Let’s check in again on Nancy and her colleague Diane, who we last saw in a conversation about the ethics of company holiday parties.
It’s a chilly Thursday evening in Philadelphia, and Nancy is exploring Love Park near City Hall. Seeing Nancy enjoying a mulled wine nearby, she asks if she might join.
“Of course,” Diane answers.
“Great! I have been thinking so much about our conversation at the company holiday party. And I think I’m a better person for it, to be honest. I’ve stopped inviting any colleagues to anything outside of work, and I restrained myself from asking anyone to contribute to my son’s school’s drive to raise money for the arts program. I recognize now that it’s coercive and unethical, and I have you to thank for it. It’s weird because my team doesn’t seem all that grateful, but… oh, wait. Is it ethical for us to be having this conversation? I mean, we’re not at work, so if you feel obligated…?”
Diane smiles wanly. “You really did digest that lesson. I’m happy to see it. And, yes, as soon as you asked if you could join me, there was an ethical issue. But, look, with the echo of the holidays and good cheer all around us, let’s pretend for the moment we’re in a Magical Moral Bubble, just the two of us, and, just for the moment, ethics don’t apply. How’s that?”
Nancy beams a warm smile, her whole body noticeably relaxing. “That’s wonderful. I’m in.” The two clink their glasses of mulled wine, and a quiet moment of comradery passes.
“To be honest, “ Nancy begins, “I’ve been thinking a lot about the implications of our previous discussion. As you know, I studied ethics at Princeton, and I just love these theoretical discussion, even if they don’t really mean anything.”
Diane’s lips forms a smile, if a little forced.
Not noticing, Nancy continues, “Here is the part I’m struggling with. Last time you persuaded me that it is unethical for me, as your superior, or the company, as your employer, to ask or invite you to do anything that is not within the scope of your contract because such invitations carry implicit threats if you don’t. Fair enough. But here’s the tricky part. It seems to me that I’m entitled to my personal choices in my personal life. Your argument, as we just discussed, forced us into this bubble. How can it be right that the fact that we work for the same company, Acme Widgets, means that I can’t invite you over to my table for a drink if I see you out? Surely there is an ethical argument to be made here about limits on how working for the same company can constrain my autonomy. You and I agree that the foundation of ethics is the lack of coercion, so isn’t the company coercing me to avoid your friendship?”
“It might seem that way,” Diane replies, “but no. I agree that individual autonomy is an important, perhaps the important ethical principle. I think we both believe that, everything else equal, people, or companies, cannot restrict what other people may do. (Now, the question of government is another issue, so let’s avoid that for the moment.) The piece that is confusing you is that the invitation constrains my autonomy. Remember our discussion last time. The invitation carries an implicit threat, and the implicit threat diminishes my autonomy because I can’t refuse in the same way that a victim can’t refuse a mugger’s “invitation” to hand over their wallet. So it’s really just a question of your autonomy set against my autonomy. But the key point that’s easy to forget is that you gave part of yours away when you chose to work for Acme Widgets. When we joined the company, we both agreed, as an ethical matter, for the reasons we discussed last time, not to have any non-work social relationships with other people who work at the company.”
Nancy squints her eyes into tiny lines. “Now that can’t be right. Surely if you want to be my friend and you invited me over, well, that doesn’t run into the problem we discussed last time, that an invitation from me is really a threat, in at least some sense, to you.”
“It absolutely does. If we weren’t in this bubble, consider the situation I would be in right now. Suppose you were enjoying this debate and I no longer was. I might well feel as if I couldn’t leave because of the professional consequences because you’re my boss. And that’s a problem. An ethical problem.”
Diane swirls the mulled wine around in her glass, her eyes shifting up and to the side in thought. “So then even if you initiate a friendship outside of work and outside of the office, for me to accept would be unethical? Is that what you’re saying?”
“Of course. To see it even more clearly, consider what would happen if our friendship grew, but I suddenly, say, developed a new friendship that took all my time. You might come to feel rejected and take it out on me professionally, even if you didn’t do so consciously. If there’s anything our friends in psychology have taught us, it’s the power of implicit biases.”
