A Middle Manager’s Ethical Dilemma

One of the things Talking Ethics aims to do is grapple with readers’ real ethical problems. In most cases, I’ll offer my thoughts and then open the floor to everyone else. But until we build an audience, we’ll have to come up with our own questions. Let’s start with a hypothetical situation, a composite pieced together from real events to provide food for thought…and debate.

I’m a middle manager caught in the middle. I hate my job. My boss is abusive and arbitrary in his decisions, and he’s created an unpleasant atmosphere. Morale is low and I’m thinking of looking around for another job. Problem is, I’m responsible for filling an opening in my department. If I’m honest about the situation, job candidates are sure to run away, but I don’t want to lie to them and tell them this is a good place to work. Advice?

Whenever two clear responsibilities clash, you have to figure out which is the more binding and more important. Make that one your priority, while trying to do as much justice as possible to the second.

In your case, your first responsibility is to your company. As long you accept a pay check, you are obligated to support the firm’s goals, or at least to avoid undermining them. So you shouldn’t go out of your way to tell applicants why they don’t want to work there.

On the other hand, you don’t want to lie, either. There’s too much at stake for the applicant—a potentially devastating career decision. In addition, you’re not doing the company any favors if you hire someone under false pretenses and they end up being miserable.

So approach the interview gingerly. There must be some good reasons for working there. After all, something attracted you to the firm in the first place. Emphasize these positives. Feel free to mention any negatives that are job-specific and not a matter of opinion. For example, if the hours are long or the travel is frequent, it’s in everyone’s interest to make that clear before an offer is tendered. You must also be honest in answering direct questions. If the applicant asks whether you find the atmosphere friendly and constructive, you can’t lie and say yes, but you don’t need to share your subjective view. If necessary, avoid answering a question with some evasion. Chances are, she’ll pick up on it anyway.

You can also do your best to pick a candidate who is capable of coping with the hostile environment. Presumably some of your coworkers find it easier to cope than you do. Figure out why and then look for an applicant with a similar disposition. Try to find a match that will work.

I believe it’s also fair to look at a candidate’s need. I’d be less inclined to lure someone away from a good job than to hire someone out of work who needs a paycheck. That person may say yes no matter how frank you are. This is a slippery slope, however, and I suspect some readers will think you shouldn’t get near it. You certainly can’t play God and try to decide what’s best for the candidate, but it seems to me you can take the candidate’s situation into account.

This is far from ideal, and it makes me uncomfortable writing it, but all the other options seem unacceptable to me and presumably resigning immediately is unacceptable to you. Long term, however, that’s your most ethical option. You need to get out of this situation before it happens again. So stop thinking about finding another job and get cracking.

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6 thoughts on “A Middle Manager’s Ethical Dilemma

  1. The concept of an advice column is intriguing. It would be interesting to see if current personalities (e.g., Bob McDonnell, George Zimmerman) would write in. Probably not.

    There are (at least) two categories of advice. The type in this example is moral. The other type is legal – are their laws that could bear on the response? Alternatively worded, does a “right” choice carry a risk of jail time with it?

    • This is an interesting ethical dilemma for a couple of reasons. Two rights are involved, and moreover, it’s a situation that seems to me pretty common, one likely that several readers may have experienced, either as interviewer or applicant. I agree that interviewer needs to be balanced, but I see no ethical justification for hiding what may be an aggressive or competitive work environment. On the contrary, I agree that the company and candidate will both be best served if job is offered and accepted on realistic terms.

  2. And as a practical matter, the middle manager can have the applicants meet other employees, who may have perspectives that give a fuller picture of the job.

  3. I was once in a similar situation, except that the abusive boss was the owner of the firm and essentially the only manager, and the applicant was a former colleague and longstanding friend. I felt that my loyalty to my friend trumped any loyalty I had to my employer, and I was totally honest about the work environment.

  4. I would say, “you should know that my boss can be quite volatile, but chances are you will not be dealing much with that person.”

  5. Pingback: 10 White Lies Readers Won’t Tell: Our Unscientific Survey Results | Talking Ethics

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