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My company does services for various clients. We recently were offered a contract to perform these services for a guy in the city who does predictions, tarot, numerology and the like for people. He also promises to "bring you the person you love", "reverse any curse back to whomever cast it upon you" and other "otherworldly" services.

Personally this does not violate my ethics; I could not care less what people believe or disbelieve. If you think that burning a roll of tobacco and offering a bottle of whisky to someone who died a century ago will get you a good job, or get your soccer team to win the next game, knock yourself out.

One of my employees (who is otherwise a great worker, and someone I am personally proud to have working for me) objects to working on this contract on ethical grounds. The employee's point is that this potential client cheats people, and that by helping him sell his services online, we are basically helping him scam the poor and gullible. I can sympathize with my employee's viewpoint without necessarily agreeing with it.

I can assign him to a different project so that he doesn't have to work with this one, but I am concerned that other staff may see this as acceptable behavior and start objecting to tasks that are assigned to them.

As for this project in particular, if more staff are against it, I think I'll just tell this potential client that "we've got our hands full at the moment" (no contract has been signed yet, fortunately).

My staff are pretty intelligent people - each one is probably smarter in an individual level than I am - and I trust them enough that my decisions are heavily affected by their input. I just don't want to start a pattern where every projects have people opting to not undertake them based on personal beliefs and ideals. We have a lot of potential clients which are tied to sets of ideals (local branches of churches, political parties, the armed forces etc.)

What is an appropriate response to the situation?

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    My experience is that people who are engaged in screwing people as part of their business model will screw you sooner or later if you work for them long enough. But maybe my experience is unique. – Amy Blankenship Oct 18 '13 at 0:08
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    Hey Renan, this is a great question. I made an edit to try to focus the title and the question to get you better answers. If you think I missed the point, or otherwise removed too much, please feel free to edit so that it asks questions that will help you solve your problem. Thanks again for the great question! – jmac Oct 18 '13 at 5:49
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    @GreenMatt, I haven't had a whole lot better results with delusional clients. – Amy Blankenship Oct 18 '13 at 17:37
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    If people who make their living committing fraud (whether it's legally fraud or not) had difficulty finding contractors to perform services for them, I personally would be delighted. – Keith Thompson Oct 18 '13 at 17:40
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    You are defaming magicians. Magicians perform illusions that appear to defy the laws of physics or probability. Their audience, or most of it, knows they are illusions. The prospective client is not a magician, but claims to actually have clarivoyance and other metaphysical powers. In the US, such people often label themselves as "Psychic". – kevin cline Oct 18 '13 at 22:42
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When you assign people to projects, you do take into account their technical preferences, e.g., you assign a "Python" person to a job requiring coding in python. It seems reasonable to respect other preferences as well - as long as it makes business sense. You don't want your "esoteric" customer to feel that the person who is working on his project detests him (which may spiral into a disaster if the work involves, e.g., web content).

Thus it seems to me that it makes sense to accommodate this "Conscientious Objector" as long as he keeps it quiet and does not escalate this into a "water-fountain debate". You can frame your decision in technical terms, e.g., the "CO" is working on a different project because it is more appropriate for his skill set (or at least because he is more compatible with the customer there).

Basically, I would treat this similar to a religious holiday or a sick day: okay a few times a year, but not every week; not an issue as long as it does not cause a strife.

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    "... you assign a "Python" person to a job requiring coding in python." If that were only true all the time! – GreenMatt Oct 18 '13 at 11:49
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    @GreenMatt No doubt. I'm a "Java" person, and I've done JavaScript, SAS, R, and shell scripting more than I've done Java. -_- – asteri Oct 18 '13 at 13:18
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    @GreenMatt: remember the main (Soviet) Army principle: round objects are carried, square objects are rolled. – sds Oct 18 '13 at 13:28
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    I don't want to work for sds. Sick days are only okay once or twice a year. :-O – corsiKa Jun 14 '14 at 2:58
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    @nha: starlei.ru/arme/obychai-i-ustoi/krugloe-nosim-kvadratnoe-kataem &c &c &c &c &c &c ....... – sds Oct 18 '16 at 23:54
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Executive Summary

Business is a balance. You should weigh the value of the employee, the cost to the business if he works on another project, and the cost to the business of dropping this client.

