Ethics Column Confronts Family, Employment Dilemmas

What should you do if you catch your boss breaking the law? That's just one of the moral dilemmas examined in the latest "Now What Do I Do?" column, a regular feature in O, The Oprah Magazine. Magazine columnist Jancee Dunn, and ethics panelist Jack Marshall, talks listeners through this month's ethical dilemmas.

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Money is at the heart of a lot of ethical challenges, including several in this month's Now What Do I Do ethics column in O, The Oprah Magazine. We periodically check in there for ethical advice. Joining us for our conversation this month is Now What Do I Do columnist Jancee Dunn and ethics panelist and professional ethicist Jack Marshall. Welcome back to the program.

Ms. JANCEE DUNN (Columnist, O, The Oprah Magazine): Thanks so much.

Mr. JACK MARSHALL (President, ProEthics, LTD): Thanks. Good to be here.

NEARY: All right. Jancee, let's start out with this question. My co-worker wants to quit her job to follow her dream of becoming a novelist. She gave me some chapters to read, and they're awful. Is it kinder to be honest with my feedback? How did the panel come down on that?

Ms. DUNN: OK. Faith Saily (ph), one of the panelists, sums up this dilemma neatly. Are you an irresponsible enabler or a dream crusher? And one panelist suggested a blunt approach. But most said to be honest but not cruel because there's nothing wrong with constructive criticism, but you should avoid words of condemnation like awful. Bad is another one. Instead, just refer to specific weaknesses.

And, you know, then there was the kind of middle ground approach. I don't know how Jack feels about this, but three of the panelists said, you know, you can avoid explicitly criticizing her work if you kind of commend her on her ambition but offer a reminder of how the odds are stacked against any writer. Rush Kidder (ph), another panelist, suggested that you should steer the friend towards a creative writing course.

NEARY: A creative writing course. Now, there's squeezing your way out of a tough spot.

Ms. DUNN: It's middle ground.

NEARY: It's a middle ground spot. Jack, what do you think about that?

Mr. MARSHALL: Well, it presents itself as a dilemma between a couple of ethical values, kindness on one side and honesty on the other side. And while you shouldn't be cruel, I have to say, I'm of the Simon Cowell school of criticism. If somebody is up there saying he wants to be the next "American Idol," and he can't sing on key, and he's atrocious, I think it's much ultimately kinder to tell him he's atrocious.

You don't have to be cruel about it. Some people will take honesty as cruelty inherently. You never want to be the kind of person to tell somebody that you'll never make it in this profession because sometimes people who are atrocious learn to sing, dance, act, or write. So you never want to put yourself in that position of completely crushing the dream.

But I think you have an absolute obligation to be straightforward. And I don't think, ultimately, it is neither kind nor fair nor honest to pull your punches. I've actually been in this situation a lot because I'm a professional stage director as well as an ethicist. So I have to tell people sometimes, you know what? You're not as good as you think you are, and if you really want to make a living at this, you've got to improve in the following ways, but fast.

NEARY: Well, Jancee, our next question is about family ties, family ties and financial ethics. Here's the question. I offered to buy my great aunt's house. In the six months that she's been researching assisted living facilities, the value has decreased a lot. Do I honor the original deal? What did the panel say on this?

Ms. DUNN: OK. According to Anita Allen, our law professor, the crucial thing is whether you had a deal in the form of a written contract or a deal in the sense of a mutual understanding. If you offered a price in writing, and she accepted it in writing, that's a legal contract, and you have to accept the consequences.

And she echoed what many said, that just because a person is a family member, doesn't mean you shouldn't get these kinds of transactions in writing. Don't worry about them being insulted. It's a contract like any other.

But many said that no matter what the form of the contract, if indeed there is any contract, because it's a relative, consider your aunt's financial situation. Faith Saily said, if you offered to buy her house because she really needs the money, honor the original deal. If she is more flush, ask her if you can work something out that accounts for some of the devaluation.

NEARY: Jack, the potential for conflict with family members is huge when you get into any kind of transaction that involves this much money. I mean, is it smart to even do that in first place?

Mr. MARSHALL: It's certainly not smart. And it certainly leads to all sorts of unhappiness, and it certainly leads to murders on "Murder She Wrote" and other things. But despite that, families help each other out, and to a great extent, you need to expect your family to help you out. So the nature of a family insures that that's going to happen, and I would never say it's wrong for a family member to step up and help another family member. But anytime you do that, there's often unhappiness around the corner.

NEARY: Jancee, let's go to one more question here. I started a new job at a non-profit. While I have not been asked to do anything illegal, I am aware of a number of illegalities, including misappropriation of funds. I'm looking for a new job, but once I find one, do I have a responsibility to inform the IRS of what I've learned? Now, you featured one panelist's response in the magazine, what was that?

Ms. DUNN: OK. This was Anita Allen, and she laid out some specific steps. Number one, be absolutely clear that your data is correct. Don't rely on conjecture. Don't rely on hearsay because you could do irreparable damage to the company if you're wrong, not to mention yourself because you could be sued for defamation.

Then notify the management in writing - crucial - and keep a copy of any letters that you send. If that doesn't work, move up the ladder and inform the company's lawyers or auditors. And as a last resort, speak to regulatory authorities, you know, the IRS, the SEC, or the police.

However, a couple of panelists thought that it would be OK to go to the media. I'd be interested to know, Jack, what you think. You didn't mention it when we had our back and forth, but Anita Allen said that it's not fair to companies to be prematurely tried in the press, so don't blab to the media.

Mr. MARSHALL: Yes. I object to going to the media, I mean, except as perhaps an absolute last resort, and only if you're willing to go to the media by name and come out and say that you're the actual source. But the only thing that bothered me about Anita's response on this is, I think you should do all of those things before you find your next job and before you move on.

And the question was framed, what do I do after I leave? One of the most important things I think, ethically and in the workplace, is for people to realize that all of them owe an obligation to the company to make sure that the company is not behaving illegally and is not behaving unethically. And when they see examples of that, they have to step up, and they have to go up the ladder, make sure management is aware of it. Once you find out that management is part of a conspiracy to break the law or trying to do so, then you got to get out of the company real quick.

But I think you take action at the earliest possible point. To say you can - you wait until you're out of the crossfire, first of all, it lets more harm be done. It puts other people at risk and is also cowardly, and this isn't easy. I mean, this is - that is a very difficult position to be in. But the optimum, most ethical response is to deal with it at the moment while you're there and to be - have the guts to report.

NEARY: Jack Marshall is a member of the O Magazine ethics panel and president of ProEthics. He joined us here in our Washington Studios. And Jancee Dunn edits the Now What Do I Do column for O, The Oprah Magazine, and she joined us from our New York bureau. Thanks, it was fun talking to both of you.

Mr. MARSHALL: Thanks.

Ms. DUNN: My pleasure.

NEARY: Remember, at Tell Me More, the conversation never ends. We'd like to hear from you. Do you have an ethical dilemma to sort out? Maybe our ethics panel can help. To tell us more about what you think and to read what other listeners are thinking, go to our blog at npr.org/tellmemore. You can also call our comment line at 202-842-3522. That number is 202-842-3522.

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