One of my favorite weekly columns in the New York Times is The Ethicist. Basically it’s a weekly column where readers write in with their ethical quandaries, and The Ethicist (currently Chuck Klosterman, though there have been several Ethicists since I started reading the column), responds to their queries from an ethical perspective.
A recent question presented an interesting quandary that hit home to me. The reader asks:
“Is it ethical for a department head to walk around the department she oversees and ask for donations to a charity she supports? … I didn’t feel as if not giving would have negative impact on my career. Still, when your boss asks you to donate to something, there’s unspoken pressure to do so, and I certainly felt that pressure.” – Anonymous
Been There, Done That, Bought The T-Shirt
As soon as I read Anonymous’ letter, I felt instant empathy with the situation. When I first started my career (and was making SIGNIFICANTLY LESS than I currently do), my employer decided to hold a competition for which department could raise the most money for the charity of our employer’s choosing.
But this wasn’t about raising money by having a car wash or anything like that. I would have happily volunteered my time for that kind of endeavor. Team-building would have been a great side effect from actively raising money for the cause especially for one of the newbies (me) in the department.
Rather, my employer wanted to make it super easy for us to donate (from our own pockets), so my employer “kindly” gave us the option to do payroll deductions (after tax), to automate our giving to this charity that wasn’t of our choosing.
The charity wasn’t a bad one. They seem to do good work, are highly rated on transparency, although only 80% or so of their donations actually make it through to cover program costs. FWIW, the charity I started donating to at this time was about 90% effective when you looked at programming costs. (These are the current estimates from charitynavigator.com, but I presume they haven’t changed drastically since the mid 2000’s.)
What To Do?
The donation campaign at work bothered me A LOT. After going back and forth over it for a couple weeks (with daily emails encouraging us to give as much as possible from both colleagues on my level and higher ups), I ended up not donating. It was less about “the charity” or “the money” than it was a statement to myself about not letting myself be pressured to do something financially that I wouldn’t have chosen to do on my own. (I was single-girl-in-the-city not-yet-Mrs-Anything in her first job out of college. I was taking a stand! Not letting “The Man” tell me what to do!)
I didn’t experience any fall-out from my decision not to donate, at least not that I ever noticed. But for what it’s worth I didn’t stay with that employer all that long. Within my first year working there, I had interviewed and gotten an offer for a job in a field that seemed more challenging and had the added benefit of a starting salary 48% higher than I was making at the employer who wanted me to sign my paychecks over to their favorite charity. I took that job and haven’t really looked back.
Was it inappropriate for my employer and Anonymous’ employer to promote their favorite charity in a way in which our giving could be tracked and noted? According to The Ethicist, absolutely.
“The mere existence of this letter suggests that your boss is doing something ethically untoward: at least for one employee, she’s creating a culture of anxiety for reasons that have no relationship to the job itself.”
Amen, Brotha. Anxiety was definitely what I experienced. And it stunk.
Our Situation Today
Luckily, today we don’t have much pressure these days from our bosses to donate to any specific charities. Occasionally my boss emails out information on causes he’s passionate about, along with links for more information. But it doesn’t feel like pressure to join in the cause or donate.
Colleagues (but not bosses) also present their kids’ charitable fundraising opportunities, and we give pretty regularly in that manner. So what if I wouldn’t normally buy a coupon book? The band needs some new tubas, so we fork over $20 pretty happily on a regular basis for stuff like that.
We recognize that for many people it’s hard to separate their “work selves” from the things they support outside of work, so to us, this feels like an okay compromise in terms of charity in the workplace. And I’m mostly just glad I don’t have the same kind of dilemma I did in my first job.
What’s your take on charity in the workplace? Does it matter if the pressure is coming from your boss or your colleagues? What would you have done if you were in Anonymous’ shoes? Or mine in my first job?