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.