Diane nods slowly. “Ok, I see your point. So I guess any two people at different levels in a company can’t ethically have any social relationship, even if it’s mutually consensual, insofar as one is always going to have some formal power over the other. That seems like a bummer.”
“Oh, it is,” Nancy answers brightly. “But it’s worse than that.”
“Oh yes,” Nancy continues. “You know Sharon, three cubicles down from mine?”
“You know that I do. I have been grooming her for my position so that, well, you know why…” Diane trails off.
“I do indeed. And so does everyone else. And that’s the problem. Suppose that Sharon asked me to, say, go on a nice ski trip for the weekend. Would that be ethical?”
“I don’t see why not. She’s not your boss, at least not yet, so…”
“Not yet,” Nancy interrupts. “But we all know that she probably will be soon. She knows that, and I know that, so…”
“So when she invites you skiing, there’s an implicit threat there too. It’s along the lines of, if you don’t come on the ski trip with me, then I will punish you professionally when I’m your boss.” Diane nods her head sagely. “So really even people at the same level can’t have a social relationship.”
“Exactly. It’s totally unethical because it’s coercive. You can’t have any non-work interaction with co-workers. But even if you don’t agree with that argument, there’s another ethical problem that makes non-work relationships unethical.”
“Yes. Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that tomorrow, everyone decides that the discussions that you and I have had over the last two blog posts are correct, and now everyone has come to believe that friendships among coworkers outside work are totally unethical.”
“Ok. I don’t see where this is going, but ok…”
“Fine,” Diane continues, “Now suppose that on the day after tomorrow I go to your office and tell you that Sharon invited me skiing last week.”
Diane shrugs noncommittally. “I don’t see the problem. You can’t complain about the invitation because when she invited you, last week, we didn’t think that such relationships were a problem. Therefore Sharon’s actions were ethical at the time under the prior standard. That is, people don’t, as a general matter, condemn or punish others for doing something that was more or less fine at the time, or nearly so, but isn’t now. That makes no sense and would be, in fact, unethical. It would be like passing a law that makes something illegal retroactively and punishing someone for doing it.”
Nancy nods approvingly. “Exactly. And doing that is such a big no-no the founders put it in the Constitution. Governments – federal or state – can’t pass so-called ex post facto laws.”
“So we agree,” Diane says. “No one would condemn Sharon for her skiing invitation if it came before the new view of the ethics of such invitations. I mean, nobody of any ethical fiber would condemn someone for breaking a rule that wasn’t in effect when they broke it.”
Nancy looks Diane straight in the eyes. A moment or two passes. Diane’s brow furrows in confusion. “Diane, can you think of a time when someone you know condemned others for breaking rules that weren’t in effect at the time.”
Diane begins to shake her head, then stops. “Are you talking about Robert E. Lee?”
Diane had been a fervent activist for removing any honoring of the general because of his relationship to slavery. “Of course. Or really anyone being reviled for breaking our current moral understanding even if they complied with the ethical rules as they understood them at the time. I’m not saying there isn’t some sort of ethical argument that they should, but I am saying that you don’t know what will be considered unethical in the future. The only way to avoid acting unethically is to restrict yourself to what is in the employment contract. Everything else must be out of bounds. The skiing case is unethical both because Sharon is likely to be my boss, or at least we believe that she might be, and because future norms might make coworker socializing unethical even if it isn’t right now. So, such invitations are completely unethical today.”
Diane takes the last sip of her mulled wine. “So last time you persuaded me that any social interaction between colleagues of different levels was unethical. And today you’re trying to convince me, with some success, that social interactions between colleagues at the same level is unethical. What’s going to happen next time we get together? Are you going to try to convince me that socializing with anyone in the same business is unethical?”
“No, not at all.”
“I’m going to show you that socializing with anyone at all is unethical.”
A moment of silence passes between them. “Nancy, I don’t think I like you.”
“I get that a lot.”