Forcing the Employee

You say that if the employee does not work on this, he can work on something else. Yet if you force him, in the worst-case scenario, he may quit. If he has plenty of great qualities, you probably don't want to risk losing him over something so minor.

Starting a Trend

What if other employees agree? Well, you would have to make the same judgment call. Is this worth losing any of your employees over? Moreover, if all your employees object to this type of work, is it worth the hit your image may take in the eyes of your employees if you insist on the business despite the objections of your staff?

The Value of a Customer

At the end of the day, how much is this customer worth? Is it going to get you solid ongoing revenue worth risking your relationship with your employees? Sometimes the best decision a company can make is to drop a client that causes more issues than the revenue it provides is worth.

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    About "starting a trend": If you explain to your employees that you accept such a refusal only when it's really justified, any reasonable person can understand what is a genuine concern and what is not. For example, hardcore porn (especially if it's not in the job description), or something which looks likely to be a scam can qualify to be a genuine concern. Refusing to work on a car dealership website because you hate cars, or refusing to work with a flower shop because you say your religion (you just made up yesterday) forbids interaction with flowers would obviously not be valid excuses. – Val Oct 19 '13 at 17:37
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    @vsz, if you decide based on 'genuine'ness you are not judging on the basis of the importance of the employee to your business, but rather on a value judgment of how 'genuine' their concern is. And that is a silly stance to make. If the employee is valuable, regardless of how ridiculous their concern may seem to you, it may be in your best interest to work around it anyway. The same rationale applies. I strongly recommend never making value judgments on the beliefs of your employees unless you are prepared to lose them over it. – jmac Oct 21 '13 at 23:45
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    What is the value of an employee who makes ridiculous ultimatums though? – Jasmine Feb 10 '15 at 21:34
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It is better to think of this kind of issue in terms of a conflict of interest. For example, a vegetarian lawyer may not be the best person to represent an abattoir. It would be unethical for the lawyer to take such a job because their own personal beliefs may affect their judgement.

Your duty is to the client, and it is in the best interest of the client to eliminate conflicts so that they can get the best service possible. You can do this by...

  • Using a different member of staff
  • Advising the client to go elsewhere
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    "It would be unethical for the lawyer to take such a job" -- well, law works more the other way. It would be unethical for the lawyer to allow their own personal beliefs to affect their judgement, and their ethical duty is to do what they can to remain professional. But if they cannot do that then as a last resort they must refuse the client. It's especially true in criminal law, even people guilty of heinous crimes should have representation (of course, their lawyer shouldn't suborn perjury, their role is to ensure the criminal is treated correctly according to the law). – Steve Jessop Jul 12 '15 at 12:08
  • @SteveJessop Would you make the same argument about conflicts of interest? Should a lawyer work on a case which effects a friend? As long as they don't allow their own personal beliefs to affect their judgement is will be ok! I would argue that most ethical dilemmas are in fact a conflict of interest. It should be up to the client to decide if the conflict represents a problem for them, not the lawyer deciding on their behalf. A normal case of defence case is not a conflict because the client can be expected to understand this without being informed. It is the secrecy that is wrong. – user10916 Jul 12 '15 at 17:05
  • I wouldn't try to dictate a single "yes/no" answer that is applicable everywhere, but lawyers have spent a lot of time thinking about what conflicts should be declared, and what conflicts are so intractable that you can't take the work. As you say, it is often up to the client, and in such situations it is not at all unethical for a vegetarian lawyer to take an abattoir as client, if that's the client's informed choice to offer the work. It would be really hard to find a lawyer at all, if any lawyer who didn't share all your moral opinions refused you. – Steve Jessop Jul 12 '15 at 18:00
  • You have a duty to the client, yes. But you can also choose your clients - personally, I would refuse any job that would deal with such paranormal stuff, be it a personal website or a e-commerce for ghost hunting gear. You do a oath when you finish your CS grad, and one of the terms is something on the likes of "not scamming people or helping scammers". – T. Sar Jul 16 '16 at 21:59
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I don't think it's appropriate to force a person to work on something he finds objectionable. There are plenty of businesses that are perfectly legal but morally objectionable: would you force employees to do work for porn producers, casinos, or escort services? What about for a service you know to be a con, such as someone engaged in a pyramid scheme?

