I work for a company that required everyone to come back to the office the second week of November. I thought it was too early, and was proven right by Omicron. The company is a traditional, conservative kind of place, and the CEO lost patience with the whole remote thing. I was happy to come back to the office because I was tired of not seeing people in person. We are a government contractor so we all had to comply with the federal vaccine mandate. I didn’t care—I was first in line to get my first vaccine, and then again when the booster became available. We all had to submit pictures of our vaccine cards.
I recently overheard a conversation I shouldn’t have heard, and now I have an ethical dilemma. I heard someone I know tell a friend that she got a fake vaccine card and hasn’t been vaccinated. They were laughing about it and ridiculing our HR department, which has worked really hard to manage our return to the office. (I only know because I have a friend in HR.) It makes me so mad that people think it is OK to play fast and loose with other people’s health and safety.
I am really torn about what to do. I haven’t said anything or tried to get advice from anyone I know. This is a company town where everyone knows everyone, and it could blow up in my face.
I am losing sleep over this. What do you think?
Blow the Whistle?
Dear Blow the Whistle,
Well, this is a bracing question! And such a perfect representation of these very weird times.
Let me start by clarifying that I am no expert on ethics. I read a regular column on ethics and am constantly learning and reminded of my lack of expertise. I am also forced to examine my own unconscious biases and how my politics might sway my response. (Note: Anyone who wants to see an incredibly cool compilation of unconscious biases, click here). Unfortunately, this issue has become so political and divisive that it is breaking up families. I might lose a little sleep myself over this one.
Because I tend to think in the context of organizations, my first thought was that if you are a manager, especially the person’s (shall we call her Vax Card Faker? VCF for short?) manager, you would be obligated to confront VCF and escalate to HR because managers are de facto agent of the organization and owe a duty of responsibility as such. But it doesn’t sound like this is the case in your letter. It sounds like VCF is a peer, not even a close co-worker.
Because this felt so far over my head, I consulted our CHRO, Kristin Brookins Costello, who has impeccable integrity and is brilliant. She said:
“Everyone in the workplace shares responsibility to keep each other safe. Companies can and should look at the cards to ensure that they appear to be valid. That being said, there is no incredibly effective way to ensure card validity beyond the eyeball test, and there can be no expectation that the company can or should confirm the validity of every card. In the end, this is where trust and corporate citizenship come into play. It’s a team effort to keep the workplace safe.”
I also googled a little and stumbled over this very interesting article: How Can Employers Recognize Fake Vaccine Cards? It gave me the distinct impression that it is really up to the authorities in the organization to monitor authenticity of vaccination cards if they feel strongly about it. I know plenty of people who work in companies that are not at all committed to the enforcement of mandates. Of course, when people got their initial vaccine and were given a flimsy, hastily created card, who ever thought it would become a legal document?
Ultimately, though, I keep coming back to your description of the conversation as one that you “shouldn’t have overheard.” That leaves me to wonder if you could have made more of an effort to make your presence known. But then, I recall a moment long ago in a ladies’ room when I was in a stall minding my own business only to overhear participants in my training session (I was the facilitator) rake me over the coals. Once I realized what and who they were talking about, I couldn’t for the life of me think of any benefit to drawing attention to my presence. So I can understand how this can happen. Still, it was an accident that you overheard something potentially compromising.
Deciding to be a whistle blower is a huge, sometimes life-altering, decision. Most people who do blow a whistle on bad behavior wish they could do it anonymously. But it is almost impossible to avoid consequences of standing up for what you think is right. You must weigh the worst-case scenario of escalating what you heard. The last thing you want is a reputation for lurking around, listening to conversations you weren’t invited into, and then tattling. In my Googling, I found some research on what motivates people who report lying: Nobody likes a rat: On the willingness to report lies and the consequences thereof. Fascinating stuff, really, and far too involved to dissect here. But it does raise the questions about your motivation.
Even if you could report the violation anonymously in a way that would never blow back on you, here are some questions to ask yourself:
- What would your intentions and motivations be to report what you heard? Is it your anger at someone who feels differently than you do about how our government is handling the pandemic? Is it your sense of protectiveness for your pal in HR?
- Does the part of you that feels morally superior (and let me be clear, I am not judging you on this) want to see VCF punished? Are you 100% certain that one unvaccinated person will truly put everyone at risk? (Lately, it seems to me that everyone in California is getting COVID regardless of vaccination status!)
- What consequence do you expect might be imposed on VCF? What if she were fired and that caused any number of hardships that you can’t anticipate? Would her family suffer? Would her team be left shorthanded in the middle of a talent shortage? Would that make you feel good?
Whatever opinion you might have about the approximately 38% of unvaccinated people in the US, it is really not up to you to impose your viewpoint on others. If your organization were to directly ask all employees to report on scofflaws, it might be one thing, but no one has appointed you to be a compliance officer.
I keep coming back to tried-and-true principles that have stood the test of time:
- Judge not lest ye be judged.
- Mind your own business.
- Keep your own counsel.
- Don’t gossip.
- Nobody likes a tattletale.
If you were to follow these principles, you might decide to confront the speaker you overheard. Tell her you accidentally heard what she said, that you are going to keep your mouth shut, but that you have concerns. Even as I write this, it seems like a terrible idea. Why would anyone want to step into that bear trap? But it is an option, and at least it’s direct. I ran your question by several people and a couple of them said this is what they would do.
You have followed the rules and have done what you think is best. VCF is not following rules she doesn’t agree with. But who is to say who is in the right? Certainly not me. I would submit that it is the 100% conviction of being right that is causing strife, not just in the US but all over the globe. And I think you actually know this, or you wouldn’t be so torn.
So, here we are. I can’t tell you what to do. I am not at all sure what I would do.
I know two things for sure:
- It is a good idea to hum or whistle as you go about your merry way so that you never accidentally overhear anything you shouldn’t, ever again. After my horrifying experience in the bathroom, I always clear my throat or shuffle my feet when people might think they are alone.
- Every little thing a person does gives you one data point about their character and trustworthiness. Now you know a lot more about VCF than you ever wanted to, and if you ever must work closely with her, well, you know what to watch out for. Remember it is just one data point. No one is all good or all bad. We are all just muddling along trying to figure it out as we go.
I hope this helps.
I hope this will all be over soon.
I hope no one around you, or you, God forbid, gets desperately ill.
I hope we can all give each other a little more grace.
Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.
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