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I worked for a country that violates human rights. Do I have to meet with their representative?

Reader: I am employed by a company that does mostly federal contracts and also does work for foreign clients. I have worked on a few projects for these international clients, and the director and project managers of these clients are happy with my work and my special skills that not many people have. My company is struggling with declining federal budgets, so staying in the good graces of this director could protect me in case layoffs occur.

Last year we worked for a country that has since become a household name for human rights abuses. The government of this country has been doing things recently that many people find unconscionable. I am one of those people. I am appalled by what the government of this country is doing.

A member of this client’s government is coming to the US later this year and all team members are expected to meet with him and possibly brief him on last year’s project. I cannot in good conscience do this. The idea of ​​blithely briefing a member of this country’s government as if everything is fine makes me sick.

But I don’t know how to tell the project manager that I won’t be attending. Should I write an email? A face-to-face meeting? What wording should I use? I don’t know how the project manager would react, although I suspect he is more receptive to the country’s government. I’m not afraid of being fired, but I don’t want to burn those bridges. I like the work I just can’t continue working for this client. What can I say?


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Carla: Assuming you have the autonomy to accept or reject these requests, I would handle the debriefing as follows:

“I’m afraid I have a conflict of interest and cannot attend the meeting. Here is a prepared summary of the work I did last year.” You do not need to elaborate on the nature of your conflict of interest.

If you don’t have that autonomy, try to find out more about your employer’s policies on such conflicts. Do they expect employees to be able to separate personal objections from business goals, or do they want them to be open about potential conflicts so as not to affect performance? If your employee handbook doesn’t say anything, ask for a private meeting with HR or a trusted manager to discuss your situation hypothetically: “If I have personal moral objections to working with a particular client, how would you recommend I handle it? Is there a protocol for my self-opt-out?”

If your conflict is based on religious beliefs, an employment lawyer can tell you if you have legal protection. If not, unfortunately, protocol may require you to find another employer.

I do not consider the provision of a summary of the work you have already done as an endorsement of the client’s recent actions. What has been done has been done.

The real question is what will you do if you are asked to support future contracts with this new problem client? Turn it down? Quit? Take the contract and donate your earnings or your time off to an organization working to mitigate the harm to this government? Become a whistleblower? Take the job because you are being paid to do this work?

At its core, your question addresses a dilemma that many face: the desire to do the right thing and the need to be employed.

I don’t mean to drift into moral equivalence, but at some level every human government – including the one you do most of your work for – operates under a blood-stained national charter. I’m not saying, “All nations are compromised, so why argue with principles?” I’m pointing out that the representative you’re supposed to meet with may be no less conflicted about his government’s actions than you are about yours – and no more culpable for those actions.

And here’s another uncomfortable thought: There’s no way to know exactly how the work you do for your clients will be used—the people it harms, the bad actors it enriches, the brutal policies it’s meant to justify. For most of us, the impact of our work is so far removed from the buttons we push that we have the luxury of not thinking about it. But we’re all complicit in atrocities against other people at some level, from the food we eat to the clothes we buy to the technology we use. The best we can do as individuals is to act with good intentions, be conscious of our impact, and do better when we’ve learned to do better.

Reader question: Are you a contractor who has had qualms about working with certain clients? How did you resolve them? Let me know at [email protected].

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