I work for a charity selling donated goods. An acquaintance brought in items of his late father’s. Slipped inside a book of poetry was a letter from a lover ending what was clearly an extramarital affair. My instinct is to destroy it, but the father did save it for years and left it where he must have known his children would find it. The mother is dead, so it can’t hurt her. And perhaps the son is aware of the affair. Should I give the children the letter? — Name Withheld, New Jersey
Here’s the key question: Would your acquaintance want to know about the affair? Some children crave a deep understanding of their late parents; some cling to an idealized version. If your acquaintance is among the former, give him the letter. If not, or if you are simply unsure, consign it to the flames. Or frame it on your bedroom wall as a reminder of the labyrinthine recesses of the human heart.
It was the father’s prerogative to make — or not make — such a deathbed disclosure. I do not agree that he ” must have known” his children would discover the letter. After all: They didn’t. What’s more, people misplace things all the time. (I still can’t find some 11th-grade calculus homework that I swear I completed.) You’ve no idea of the father’s intentions, conscious or unconscious, but you know this: If he wanted to reveal his infidelity, he could have announced it in his will, or written a tell-all memoir or put this letter where it would have been more reliably discovered, posting it on his refrigerator door with little magnets. Indeed, he might already have told his son, as you mention.
This is not to advocate a policy of laundering a late parent’s past — the dead have few claims to privacy — but to assert that this unsettling information cannot prompt the son to take any significant action: Neither of his parents is living. And so it is reasonable to weigh the effect of this revelation on the hearts of the children. There are times when you must divulge even disturbing information about the dead. If, for example, the father were a personage — a surprisingly long-lived Abraham Lincoln, perhaps — then the claims of historic truth would be compelling. But here you may let disloyal sleeping dogs lie.
The company I work for has long conducted ” employee engagement” surveys, supposedly confidential, but because many teams are small, supervisors often surmise who answered what. This year, in addition to the usual questions about how we communicate with co-workers, there was ” Would you rather spend time with your children or your spouse?” and others that I thought were out of bounds. But I have a family to support, so I lied on some. For instance, I said I would rather play on a company sports team than garden. Are such lies OK? — Name Withheld, Minnesota
Such lies are understandable but not ideal. Before probing an employee’s thoughts, particularly those involving off-the-job ideas, an employer must be certain the research is germane to actual work. I’m skeptical that this psychological hoo-ha will yield results meaningful enough to justify being so intrusive. A boss may scrutinize your job performance — your actions — but needs potent reasons to rummage around your skull. You are entitled to some privacy inside your own head.
An employer also has a duty to protect the privacy of employees, particularly when it comes to information that might discomfit them. Even more fundamentally, participation in this sort of quasi-research project must be voluntary. Research subjects may not be coerced into participation.
All in all, your employer has behaved poorly. But your deceit is worrisome, at least as a first response. Better to leave some questions blank, if possible. And to talk to your supervisor about your privacy concerns. Only the failure of such measures, leaving you no other way to avoid disclosures an employer has no right to demand, would justify such lies. Or if your employer subjected you to hypnosis, especially the kind that makes you cluck like a chicken.
(Readers can direct their questions and comments by e-mail to email@example.com. This column originates in The New York Times.)