What is in your self-interest?

The following story was related to me by a student. An acquaintance of his was frustrated and unhappy with her job and felt that her company, which was short-staffed, was not giving her sufficient support and help. The acquaintance felt stressed but was able to cope with the demands of her work and was not physically ill. However, she happened to run into a physician friend of hers and complained about her job. The physician listened sympathetically, and told the woman that she is suffering from work-related stress for which he could prescribe six weeks of paid sick leave. The woman had intended to quit her job anyway, but to get six weeks off for what was going to be in essence a paid vacation (after which she did not intend to return) since she did not have any symptoms besides being frustrated, was an extra “bonus” which she decided to take. In her reasoning, she had been working hard and the company had not been very supportive, so this was a way of making the company compensate for her stressful work situation.

My student initially argued that it was in the woman’s self-interest to take the six weeks of paid leave. At a first glance you may agree with the student’s assessment. However, I will make the opposite argument: it was not in the woman’s self-interest to take the six weeks’ sick leave and then quit her job. Why?

The relevant principles here are rationality, independence, and justice. Rationality would advise the woman to consider the facts: she was frustrated with her work situation because the company was short-staffed. But she had not done anything to alleviate the situation: she had not raised the issue with her boss, not made suggestions for hiring more people or changing her work arrangements or the way work was divided. In other words, she had not been practicing the virtue of independence and thinking for herself and taking initiative to correct a situation that could potentially be harmful to herself, her co-workers and her employer.

Finally, the woman failed to apply the principle of justice—in this case, justice to herself. The principle of justice holds that you should evaluate people objectively (based on character and conduct) and grant them that which they deserve. In the case of yourself, you should be accountable for your actions and only take what you deserve.

Clearly, the woman did not deserve a six weeks of paid vacation when she had done nothing to alleviate her frustrating situation. By taking the leave and quitting, she developed a reputation as an employee who would not take initiative to resolve difficult situations but rather take advantage of her employer for short-term financial gain. References from her former employer or co-workers were not going to be forthcoming. Developing a bad reputation is not in the woman’s self-interest, but even more damaging  is her conclusion that she was justified taking the sick leave and quitting. Evading problems, not taking responsibility for your own actions, and taking the undeserved does not bode well for achieving your values—such as career success—in the long term.

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