Be fair to yourself by seeing this as an opportunity for both you and the company to benefit.

Dear Ethics Guy: I try to be an honest person—and even think I succeed most of the time—but am I obligated to tell my boss the truth if he asks me whether I’m looking for a job? I told him I wasn’t, but I actually am. I feel like I’ve maxed out here and there really isn’t any great reason to stay.

Our ethical obligation to tell the truth does not mean that we have to answer every question we are asked. Only those with a right to be told the truth can demand a response to their questions. For example, if you are a doctor, and a patient asks you what her diagnosis is, you have a duty to tell her. If someone at a cocktail party later asks you what this patient’s diagnosis is, you not only have a right not to disclose this information, you have a duty not to do so. (I am, of course, making several assumptions here: That the patient has decision-making capacity, that the person at the cocktail party is not involved in the patient’s care, and so on.)

If your boss asks you who you are dating, what your religion is, or how you plan to vote, you have no ethical obligation to respond. I’m not saying that you ought to lie in these circumstances, but neither are you required to be forthcoming. Of course, there are legal as well as ethical concerns raised by these queries, which are beyond the scope of my expertise to address adequately. Suffice it to say that you should be truthful only when your boss has a genuine right to know the answer, and the question is not prompted by mere personal curiosity.

The question then becomes, “Does my boss have a genuine right to know that I’m considering moving on?” It depends in part on your circumstances: Let’s say you give the requisite two weeks’ notice. How drastic would the consequences of your leaving be for your clients? Is there someone else who could readily step in and take on your work without incurring too great a burden? You might also want to consider whether you are prepared to end a relationship that might be valuable to you in the future.

Whose Best Interests?

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that your departure would put a temporary strain on the company’s resources but that business will continue nevertheless, and that, as much as you would like to remain on good terms with the company, it is more important to you to be in a less stressful working environment or in one that may offer greater opportunity for your career. Let’s also assume that even if your boss never made clear that he expects you to tell him about your desire to move on, the ethical principle of fairness suggests that your boss may very well be entitled to know about your wish to leave.

But that isn’t the end of our analysis. After all, you might understandably fear retaliation from your boss if you are truthful now. How could it be the case, then, that ethics requires putting your company’s interests above your own? Can loyalty truly require jeopardizing oneself? We are now at the heart of the matter.

It is inaccurate to look at an ethical problem—this one or any other—as a battle between the interests of one party and the interests of another, in which there is ultimately a victor and a loser. The ideal solution to any ethical conundrum takes into account the interests of everyone involved, and in most situations, it is indeed possible to find a way to honor all of those interests. One is rarely forced to choose between, say, protecting yourself or being fair to your employer.

Asking for What You Want

Once we step outside of the box and consider the ways in which we can take all of our ethical responsibilities into account, it becomes easier to find the best possible solution. You are at a crossroads in your professional life, and you might use this opportunity to explore with your boss what is bothering you and how your concerns could be addressed in a way that would be advantageous to you and the company.

Your boss may not understand fully—or at all—the nature of your discontent. If there is the slightest possibility that being upfront with him could resolve the impasse, it makes sense to be candid with him now. Everyone stands to benefit: you, your employer, and ultimately your clients.

When I started out in the working world, I used to listen to motivational tapes about how to succeed as a professional. One of the most inspiring seminars I listened to was by Jack Canfield, co-creator of Chicken Soup for the Soul. At one point Jack revealed a simple but powerful way to get what you want: ask for it. “Did you know,” he said to the audience, “that you can ask for a free upgrade to first class—and actually get it?” It sounded too good to be true, but I tried it out one day, and it worked.

Before you call it a day with your current job, give your boss the benefit of the doubt. Tell him what is bothering you and what it would take to turn things around. You may be pleasantly surprised by what you discover.

Originally published on – April 12, 2007

Bruce Weinstein is the corporate consultant, author, and public speaker known as The Ethics Guy. He has appeared on numerous national TV shows and is the author of several books on ethics.