Comment of the Day: “Ethics Quiz: The Case of the Fake But Accurate Social Security Card”

My ethics conundrum regarding the fake but accurate Social Security card solution—the Dan Rather approach, if you will— continued to garner a wide range of responses. Rick, as usual, has delivered one of the most thoughtful and provocative, and it is a worthy Comment of the Day.

Here is his comment on “Ethics Quiz: The Case of the Fake But Accurate Social Security Card”:

It strikes me that sometimes—not always, but sometimes—ethics is on a continuum. There’s the truly ethical, the not unethical, and the unethical, with many finer distinctions to be made.

I don’t running screaming into the night at the idea of faking a card, under the circumstances. Still, the truly ethical thing to do in this situation is to tell the prospective employer the truth. And the availability of all those other possible means of identification is indeed relevant. Provide one of the non-Social Security card alternatives and whatever other documentation is available. Importantly, if the employer, for whatever reason, is unwilling to accept this legally sufficient documentation, you don’t want to work for this person, no matter how much you need a job.

The details here are different, but I give this kind of advice all the time to students looking for jobs, internships, or grad school admission. If someone in a “hiring” position, either literally or in the sense of admitting you into a competitive program, won’t work with you a little, you really don’t want to be there. Actual examples (in the second and third examples, the dates are made up; their relationships to each other are not):

  • A grad school (in theatre) said they accepted only students with 3.8 GPAs. My student had a 3.798 because she got a B in Calculus IV (not exactly standard theatre major fare!) senior spring when she was also directing one production and costuming designing another.
  • An internship required a complete application packet by February 1. My student submitted her application on time, and had two of the required three reference letters. One of her references (the most relevant one for the position), however, had complications from childbirth and wasn’t out of the hospital until the 3rd.
  • A summer stock company started on May 15 with a company picnic (nothing else, just the picnic). My student graduated the day before (and his parents really expected him to walk), and he needed the 15th as a travel day. He’d be ready to go when the real work started on the 16th.

In all of these examples, my student got a good position… two of them at the place in question, one not. I have, of course, no idea whether the student in question might otherwise have been hired or accepted at the other place. But a colleague at a conference regaled me with horror stories a couple of years later about the horrible experiences of one of his former students who had gone to the place in question.

What I’m saying, I guess, is that whereas it’s often easy to see the negative relationship between the ethical and the practical, there’s often a positive connection we don’t think about. The most ethical thing to do is to tell the truth; then it’s on the employer to act ethically. If he doesn’t, then perhaps that job wasn’t such a godsend, after all.

This commentary is relevant, of course, only in the specific circumstances you describe. If the Social Security card really were a sine qua non, the ethics wouldn’t change, but the pragmatics might legitimately mitigate a minor ethical lapse borne out of frustration and desperation.

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