BBC Capital

Work Ethic

Help out a fellow career woman — or not?

About the author

Chana is a journalist based in New York City, writing about business, finance, and workplace life. She has written for The Wall Street Journal and spent more than a decade at Forbes, including three years as a Tokyo-based foreign correspondent.

(Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty Images)

(Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty Images)

Q. A female applicant to a position in my organisation asked me about how she should negotiate maternity leave as part of her hiring package. We have a very stingy policy on leave here, and women have to negotiate packages individually. I gave her advice, but what are my ethical obligations, to her as a fellow female professional and to my employer?

Your dilemma has two horns: your employer demands loyalty, but you want to help another working woman. The question is whether you can act ethically toward both. Complicating that question is your personal view about how “stingy” the maternity policy is. In the United States, unlike in many European countries, Canada, and parts of Asia, paid maternity leave is not an automatic benefit guaranteed by the government. Unpaid leave is only mandated for a limited period with certain work hour and company size qualifications.

It's understandable that you feel such divided loyalties, said Gretchen Zetoony, a licensed clinical social worker in Arlington, Virginia, in the US. “On one hand, you want to be careful not to provide information that might disadvantage your employer in a negotiation; on the other hand, it's natural to feel sympathetic toward someone in a similar situation, particularly if you perceive the company's policy as unfair,” she said.

Before you give advice on negotiating a better maternity-leave package, remember to be careful what you say. If you are nervous that your employer could learn you had advised her, “that should be a guide for you that you may be straying into questionable territory,” Zetoony said.

A related issue: what happens if your colleagues discover that this applicant was the beneficiary of special advice simply because you identify with her as a woman. That may not be formal discrimination — you did not decide to hire her, and presumably she will not be reporting to you — but it might create a bad feeling among colleagues who are not working mothers and who didn’t join your organisation armed with insider tips.

“In this case, the risk isn't so much about betraying your employer or your fellow women as possibly creating conflict in the workplace if colleagues perceive that you helped an applicant gain an advantage because you share some personal characteristics,” Zetoony said.

If that happens, and you find that your colleagues are whispering about you, or openly complaining, address the situation with a calm sit-down. Explain that you felt you had to help this woman navigate her way through the organisation’s human-resources maze, and that you would do the same for anyone who asked you for advice.

It’s possible that your boss might ask why you’re helping an applicant negotiate against the company where you work. In that case, stress that you remain loyal to the company, and that you felt you were being welcoming to a future colleague by helping her learn the lay of the land.

There might be a better way to help women negotiate maternity leave than counselling them one by one. Consider getting together with colleagues who also care about this issue — women and men — to advocate for better family leave policies within your organisation, Zetoony suggests. The more employees who join you, the more likely management are to listen.

In many countries, paid maternity leave is a matter of law, and there would be little for a job applicant to negotiate. But there could be other components of an employment offer where you will face such a dilemma. If you feel your interests are being unfairly ignored, it may be worth banding together with others who feel the same way so you can argue your case as a bloc.

What do you think? Should this woman have offered help to a female applicant? Are there other considerations? Share your thoughts on our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

Work Ethic is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the ethical and interpersonal dilemmas that workers face around the world. We welcome knotty questions from readers at workethic@bbc.com.