Q: I’m a high school English teacher, and I’ve been thinking about leaving my school. I’ve been hesitant to make that public, though, because my principal’s ego is notoriously tied up in his staff retention numbers. Even if I ended up staying, I think he’d hold a grudge. Here’s where things get messy. I decided to share my tentative plans confidentially with Nora, the chair of my department. She’s been a close, trusted friend for more than five years, and I wanted her advice. Our families hang out on the weekend, our kids are friends, we’ve gone on vacation together, and she knows personal details about my life. So imagine my shock when my principal cornered me in the hall to say, “So, when were you going to tell me you were looking to leave?” Nora is the only one other than my husband whom I told about my plans. When I asked Nora why she told the principal, she said she was sorry I was hurt, but she felt strongly that she had a professional obligation to the school and the students. She said she’s so certain I’ll get a job and leave, she feels they need to start planning now for my replacement. She also said I should have known I was putting her in a difficult position by sharing my plans in the first place. I’m confused and feel betrayed, and I have a few questions: Did she act ethically? Was I crazy to think a work colleague could be a “real” friend? And where do I go from here?
A: I give you credit for trying to see this from multiple perspectives. It would be easy to focus on the betrayal and your hurt, and to gloss over her professional obligations. I’ll separate the two questions, which address different issues. You want to know if she acted ethically, and whether you should be revisiting the friendship.
If there are no competing interests, it’s easy to prioritize friendship over work. In this case, she’s chosen to put her role as department chair first and to look out for the school. She’s made it clear that she views this as her primary duty, and she justified her choice on the grounds that she needs time to search for your replacement. She may still consider you a close friend, but she felt she had to protect the students’ best interests.
You might have made a different decision, and she might have been overly cautious. In terms of the ethics question, however, I think it depends on her motivation. I’d struggle more with the betrayal if she acted out of self-interest and was mainly concerned that the principal would penalize her if he found out she withheld information.
Which brings us to the friendship. Even if she felt compelled to put the school’s needs first, she could have told you she wouldn’t be able to protect your privacy. She could have clued you in when she spilled the beans. She didn’t need to set you up to be blindsided in the hall. That was unnecessary, unfair and mean. You had to process the fact that someone you trust betrayed you while dealing with your principal’s displeasure. A little honesty could have spared you that upset.
So what now? You asked whether a work friend could be a “real” friend. I think it’s possible, but it’s a lot harder when there’s a power imbalance or you’re competing for something, such as the same leadership position. It’s also tough in situations like these, when one party believes that loyalty could come at a cost.
For me, the bigger issue here is her insensitivity and the fact that she set you up to be ambushed. I also think her lame apology is contributing to your pain. She offered up a rationalization, not an apology. As New York magazine’s Cari Romm points out in a recent article, an ineffective apology includes justifications or excuses, downplays the offense, or blames the other person — much like Nora’s assertion, “I’m sorry you were hurt.” All those elements are at play here. A truly contrite friend would at minimum take responsibility for causing you pain and do what she could to try to make it right. Ultimately, you get to decide whether the friendship serves you or you’re sacrificing yourself. Given your long and mutually supportive history, it’s possible this will sort itself out over time, especially if you end up working elsewhere.
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