One common but difficult ethical dilemma is the “when to tell” problem. When you see someone engage in unethical behavior, it’s sometimes hard to know how to respond.
Common examples include seeing the wife of a friend in a compromising position with another man, spotting a coworker stuffing his briefcase with office supplies, or seeing a stranger physically disciplining a child in a way that seems excessive. Figuring out your ethical duty in these kinds of situations involves weighing the good and harm that will come from the disclosure and determining what is in the best interest of everyone involved. It’s important in these situations to go beyond your own self-interest, and make sure you have no ulterior motives.
Consider this example.
At a party, I met a woman who had a PhD from the same school, at about the same time, as my boss. I asked if she knew her and soon discovered that my boss had been claiming a degree she never earned. (I snooped a bit to confirm this.) My first instinct is to squeal – this boss is pompous, mean, self-aggrandizing, and even claims credit for work someone else did. On the other hand, I know the CEO thinks highly of her and squealing will probably hurt my standing with the firm more than hers. On the other hand, the company Web site has a bio of this woman that is clearly a lie and should be corrected. I’m thinking of an anonymous note.
First off, let’s disregard your personal animosity toward the boss. If she’s acting out of line (claiming credit for your work or whatever), call her on it after marshaling your facts, but don’t let your feelings influence the resume issue. Revenge is never a good motive in ethics.
I’d also dismiss the idea of an anonymous note. Anytime you can’t put your name on an action, it’s a bad idea, although there are exceptions (like ratting out a mafia hit man).
In an ideal world, you would speak out. That is the ethical road. But we don’t live in an ideal world, so you have to balance competing factors.
You say the company won’t do anything if it learns the truth, but at least it will correct the Web site and presumably keep a better eye on your boss, which could benefit her employees in the long term. But there’s no guarantee. And you could pay a steep price. So the question for you is whether the price justifies the likely result (a weak result in my view).
If you’re going to act, I’d suggest trying a compromise. Tell your boss you met this woman and casually add that she seemed to be under the impression your boss didn’t finish her degree. She may take the hint and fess up. Not likely, though. Then you’d have to tell her what you think she should do, with the implied (but not explicit) threat that if she stays mum, you’ll speak up. I’d do this before going to her superiors.
But this is a tricky one, and I’m very interested in what other readers think, so please weigh in.