Case Study: Office Gossip. Do You Act on Rumor or Respect Privacy?
“Office Gossip. Do you act on rumor or respect privacy? ” It was easy for me to make a choice in between the two cases. Gossip is much more palpitating for me, especially gossip about somebody’s private life. It is maybe due to my female nature or maybe due to different attitude towards this matter in my ex Soviet Union culture. After reading the case I felt myself completely in the same shoes with a manager. I respect his hesitation and the “softness” of his leadership style. I know I would feel the same way: totally confused.
The particularly relevant details of the case, in my opinion, are pretty simple and, from the first glance, are quite obvious: rumors about one of the key salesperson’s love affair with a client, this person’s feelings and right to privacy together with her right to happiness, and other team members’ attitude towards this issue. I am not sure that the fact that there is no proof for the affair is relevant. There is no smoke without fire. The whole mess and noise around the matter reminds me a lot how this kind of issues were handled in the Soviet Union.
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People felt obliged to report about immoral behavior to the Communist Party Committee. Than it was a team meeting called to revile publicly “the victim” for such a “bad behavior”. I never believed that this kind of public “execution” had anything to do with intent of improving human nature. Was the intention of it to support the morale or to limit our privacy? I think it just was giving the participants a sense of rightness and satisfying their desire to touch somebody else’s “covert” life. Human nature can’t be changed.
There are always moments of weakness and temptation out there as well as reasons justifying our actions in eyes of ourselves and people capable to forgive. But on the other hand, the quantity of divorces sharply increased since unfaithfulness stopped being publicly rebuked. It is not as easy to uncover the real conflict here because there are a lot of different issues involved and all of them are so bundled. The first thing that popped up was how much the company we work for owns us: our urine/blood sample, our emotional life? Does our private life have a real impact on company’s reputation or it is just a form of sanctimony?
Do we have to sacrifice our right to be happy in order to be a decent person in eyes of our colleagues, children, and religion? Do we have to follow our own desires or we have to comply with public expectations? The manager is happened to be in the line of fire. He is attacked by “a victim”, by his boss, and by the hostile resentment of the rest of the team. He raises the same question after each conversation with “the troublemaker”: why she haven’t ever denied or confirmed the rumor’s truthfulness. Does he feel that if she denies he will be relieved? Or if she confirms he will be granted to exercise judgment?
Who has a right to judge? Everything and everybody seem to be affected by Lilly’s conduct: first of all Lilly herself, company as a whole, and its management, colleagues, her family, even religion views, church in particular. Is it true that your right for happiness is over when it crosses the line behind which the happiness of others you committed to is called into question? “(Do) you become responsible forever, for what you have tamed? ” Are team’s intransigence and resentment justifiable? Was ethical principal – the do no harm – broken? What are the intentions of the team?
Why all of them want to punish her so bad? Doesn’t it smell like fire for the witch is getting ready? From the consequentilist’s point of view “consequences of one’s conduct are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness of that conduct. Thus, a morally right act (or omission) is one that will produce a good outcome or consequence”. What are the possible outcomes from this situation? Lilly can lose her job, and so does her boss. Lilly’s family will break up. Company can lose its client and blemish its reputation. Here we encounter another question – consequences for whom?
Because if we look at the issue from the different side, we would be able to see that Lilly may become happier, thus healthier, more inspired and creative as a result of this affair. May be her family life came to a dead end, and new relationship is a new opportunity. May be her family members, especially children, will benefit from her good mood. Or, maybe, she is tormented with ultimate remorse. What is Lilly’s love affair really for her colleagues? Does it cause disgust, shame, and embarrassment because they are without any blot on their character?
