Professor Robert Henry Srour from the University of São Paulo (USP), who I respectfully admire as one of the greatest and best thinkers on ethics in Brazil, describes in his magnificent work “Ética Empresarial” an interesting scene from the movie The Devil's Own, 1997.
“In one of the scenes from the movie The Devil's Own, directed by Alan J. Pakula, a young car radio thief is caught red handed by a pair of New York police officers. The young man takes a gun from the car's glove compartment and leaves in a rush after carelessly shooting at one of the police officers. The second policeman, on his tail, tells him to get rid of his gun or else, they would have to injure him. The young man complies. As this policeman collects the weapon, the first policeman catches up with the fugitive, shoots and kills him with three shots to the back.
– What happened?, asks the second policeman.
– He was getting away, answers the first.
Only, they were at a dead end. Realizing the predicament, the first policeman amends:
– He turned around with a gun in the hand...
But the second policeman presents him with the collected gun. Then comes the real reason: – He shot at us, Tommy! He shot at us. Then he takes the gun from his partner's hands and lays it beside the body. In his conception, the partner should back him up and that’s it.
Later, the second officer testified at the police station. Was he to cover up or incriminate his partner? Which is more important: loyalty to justice, to the rules, to a uniform, or loyalty to a colleague?
The police incident presented in the movie serves as an analogy to numerous situations that happen in the corporate environment, when, due to a friendship bond, a professional ends up omitting or covering up a co-worker’s illicit or inappropriate conduct. And this is much more common than you would think...
Nevertheless, the question posed above deserves further reflection, that is, which is more important: loyalty to justice, to the rules, to a uniform, or loyalty to a colleague, regardless of their conduct and the outcomes resulting therefrom? Therefore, we may be talking about fraud, bullying, theft, violation of a policy or procedure, or any other misconduct by a co-worker.
Should friendship be above all? To err is human, and to forgive is divine? An infinite number of digressions, as well as the level of friendship between the parties are some of the elements that contribute to the complexity in answering such a question.
If we assess the issue through the prism of the ethics of conviction and the ethics of responsibility, which respectively support the deontological and consequentialist theories, to omit or cover up a co-worker’s illicit or inappropriate conduct under the argument of friendship is not a supported path. The correct course of action would be to correct the mistake, starting by making a complaint. Furthermore, the duty to defend the business that pays your salary should prevail. These are the two justifications according to the theories mentioned above.
What about forgiving a co-worker’s conduct? Certainly, when considering forgiveness, one aspect of paramount importance deserves pondering: motivation. Important differentials in making a decision are intention and guilt. In the police officers case, the officer who deliberately shot the thief did so voluntarily, willingly, intentionally, that is, with intent.
However, still on the same incident, if the policeman, after the thief had gotten rid of the gun, had stumbled with the gun in his hand, making it go off and fatally hit the thief, such fact could greatly complicate his colleague's decision-making process on whether to cover up the officer's inappropriate act or not.
Similarly, the corporate environment can put you through this dilemma: to tell the truth and reveal the inappropriate behavior of a colleague or to omit, since they did not intend to provoke the result, which ended up happening due to imprudence, negligence or malpractice.
Even if the colleague had no intention of causing the result of their inappropriate conduct, the correct course of action is to give the company a chance to correct the mistake. And in this case, if there was no deceit and there is friendship between the parties, the correct thing would be to have a frank conversation, giving the one who acted inappropriately a chance to reveal the problem, admit their mistake and, thus, corroborate their character and integrity before the company.