Employees have every right to not be asked to violate their moral standards in the workplace... however, the employee also needs to understand the nature of his business. If you're in the advertising industry, you're going to get other unsavory clients just as a matter of course.

I think it comes down to this: the employment relationship goes both ways. You want to keep their respect by respecting their beliefs. However, the inverse is true: they need to respect YOU enough to do even the jobs they don't like, even if they have a personal problem with a particular client.

Ask him to to consider whether his atheist co-worker 2 desks down might have the same problems working for a church, or whether the gay liberal sitting across the aisle might have problems with the GOP campaign. Explain to this employee that you're giving the job to someone else, but make it clear that it's as a courtesy to him, and that he shouldn't expect a free pass the next time he refuses to work on a job you assign him.

We've all been asked to do jobs we don't like. Sometimes it's cleaning the toilet. Sometimes it's creating banner ads for snake charmers. If work was all just stuff you like, we'd call it "fun" instead, right?

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    Cleaning the toilet is completely different. It's a dirty job, someone has to do it, but it doesn't raise any ethical questions. The employee isn't objecting to unpleasant work, he is objecting to doing work that he very reasonably believes would cause other people harm. – kevin cline Jul 4 '15 at 8:24
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    Go on, somebody say it, what about the person who doesn't want to work for a client who organises gay weddings because they think they're harmful and should be banned? Or who doesn't want to work for a client who sells firearms legally, because the employee believes gun control is so lax as to be harmful? There's quite a danger to putting yourself in the position of judging whether your employees' opinions are "reasonable" or not, and in putting your employees in the position of expressing their preferred tweaks of the law relevant to your clients. "Tolerable" might be a better standard. – Steve Jessop Jul 12 '15 at 12:14
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Let me add the opposite experience, as it may help your decision finding.

I once had a boss with very clear ethical views, e.g. he told me that for ethical reasons he'd not have his name on papers (we were doing research) containing animal experiments. He left us the freedom to decide on our own whether we'd like to get involved with such experiments in our research (I didn't: I do not absolutely object, but I will object if the experiment is not planned in a way that ensures that there will be a high gain in knowledge that could not be obtained without the animal experiment).

The bottomline is, emphasizing the ethical side of the work and accepting/encouraging the employees to take ethical responsibilities seriously increases my respect in the employer.

Of course you have to object if someone tries to avoid working by "pulling the ethics card". But as you say that you can understand the employee's point of view and thus agree that one can reasonably draw the conclusions he does, this isn't the issue here.
And, arguing ethical issues in gerneral is not a "safe" strategy for lazy people: you may remind them on the moral issue of being lazy.

That is, the ethical objection you describe is more in line with an employee who is also rather on the hard working side (and you describe him as a great worker).

  • So maybe it could actually improve your relation to your employees if you discuss this rather openly.
  • Point out that you do understand the objections, and agree that one could arrive at the conclusions the employee drew, but that your estimate of the situation is less severe (e.g. to you, someone paying the client for tarot prediction is like paying the entrance fee to see a circus - that people going there are in general aware that they are paying for an amusement).
  • I think I'd point out to the colleagues that because he is a hard working guy, you are sure that this is a genuine concern with him and not a way to avoid work.
    (Being lazy and trying to avoid doing your share in the work usually doesn't make you a big favourite with the colleagues)
  • I guess the reaction of your employees will then show whether it is wise to accept the contract or not
    (this will depend quite a bit on your general position, e.g. it would fit much better if you already have a whole lot of customers from leisure industry than it would fit if your other customers belong to more "sober" industries, are medical doctors or lawyer firms, etc.)
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If the work could be promised to be purely technical, the employee might not have an objection. They would need to put into place the framework and basic functionality. The specifics of the site would be handled by somebody else, for example a content manager.

Unfortunately too often the customer expects the developer to write content. I have experienced this situation too often: they want a FAQ section and then have no questions or answers; they hand you twenty pages of text and say write a summary for the opening page, but then complain when it isn't quite what they are expecting.

Team members who detest the subject will not be willing to become experts in the topic, therefore they will be unlikely to perform all the functions that will be dumped on their desk.

You might need to see how many employees object to the customer, and see if you can assemble a team from the ones that are enthusiastic or neutral.