Do we judge her actions from ethical altruist or ethical egoist point of view? Thus, the consequences are going to be seen differently. “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think… ” “Finally, consequentialism is criticized on the ground that it gives little or no guidance to persons’ practical reasoning. Speaking of reasoning, why has Lilly decided to get involved with another man? There is always a reason. In the relationship of two they are both and equally responsible for what is happening to their partnership. Her husband for sure has something to do with it. Do we have a right to know? Is it relevant? “For deontologists, what makes a choice right is its conformity with a moral norm. Such norms are to be simply obeyed by each moral agent; such norm-keepings are not to be maximized by each agent. In this sense, for deontologists, the Right has priority over the Good. Does woman have an obligation to be faithful? Does she have a right to privacy? Does her team have a right to free expression? Is her professional success relevant? Will it be the same trouble if instead of “Lilly” was “George”? How all these obligations and rights can be exercised at the same time without a conflict? It looks like mission is impossible. “Virtue ethics insists that it is the character rather than the consequences of actions that should be the focal point. Some virtue ethicists hold that consequentialist theories totally disregard the development and importance of moral character. According to Aristotle, the most prominent exponent of “eudemonia” (happiness, wellbeing) is the proper goal of human life. It consists of exercising the character’s human qualities as “the soul’s most proper and nourishing activity. ” For the virtue theorist, happiness “describes that state achieved by the person who lives the proper human life, an outcome that can be reached by practicing the virtues. A virtue is a habit or quality that allows the bearer to succeed at his, her, or its purpose.
Thus to identify the virtues for human beings, one must have an account of what the human purpose is. ” Who is Lilly? What kind of person she is? What is her purpose? Why is she unhappy with her family life? Is she? Does she have to bear with lack of something important in her life and continue to be a good wife for the sake of her children, for her husband, for the company (even sounds funny), for her colleagues? The difference between these three theories tends to lie more in the way moral dilemmas are approached than in the way that moral conclusions reached.
For example, a consequentialist may argue that having a love affair is wrong because of the negative consequences produced by it —though a consequentialist may allow that certain foreseeable consequences might make love affair acceptable. A deontologist might argue that to be unfaithful is always wrong, regardless of any potential “good” that might come from it. A virtue ethicist, however, would focus less on affair itself in any particular instance and instead consider what a decision to get involved with another man or not said about one’s character and moral behavior. As such, decision would be made in a case-by-case basis that would be based on factors such as personal benefit, group benefit, and intentions (as to whether they are benevolent or malevolent). ” Manager’s frustration and unwillingness to act in this situation is totally understandable for me and unbelievably close because I am myself by nature a conflict avoider. I had to fight this weakness or balance it in order to be successful in bringing up my daughter, finding my space in the marriage, feel comfortable at the work place.
At some point you have to stand up for your interest or the interest of your company. And this case is exactly the case you can’t leave without attention as so many parties involved. Through the prism of my inner harmony as the most important value, I would start my actions (means conversations) earlier, before the conflict has got out of hand. I would try to make Lilly talk to me, listen to her reasoning, explain her possible consequences giving her a particular time frame to get back to me with her own decision regarding the situation she created, if she did at all.
I would talk to the employees to let off steam, to get their vision of the issue, but I would be crystal clear that the harassment (and I consider it is exact name for what is happening) must stop until somebody get fired. I would express my understanding of their feelings and my attitude towards trespassing against the principals of Fidelity, Honesty, and Do No Harm. I think, employees trespassing some of the principals as well by spreading rumors, blemishing company’s reputation, and coming after their colleague. I would give the situation some time to see how it is going to develop.
May be it is a good time to consult company’s lawyers and independent ethics consultant … I certainly feel that Lilly lost her Right to Privacy at the moment the information about her affair has become public. I think that her temporary suspension (for two weeks or month) without payment can be a solution to let her decide what is more important for her and let the collective sober down. I faced similar situations many times in my life and time is the only judge for people’s actions at the end. How people act when the affair is uncovered? What was their intention from its inception?
All these important for understanding what they really are. My ex-husband is a business owner. His partner (who was also a friend of our family) got involved with their CFO. When she got pregnant, she started to demand his divorce, which obviously was not part of his plan. Two partners here united against this pregnant woman and made her to sign a letter of resignation. Since then I lost my respect to both of these men. Not the affair was disgusting, but the way people handled it. The most challenging aspect of this case for me was that I know that American society is quite puritanical, and so was the Soviet Union.
When we got rid of all that black-and-white morality, I thought we became better, happier, and that we gained freedom. Love affair didn’t become a norm, but is not considered as something outrageous and harmful. I learned to respect people’s privacy and right to happiness their own way. I’ve admitted that I don’t have to understand why people choose one way rather than another to live their lives. We are all different. None of us has right to judge because none of us is fleckless. I think people instead of disgust would better learn