Q: I work at The New York Times. On June 3, the opinion section ran an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton that I found deeply appalling. It wasn’t the first editorial decision opinion made that has received public pushback — nor the newsroom editors, for that matter. But this op-ed put our black staff and reporters covering protests at risk. I love my employer. I believe in the importance of The Times as an institution and am proud of my work in support of it. But I’m worried about the future of our publication and our role in the current crisis.
Times employees aren’t supposed to criticize our coverage publicly, and our involvement in protests is frowned upon. I guess I’m asking: What should I do when my employer does something incredibly stupid? — Anonymous
A: When The Times published this op-ed, it was an egregious lapse in judgment — not because the senator is conservative and espousing a disagreeable opinion, but because, I would argue, he was advocating fascism. He was vigorously encouraging the use of violence to subdue what he called rioters — but what I would call people protesting unchecked police brutality against black people. This was not a matter of considering a supposedly different perspective on the protests taking place around the world. There are no two sides to racism, fascism or tyranny.
This was definitely one of those moments where you could voice your disagreement and concern to your employer, ideally in concert with colleagues — and that was exactly what happened. (The Times added an editor’s note to the op-ed June 5, saying that “the essay fell short of our standards and should not have been published.” Disclosure: In addition to this column, I sometimes write for the opinion section.)
People are often put in impossible positions when their employer does something stupid or terrible or reckless or some combination thereof. They have to decide what, if anything, they will do about it, and more often than not, there is little recourse.
In some workplaces, you can speak up. Having the support of a union is especially helpful, but only 11.6% of American workers are represented by one. Without organized labor, you’re on your own — and that’s a lonely place to be when you have to choose between what’s right and what’s realistic. If you do decide to take a stand, you can identify the problem, how you think the company should address that problem and what consequences, if any, you will impose if no action is taken. There are, however, few workplaces where someone can safely take a stand without professional repercussions. There are few people who can afford to risk their income and livelihood.
You have to pick your battles. You have to calibrate the difference between stupid and unacceptable, what you can live with and what you cannot. Because you work for a newspaper that will always publish a range of content, some of which you agree with and some of which you do not, you also have to calibrate the difference between disagreement and disgust.
That’s the tidy answer that doesn’t really force you to make the difficult decision. But now, more than ever, with so much at stake, we have to be willing to make difficult decisions. We have to be willing to make ourselves uncomfortable in service of what’s right. When Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kept his knee on George Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, three of his co-workers stood by and did nothing. When a police officer in Buffalo shoved a 75-year-old man to the ground, dozens of his co-workers walked past that fallen man, bleeding from his ear. They did nothing.
Most situations in which you object to your employer’s conduct won’t be so extreme. But something terrible happened in this country, something that has happened with horrifying frequency. Each time we think maybe this time, something will change. For a few days or even a few weeks, change seems possible — and then we all get comfortable again. We forget about whatever terrible thing once held our attention. A new terrible thing happens. We get outraged. It’s a vicious cycle, but it is one we can break.
When your employer does something that violates your ethical code, when it does something that endangers employees or the greater community, you have to ask yourself if you are going to do nothing — or get angry, vent and hold your employer accountable in whatever ways you can. I am, perhaps, simplifying the choices you can make, but maybe doing the right thing is far simpler than we allow ourselves to believe.
Why risk it?
Q: I received an email from my boss that said our company is planning to reopen our office around the third week of June. In her email, she asks how comfortable I am with going back, riding the subway and driving to other sites. She also outlines safety measures: 50% occupancy, masks, disinfection, temperature checks.
What do I say? I do not want to ride the subway and spend long periods of time indoors with other people when I can just as easily do my work from home. I do think she has good intentions, but I also know she’s one of those people who likes to be involved in everything and appear busy, and she expects the same from others. In essence, she thinks working from home is not real work. — Anonymous
A: These days, when someone sneezes in my vicinity, I immediately start to feel unwell, feverish, consumptive. I am, like many people, worried and intimately aware of how fragile we are. It’s going to take time for most people to feel comfortable returning to work and spending time in public around other humans with unknown if not questionable hygiene practices. There are just so many ways you might encounter the dreaded corona-droplets. It doesn’t seem worth the risk, especially when you are lucky enough to be able to do your job remotely.
Working from home is indeed real, no matter what your boss believes. Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford economics professor, did a two-year study and found that employees who work from home were more productive and needed fewer sick days. (They also took less time off, which may or may not be a good thing.)
Tell your boss the truth, that you are not ready to return to the office. If she pushes back, suggest a compromise where, perhaps, you come into the office once a week, or for staff meetings or other activities that are better face to face. We cannot hide from the world forever, but no one should fault you for thinking that next week is too soon to get back to what was once normal work life.