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    This doesn't sound like the case here, at least for the one employee that was mentioned. It seems more like he objects to performing any action that might forward the business of what he sees to be a scam. – called2voyage Oct 18 '13 at 14:05
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    You explicitly providing the means to commit fraud is the same as committing fraud. – Dunk Oct 18 '13 at 17:56
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    Even if they're not working on the content, someone can still reasonably be uneasy about assisting a business that has practices they find objectionable. – Beska Oct 19 '13 at 18:28
  • All this seems a bit unusual to me. Refusing to work on a business for moral reasons accomplishes 2 things: (a) it minimizes your guilt and protects your conscience and (b) it prevents you from being associated with something morally/ethically objectionable. What it won't do is: it will not prevent the product from being developed; the client will simply find someone else to do it. So you don't actually stop anything... – Radu Murzea Jan 18 '16 at 20:45
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    There's a chance it will prevent the product from being developed. Everyone that refuses to work for a certain type of business when asked makes it marginally harder to operate that sort of business. The harder it is to operate the less people will do it, and they less time they will have to make it successful. The time the client is finding an alternative provider is time they aren't scamming someone. – bdsl Jan 22 '16 at 20:46
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I am an evangelical Christian who is a software developer, and I an understand that it might be hard to communicate to other how we feel about tarot cards and fortune telling. I have no objection to working for a customer or boss who is an atheist, or another religion, (though I usually don't know because I don't ask), and I am fine working for 99% of the businesses and organizations out there. But if I was told I had to do work for planned parenthood, a mosque or temple, etc., I would have to politely decline, without making a big stink about it. If the boss said I did not have to work on it, but only as his courtesy to me, as one commenter suggested, that would work very well with me. I would mention to him that next time it would have to be the same way. Then I would ask him to think about this overnight and get back to me if he is OK with me (and my ethics) on his team long term. If he cannot give me a commitment of "yes", then I start looking for another job, and hopefully we can part ways amicably.

3

If you have intelligent workers with whom you respect and value, I'm sure they feel the same about you. With that being said, If your employee is a great worker and an asset in your company (which you paint him out to be) if he's telling you this, I'm willing to bet it really does bother him and while your other employees may see this, I don't think they'd take advantage of a situation.

A few main things that I would take into account is this:

-If your company is struggling financially, I wouldn't pass up a project because of 1-2 being uncomfortable. -- If that's the case, then it may be best for him to 'sit out' this project because the needs of the 1 should not outweigh the needs of the many.

-If your company is flush and you've got a lot of projects coming up then you can find out if this bothers more people who would be working on the project. You should discuss it with them and get some input Let them know that (if you're the owner or the head boss) this isn't going to be something that happens all the time, but because you value their opinion/concerns you're willing to take all that information into account before you make your decision to sign a contract with the man.

You can't please everyone all of the time. But you can at least do what's best for the majority

3

We have a lot of potential clients which are tied to sets of ideals (local branches of churches, political parties, the armed forces etc.)

What is an appropriate response to the situation?

I think you need to at least sit with the employee to discuss the objection in more detail. Does he know enough about this particular person to specifically say they "cheat people" and "scam the poor and gullible"? That is to say, does your employee believe this practitioner to be especially dishonest? Or does he mean that anyone who claims Tarot cards work is a "cheat" and a "scammer", as opposed to merely being wrong? Just because I don't think something works, doesn't mean that I should characterise those who genuinely try to make it work, as scammers. Making that generalisation goes rather further than merely not wishing to aid a suspected criminal. I'm not saying your employee is reflexively making an unfair judgement, but I do think a conscientious objector should be prepared to state their grounds.

If this is about characterising a belief as a lie, then you have a serious potential problem here with employees declaring that if he's allowed to act on the view that all fortune-tellers are liars and keep his job, then they should be allowed to act on the view that all Democrats (or all Republicans) are liars, and keep their job. Or that all members of the armed forces are cheats and scammers. Or that anyone who hasn't served is a cheat and a scammer. Or declare that vaccination isn't effective and therefore doctors are scammers. Whatever. One does not generally put one's clients to proof, especially when their claims are vague (as fortune-tellers' claims often are) or subjective.

