Pink-slip From the Uh, Artie? inbox:

Uh, Artie?

The company I work for is going through layoffs. It's miserable. Families, livelihoods, and momentum all affected in very unpleasant ways. Making matters worse, management here is really botching it. There's been no strategy around who's getting cut, no succession planning, and zero communication. It'd be laughable, if it weren't so sad…They're relying on the water cooler to handle circulation of the news. A guy was given his walking papers as he was getting into his car to go home last night. And another was fired, then re-hired after a key customer threatened to walk.

Morale, needless to say, is in the crapper. This includes me.

One sliver lining is that, at least verbally, management here is saying that they won't be enforcing the non-compete agreements that we all signed when coming on board.

The boss has shared plans with me (and others, I've learned) about the fate of more colleagues who will be pink-slipped soon, so I know at least some who are not going to have a job next month.

One of these people, a fellow I am friendly with and whom I respect for his professionalism and quality of work, contacted me yesterday and asked, rather bluntly, if he was getting cut.

Here is where my ethical question begins.
What I told him is this:

These are tough times and we should all be concerned for the security of our jobs right now — especially those of us with no work in the pipeline. As far as what I know regarding specific plans, it turns out that some of the information management has shared with me has turned out to be false, and therefore all information I'm privy to has become suspect. Still, it would behoove those of us who are still here to extract as much value out of our current projects as possible while lining up more billable work to begin ASAP.

He's a smart guy and I think (maybe) he read between the lines. But I felt like I was…what's the term for lying by not being entirely forthcoming? I felt like that: a little sleazy.

What I wanted to tell him is this:

Pal, I am sorry to be the one to give you this news, but you asked me a question and I'm going to give you an honest answer. And if you can be better prepared for what's ahead by knowing this, I want to play a role in helping you. The plan is for you to get the axe as soon as you roll off this project. Start your networking now if you haven't already and get your resume in order. When they give you the news, confirm that this is a cost-cutting maneuver and that it's not performance-related.

Ask for a letter of recommendation. They'll agree. Write it yourself. Make sure it has three things in there: 1) a glowing paragraph about your performance; 2) The reason for your being let go (hard times); and 3) a line releasing you from your previous non-competition agreements. Present it to them quickly and on company letterhead. Get them to sign a few copies. Then include every client you've done work for in your job search and sell yourself — either as a hired gun or as an FTE.

Finally, let me know how I can help.

I still want to tell him this.
I can't ignore the competing factors of conscience, bitterness, and advocacy that are making this a difficult choice. But I'm torn between ethical, moral, and professional obligations. And I'm likely to be approached by others with the same question this guy asked me.

Uh, Artie? How can I balance these obligations and still sleep at night?

Many thanks in advance for your perspective. Best regards,

— "Steve"

P.S.: Not sure how broad of an audience this material might apply to, but you should feel welcome to use whatever of this you like for Net Cotton Content.

Dear "Steve."

One of the things I have least liked about being in the employer-employee relationship is when one makes a liar out of the other. It might not explicitly be lying, as you point out, but when someone tells me a secret and I have to walk around with it for more than two minutes, I feel like a liar.

Especially in this economy, I don't like burdening anyone with secrets.

But you asked what you should do.
Beats me. Still, here's a stab at the challenge.

I like that you want to help this fellow, this pal. And I think the message you can deliver is a combination of the first message's propriety and the second message's set of instructions.

So you might go ahead and say everything you still want to say in the second message, but I'd recommend one substitution. Rather than "The plan is for you to get the axe as soon as you roll off this project," I'd recommend "All of us have to be prepared to get the axe as soon as we roll off each project." Then change the next "when" to "if" and add a few more "if"'s and you are in good shape.

This substitution isn't driven by some ethical obligation not to spill the beans so much as it's driven by a uncertainty of the beans themselves. Your company has every plan to fire certain people, then unfires them. The bean counters seem to have the beans in their ears. Based on your description of what your company calls management, there is a possibility that you will get the axe and Pal will soon sit at your desk.

Three maxims:

In a blind man's shooting range, it pays for everyone to keep their heads down and know where the doors are.

And we really start telling the unvarnished truth when we call each other "Pal."

Anyone who struggles with ethics is probably a fairly ethical person. (The most unethical folks give no thought to the subject.)

Good luck. Remember, Pal, you'll always have an (unpaid) job here at Net Cotton Content.

— Artie

P.S.: Any readers have anything to add for "Steve"?