I just finished reading “The Young Professional’s Survival Guide: From Cab Fares to Moral Snares” by C.K. Gunsalus. It is a first-rate book on situational ethics. She writes about how to deal with a situation involving possible wrongdoing — a matter of personal interest to me, but more on that in a minute.
In a paper a student submitted, he claimed that he attended a required event. But attendance records showed otherwise. How to handle that? Gunsalus advises developing what she calls a script, laying out her planned remarks and creating fairness to each party.
In that situation, she drafted an opening along these lines: “I am confused by an apparent conflict between your paper and the attendance records. My duty is to apply the same requirements to all students.”
She then created an opening for the student: “I hope you will be willing to share your reactions with me. Can you help me understand the conflict?” She says this line demonstrates genuine interest in the other person's perspective, does not prejudge the situation and is an open-ended question inviting a response. If there is an innocent explanation, the student now has a chance to provide it.
There is a bonus as well, as Gunsalus writes: The approach “also provides a face-saving out if your initial concerns or conclusions were wrong.” That’s something particularly helpful for lawyers in a supervisory role and those whose clients who may not disclose everything forthrightly.
Back to my personal interest in this topic: I was accused of cheating on a college chemistry exam. In the course, the professor allowed students to resubmit previously graded exams with an explanation on why they believed they deserved higher grades.
The professor called me into his office. Let's just say there was no script. The conversation was short and not so sweet: The exam had been placed under an electronic microscope. It was clear that I had added to my answer. I could confess and take an F on the exam or fight a losing battle and get kicked out of the course (it was a required course, which meant I would be kicked out of school).
I’ll skip the details, but the professor took another look at the exam. The incriminating evidence that he thought was there was not.
I never did learn much about chemistry, but I learned a lot about employment law and life (as I realized much later).
Anyone accusing an employee of misconduct, especially where the allegations pertain to the worker’s honesty, should measure twice and cut once. It is unwise to attempt to sweat a confession out of someone with threats or to display a false concern.
Anyone so accused should remain calm, resisting the temptation to swear and raise his voice. But that is the time to question authority. The straightforward approach is best: "That did not happen. Please re-evaluate the evidence." Also, get an advocate (that's what I did.)
I will leave the last word to Professor Gunsalus, who ends her wonderful book with this: “This is not a test — this is your life. Live it well.”