I am a bookkeeper in a real estate office where the broker has had a problem with alcohol that has been getting worse during the five years I’ve worked for him. Young men and women planning to start their careers here invest time, energy, and money in getting their real estate licenses, only to discover that they did not make the wisest choice. What should I do when someone asks about coming to work in our office? Am I obligated to tell the truth and say “If I were you I’d run for my life”? Is it my obligation to protect my employer’s business or is it my responsibility to try to warn these young agents? My head tells me to go with my employer, my heart with the young agents.
I have a friend with a similar problem. She is office manager for an electrical contractor struggling to stay in business, who makes low bids on jobs he cannot do properly for his price, then cheats to make a profit. That sometimes means bribing an inspector to approve work that violates the code. The cheating on larger jobs can run into thousands of dollars. My friend manages to avoid lying to people by listening to their complaints, noting them, and referring them to her employer. But she wonders whether she should say something to customers who are being cheated that would help them get what they paid for without having to pay more than they originally agreed.
These problems are not easy for us. I am a widow and my friend is single. We must support ourselves, and so we do not feel we can simply quit and start looking for better jobs. Anyway, we might face very similar problems with other employers.
This question calls for application of the norms regarding admonishing apparent sinners and lying; with respect to the friend, there also is a question about cooperating in fraud. Though the broker may be failing to fulfill some of his responsibilities, the questioner is not cooperating in his wrongdoing. The electrical contractor is defrauding customers, and the questioner’s friend is cooperating at least materially. Both employees should admonish their employers. If the ques~tioner’s employer is alcoholic, she probably should make additional efforts to motivate him to acknowledge and deal with his problem. Meanwhile, if potential employees ask questions, she may not lie, but she need not advise anyone against accepting employment. Applying the criteria for evaluating material cooperation, the questioner’s friend may not continue cooperating with her employer’s fraud.
While your problem and your friend’s are similar in some respects, they also differ in ways that are, morally speaking, crucial. Your employer’s alcohol problem may prevent him from fulfilling some of his responsibilities to young agents and other people, and that may more or less seriously inconvenience or harm those concerned. But he is not committing fraud as your friend’s employer is, assuming you describe the situation accurately. Moreover, while as bookkeeper you need not be directly involved in the relationship between your employer and the young agents and others, your friend, as office manager, becomes directly involved in the relationship between her employer and his defrauded customers when she handles their complaints.
Still, you and your friend have one common responsibility: to admonish these apparent sinners (see LCL, 227–32). You should talk with your employers about the problems you perceive. For both seem to be sinning in different ways, with consequent harm to others, themselves, and their businesses. The broker’s alcohol abuse not only hurts the young agents and perhaps others with whom he does business but is self-destructive, while the contractor’s cheating injures customers, risks criminal prosecution, undermines his self-respect as a skilled project manager, and will destroy his reputation, without which his business can hardly do well in the long run. Each of you therefore should talk matters over with your employer at a time when he is likely to be receptive and the conversation will not be overheard or interrupted. The advice should be to face up to the misbehavior and rectify it—which, in your friend’s case, would require ending the fraud and making restitution to all those who have been cheated. Both of you should avoid being or sounding self-righteous, reproachful, or threatening; your tone should be concerned, realistic about the problem, and constructive, pointing hopefully toward the prospective benefits of following your advice—benefits for your employers, their businesses, and the people they deal with.
What if you admonish, or already have admonished, your employer about his alcohol abuse without effect? You say he has “a problem with alcohol,” but that can describe a broad spectrum of behavior. Since you still are and, apparently, expect to be employed in this broker’s office, his problem plainly is not so incapacitating that he no longer functions at all. Have you perhaps misjudged the seriousness of his problem so that you now are exaggerating it? If that is a possibility, you should learn more about alcoholism. If it is already clear to you, or becomes clear from further investigation, that your employer really is an alcoholic who needs help, it may be that you should confidentially communicate that conclusion, along with your concrete reasons for it, to his family and/or others closer to him than you are. Then they, or they and you acting in concert, might effectively confront him about his problem and motivate him to get the help he needs.
Whatever the broker’s drinking problem may be—genuine alcoholism or something else—you have some responsibility as an associate to try to help him and as an employee to protect the business. You will be acting on those responsibilities by doing what you can and should do to help him acknowledge and deal appropriately with the problem.
Meanwhile, when someone asks about coming to work there, you certainly should not lie to them, for example, by saying: “There is no reason to be concerned,” when you believe there is. It is not clear, however, that you would be telling the truth if you said, “If I were you I’d run for my life,” since you have not done that yourself. Like you, at least some of the young agents might have adequate reasons to accept work with this broker, even if they foresaw problems, since they may have no better opportunity, at least until they get some experience. Therefore, respond to their worries honestly, but with the reserve of a loyal employee, saying something like: “It’s not my place to advise you about coming to work here; you need to evaluate the significance of whatever has aroused your concern and make your own decision.” That would reveal little, but it would be genuinely helpful, since it would implicitly acknowledge that there are grounds for reservations about coming to work in this office, while suggesting that these need not necessarily be considered conclusive.
Morally speaking, your friend’s situation is far more perilous than yours. She is closely involved in her employer’s fraud and may be tempted to further it. If she chooses not to do something she should do to expose it, she incurs some moral responsibility for it; if she chooses to do anything to prevent its detection while nothing is being done to end it, she intends that it succeed and shares in her employer’s bad will. Even if she does nothing to further the fraud, not doing what she can to put an end to it is, in my judgment, unfair to the victims. When inspectors must be bribed to pass defective electrical work, not only property but people are endangered. Then too, the fraudulent practices almost certainly violate the law, and she might even be charged as an accomplice. And while it is true that she is likely to encounter some moral problems no matter where she works, it is not true that every business involves its office manager in fraudulent practices. Therefore, if your friend fails to persuade her employer to stop defrauding customers and to begin making restitution to everyone he has cheated, she should promptly discuss his activities with the police and/or other relevant authorities—such as a licensing body or consumer affairs department—in hopes of putting a stop to his fraud, and, whether that effort succeeds or not, should get a job elsewhere. That might have bad consequences for her, but the alternative—complicity in serious injustice—is likely to have worse consequences: “Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God?” (1 Cor 6.9).