is important for each of us. It varies by the individual, but at the end of the day, each of us must decide what we can live with. Or perhaps apologize for it.

I can't say what I would do in your friend's situation since there isn't a lot of details, but ultimately I have found that I need to make decisions that allow me to sleep at night.

Posted by Glenn Berry on 19 February 2010

It can be hard for someone to look further down the road to consider the long term effects of something they may do to solve a short-term need.

Without knowing more specifics (which you should not supply), it is harder to judge this decision. If someone has an acute financial crisis that may be causing the loss of a home, or serious health consequences for example, it may be harder to think long-term.

Posted by chuckboycejr on 19 February 2010

Hi Brian,

I am assuming that you are talking about COBRA benefits. Are you?  If so, can you please clarify two things for me?

1. It sounds like you are saying that South Carolina does not require observance of COBRA law.  It is my understanding that COBRA is federal law?

2. It sounds like you are characterizing the "COBRA Continuation Coverage Assistance Under ARRA" as a "loophole". If you are, I'd respectfully have to say this is not a fair characterization of a federal program passed by Congress to relieve suffering brought on by the unexpected downturn in the economy due to the Wall Street crash in Fall 2008. If an employer were to portray a laid off employee as violating trust due to invoking this federal law, I'd say it's the employer that should examine their ethics.

Thank you very much.


Posted by K. Brian Kelley on 19 February 2010

Chuck, COBRA didn't come into play. When I said they extended his benefits, that's what I mean. Life insurance, 401K, medical, everything. They continued his benefits for a full month after he was let go in order to give him some time to find a job where he didn't have to worry about a thing. He took advantage of their courtesy.

Posted by chuckboycejr on 19 February 2010

Thanks, Brian.

COBRA has been settled law for some time and it would be unsettling if we were talking about that.

I'm not understand *how* he took advantage of their courtesy???

It is hard to assess the ethics of something that is unknown?

Is it possible to be more clear?

Posted by chuckboycejr on 19 February 2010

Hi Brian,

I have been at this game for a while and I know it takes two to tango, so I try to learn all the details before taking sides.

I enjoyed our offline discussion and I agree with your assessment. The only counsel I can think to give your friend is from Proverbs 30: 32-33

"If you have been foolish, exalting yourself, or if you have been devising evil, put your hand on your mouth.  For pressing milk produces curds, pressing the nose produces blood, and pressing anger produces strife."


Posted by Jack Corbett on 19 February 2010

Definitely a bit a of sticky situation there.  All I can say is that when someone has gone "above and beyond" for me I have always been very careful to NOT take advantage of their generosity.  I'd like to think that this would be everyone's attitude, but, unfortunately, it isn't.  Fortunately I am only responsible for my behavior, and through my example that of my children.  I honestly wouldn't want any responsibility beyond that.

Posted by Anonymous on 21 February 2010

Pingback from  Burnt Bridges:  Can They be Avoided?

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