June 25th, 2013

Whistle-Blowers and Morality in the Workplace

We're all governed by different sets of morals in life. But what happens when personal morals and beliefs interfere with obligations in the workplace? For a lawyer, it's a common occurrence. It happened to me recently when my boss walked into my office and asked if I wanted to work on a big case with an attorney handling product liability lawsuits. First, this is not my area of expertise. I'm a trademark lawyer, working to clear and protect major brands throughout the world. Second, the client is a large car manufacturer being sued for faulty equipment which resulted in death or serious injury for others. My role in the case would be negotiating settlements to compensate people for brain damage or serious injury. In some situations, I would be negotiating with family members of the deceased to settle lawsuits against the car manufacturer. How can you place a monetary value on the ability to think, or on the loss of a loved one? I don't wish to be put in this position, so I declined the offer to work on the case. As a result, I lost a big financial bonus. The other attorney wasn't pleased with my decision and made it known to my boss.

The issue also frequently arises for defense attorneys, but these people are usually a unique breed. People who really believe in the justice system and the founding principle that everyone deserves a trial. Some of my friends work on the defense side, representing people they know are guilty of assault, physical abuse, major drug crimes or even murder. Where such people draw the line is unclear to me. What if your client admitted he or she is a child molester? Could you still represent them, try to find some loophole in the prosecutor's case, and save them from a conviction? For me the answer to all of these scenarios is NO.

I'm certain people in other professions face similar dilemmas. How about ad agencies? What if you were asked to advertise a harmful drug or target alcohol or cigarette ads to poor people or minors? Or work on an ad campaign for the KKK or some other extremist group to which you are opposed? One of my friends always tells me to push personal beliefs and morals aside and just "do the fucking job."

Of course the most extreme examples are the whistle-blowers, people who betray their executive, clearance and intelligence obligations to out what they believe are government or corporate wrongs. In general, I fully support these people. But this Snowden character, currently hiding out in Moscow, is distinguishable. He admitted he took the defense contractor job with the sole purpose of leaking classified information. Honestly I don't know what to think of him. I will say only that I don't really care if the U.S. government is monitoring my calls or emails if it prevents homegrown and international extremists from launching attacks. I don't know how Russian press is treating this, but it's a real international saga in the U.S. media. The burning question is how long will Putin shelter Snowden?

What do you think? Do we have a right to let moral or personal beliefs interfere with the job we're being paid to do? If it means the difference between a paycheck and unemployment, the moral line I've drawn may certainly be blurred but I doubt it will ever be fully erased.