Religion specifically might be a protected class for discrimination in your jurisdiction and if so then employees would know (or can be told) that you cannot legally refuse to supply services on the basis that "Christianity isn't true and therefore Christians are conning the gullible" or whatever a non-Christian might think. But that only deals with protected classes, not with all the clients who might be rejected due to their principles.

I consider all these generalisations bizarre (including the one about all Tarot card readers being cheats), so as far as I can see once you allow one characterisation of a belief as a lie, you open the door to a lot of them. But if the employee does have specific concerns about what this particular potential client is doing, then accommodating those concerns need not open the door to employees declaring anyone who disagrees with them to be a fraud! But you have to be clear with yourself about what grounds you're accepting if you want to be consistent in future.

Therefore, do not allow the objection on grounds that all fortune-tellers are frauds, but admit the possibility of objecting on grounds that this one is abusive. Encourage the employee either to express to you his specific concerns about the honesty of this person (perhaps even to the point of convincing you that quite aside from their religious or magical beliefs, they're a crook), or else to accept that as a commercial business you aren't going to refuse every client whose business revolves around an opinion or belief that you consider absurd, and that he shouldn't either.

The result of this might be that the employee restates his objection -- not that this person is dishonest, but that regardless of honesty or dishonesty, fortune-telling is unethical and they feel they cannot work for a fortune-teller. At least then you have a new question, "should I allow employees to decline to work for clients on grounds that the client's beliefs differ from their own", and you can think about when that would be appropriate without the waters being muddied by a claim of dishonesty that might not be accurate.

Ultimately, as someone else has said, you might have to treat this pragmatically. Whether you consider the refusal reasonable or not, if he continues to refuse the task then you can either accommodate this or else sack him. The low-risk option seems to be to accommodate it. If such requests start to get out of hand (because your employees start to develop more and more conflicting views of which clients to take, or because they become so picky that business is constrained well past what you want) then you can always change your policy later, again as a pragmatic matter, on the grounds that the cost to the business has been much higher than anticipated.

There are some companies that only take on clients they're aligned with religiously/politically/whatever, but it's not the norm and employees won't generally expect it. So I think the risk of it getting out of hand is probably low.

  • +1 Your employee needs to provide at least some support for his claim that this potential client cheats people before you consider reassigning him. You can also counter his claim if, for example, the client displays the "for entertainment purposes only" language that is a required disclaimer in some locales. – Dan Henderson Jul 12 '15 at 20:25
  • @DanHenderson Umm, no. Displaying a sign with words on it because the law requires you to doesn't change anything. This is a scam, period. I wouldn't work for someone who was willing to help scammers scam people more effectively. You can't lie to people to get their money and make it all better by putting up a sign that says "I lie to people to get their money". – David Schwartz Oct 17 '16 at 16:50
  • If the law regulates mediums, or minority religions, or amateur psychology, by saying you have to put up the sign, then the sign is not really directed at the customers, it's directed at the authorities. In such cases the customer knows exactly what they're buying (some believe in tarot and are buying your experience with it, others don't and are buying pure entertainment). Actually the sign says "I lie to the authorities in order to sell something I'm not allowed to". A drug dealer might be a criminal, but is not a scammer by virtue of pretenting to the authorities he's not a drug dealer. – Steve Jessop Oct 18 '16 at 0:02
  • Naturally if you think someone is unlawfully practicing an outlawed belief then you might not want to work with them. But understand your own decision and motives, don't take the ignorant line that everyone who professess an astonishing belief is a liar. Period. Also, a lot of people kid themselves that if they refuse to work for a medium it's because they "know a scammer when they see one even if it's technically legal", whereas if they work for a banker "he's been convicted of nothing, all charges were dropped, who am I to judge?". You're the same person who judges all mediums, is who. – Steve Jessop Oct 18 '16 at 0:13
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    And of course sometimes the sign means exactly what it says. Derren Brown makes some false claims, and a few of these have been similar to claims made by mediums. But he's a stage magician, it really is for entertainment purposes only, and so he could put that sign up in all honesty if he had to. If someone knowingly pays you to lie to them, then again it is not a scam, it's a performance. If you're going to reject someone's disclaimer, when some people use that disclaimer truthfully and others falsely, then know your reasons for thinking they in particular are using it falsely. – Steve Jessop Oct 18 '16 at 0:26

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