Throughout our business and personal lives we are faced with dilemmas that place us between a “rock and a hard place;” dilemmas that are always win-lose. They force us to choose between saving one person’s job while costing another’s; causing one person to lose money while another gains; and hurting one friend while helping the other. They occur both by accident and as a result of the actions of others. The latter is what recently happened to me.
I was working as a business consultant for two sister companies, Alpha, Inc. and Beta, Inc., that have the same parent company, Gamma, Inc. During my initial interactions with Alpha, Charlie, an administrative assistant, informed me that Gamma and Alpha were having some sort of dispute. Charlie was highly stressed about the dispute and told me that he was considering looking for a new job. The president of Alpha would later confirm that she was indeed having a dispute with Gamma.
The plot thickened.
During my communications with executives at both Beta and Gamma over some mutual business endeavors, a senior executive at Gamma asked for my professional opinion about Charlie as a potential employee for Gamma. He admitted to me that he and Charlie had discussed him working for Gamma. He was aware of my consulting arrangement with Charlie's employer, Alpha, but asked me to keep this confidential.
This was my first dilemma. Should I immediately tell Alpha’s president about my conversation with the Gamma executive? I would have been acting in my professional capacity as her advisor, warning her of a potential loss of an employee and potentially helping her in her dispute with Gamma. But I would have also been going against the wishes of Gamma, the parent company of both companies I consulted for.
Then the plot thickened further:
The very next morning, before I had any opportunity to react to the dilemma, I received an email from the president of Alpha saying that Charlie gave his two-weeks notice. He claimed he was leaving for “personal reasons.” Alpha suspected that Gamma may have poached her employee, and knowing my relationships with her company and Gamma, she asked me if I was aware of any communication between Charlie and Gamma.
There were two obvious choices for dealing with this dilemma:
1. I could have lied to Alpha, telling her I was unaware of any communication. That could have put me in the best possible situation with all three entities. It would have kept Gamma’s confidence, prevented escalation of the conflict between Gamma and Alpha and extricated me from the situation. However, lying violates my rules of integrity as a consultant and, if Alpha ultimately found out that I had withheld the information from her, she would have terminated me and my reputation would have been ruined.
2. I could have thrown Gamma under the bus, telling Alpha that Gamma and Charlie had in fact discussed him working for Gamma, which I had learned the night before. This would have strengthened my position with Alpha, but I also had been told this by Gamma in confidentiality (even if it was a poor decision on his part to involve me). This would have caused Gamma a potential legal problem and jeopardized my long-term position with Alpha, and maybe even with Beta, because I could be called as a witness in litigation between Alpha and Gamma.
Unhappy with these two choices, I reached out to three experts who could offer valuable perspectives on the situation: a corporate CEO, an employment consultant and a rabbi.
"You’ve been involuntarily put into the middle of an internal dispute between your clients. The parties involved inappropriately shared information that put you into a no-win situation. I believe your only option is to politely remove yourself from the dispute without making further comment. In this case it's not about what you say; it's all about what you don't say." -- Ben Walker, CEO, Transcription Outsourcing
“Tell Gamma to pick up the phone and do the right thing. Call Alpha and explain that while Gamma knows that there are issues with the two companies, that they have a common goal: to keep a valuable employee in house. He would like to offer Charlie a position with Gamma and that otherwise, Charlie will look elsewhere. If he accepts the position at Gamma he will work with Alpha to ensure a smooth transition and help Alpha find a replacement either by covering the cost of a search firm or helping them with recruiting support.” - Jennifer L’Estrange, Director and Managing Member of Allium Consulting Group, LLC
“Gamma should be told what Alpha has asked and should be given the choice to either have an honest conversation with Alpha himself or release you from the obligation to keep it quiet. The reason is that when you agreed to the secrecy there was no direct downside to you or others but the facts on the ground have shifted and had you known that they would you never would have agreed to keep it quiet in the first place. As such, it's morally appropriate for Gamma to release you from the agreement.” -Rabbi Adam Jacobs, The Aish Center • NYC
I used all three pieces of advice. I began by delaying my response to Alpha because there was a chance the situation would change or Alpha would investigate on her own. In the meanwhile, I set up a time to speak to Gamma in person, during which I informed him of what Alpha had asked me, reminded him that the companies share a common goal, suggested that he help Alpha replace Charlie and asked him to release me from obligation of secrecy as the situation had changed from a discussion to an actual job offer.
Here are the six steps I used to effectively manage this ethical dilemma and can help you handle one, as well:
1. Never Lie. It’s immoral and could cause a bigger problem for you than the original situation.
2. Don’t respond more quickly than you need to. Sometimes things work out without any input form you or the facts on the ground can change.
3. Understand your legal, ethical and moral responsibilities and adhere to all agreements you have made.
4. Reach out to outside experts that can provide you with ideas, advice, and insight.
5. Devise a strategy based on facts, logic, and sound advice.
6. Prepare in advance how and what you are going to communicate and act with confidence.
“Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do.” - Potter Stewart