There’s a right answer here — and you’re not going to like it.
Q: I have to let several staff members go. I feel awful about it, but it is part of a company-wide redundancy plan. I am not supposed to reveal these layoffs for another few weeks. But I know one person I must let go is about to go under contract for a new home before then. What is my obligation to tell this person, before he risks losing thousands in a contract he might not be able to complete once he loses his job?
A: You are caught between your obligations to the firm and your desire to be a compassionate human being. There’s a right answer here — and you’re not going to like it.
There are two key stakeholders here: The company, to which you are contractually bound, and the employee, who assumes he will have a job into the future and has committed himself financially to a new house.
“Both stakeholders may get harmed here, however, when you signed your employment contract, you agreed in exchange for payment to represent the firm’s interests,” said Michael Mumford, who directs the Center for Applied Social Research at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Oklahoma, in the US.
You can’t tell the employee that he’s about to lose his job. If you do, you could put the firm in jeopardy. That has to be your main concern, says Mumford, a professor of industrial and organisational psychology.
Is there an ethical way, if your obligations are solely to the firm, to protect this staffer? Not really, said Mumford: “In all ethical problems there are winners and losers.” Your responsibility is to all the stakeholders here as a group, so you cannot blab about the job losses before you’re permitted to reveal the secret because your actions could hurt others.
“The only way out here is to ask lots of questions, indirectly, about the financial investment per se without saying anything about future employment,” Mumford said.
Unfortunately, you will look like the bad guy when your acquaintance learns his job is gone and realises you knew the whole time. Knowing that you did the right thing and abided by your ethical obligations to the firm may make you feel better — and it should — but it probably won’t stop this employee from blaming you.
After the announcement, you may want to try smoothing things over. If you get a chance, try asking the person out for a coffee and explain that you feel terrible about what happened but you didn’t have a choice: “I’m so sorry I couldn’t tell you about this earlier, but I had an obligation to the company and I wasn’t allowed to share the news.” That will at least shift some of the blame from you back onto the company.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.