To Tell or Not to Tell


While doing observations at a local factory, a sociologist overhears some employees talking about tampering with a union vote. This same group of employees had opted to not be part of his study. The researcher wants to alert the union leaders about the potential tampering but he promised not to use any of his interactions with these employees. What should he do?


Kenneth is a sociologist interested in studying gender in blue-collar workplaces.  He gains permission from a local factory to conduct observations in a common area where workers often congregate before and after shifts and during breaks, talking and joking with one another.  This is where the company posts announcements, and where drivers may purchase sodas or coffee.  Kenneth hopes to get to know many of the drivers during his observation, and will use the information he gathers to shape questions to use in individual interviews he plans to conduct later in his research.  As a condition of his Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval for the project, he is required to post an informational letter in the common area explaining his research.  The letter also states that individual employees have the right to “opt-out” of the research at any time — to request that they not be included in Kenneth’s field notes.

Kenneth begins his observations successfully and starts developing a rapport with many of the employees.  Three workers let him know that they’d rather not be included as part of his research.  He notes their names and descriptions, to ensure that he will remember them for subsequent visits.

During the course of his observations, some of the employees are taking part in a union organizing drive at the company.  Things are tense, with both sides papering the walls with information designed to influence drivers’ opinions. Many of the employees are fiercely pro-union, while many others are very much against the idea.  For those who are against the idea, foremost in their mind is the fact that the company’s primary client is known to be eager to avoid dealing with unionized suppliers.  It is also widely known that Marie, the factory’s owner, previously headed up a company that had voted to go union, which she subsequently shut down.  So there is a feeling among some employees that going union will mean that they will be out of jobs.  Those employees who argue for a union are motivated by a general atmosphere of disrespect at the company, exacerbated by recent changes in the pay scale and benefits package. So while the unionization drive is not the focal point of Kenneth’s research, it becomes an important framing event for his observations.

One afternoon while observing, Kenneth sees a couple of the workers who had “opted out” of his study approaching the common area.  Before they see him, Kenneth ducks into the restroom, wishing to avoid making himself and the employees uncomfortable.  The walls are thin however, so he can’t help but overhear their conversation.  One worker expresses his fear that the company will vote the union in.  The other worker says quietly, “Don’t worry — I’ve been working with Marie and a couple of others to get that situation under control.  You’ll never see a union voted in here.”

Feeling awkward about what is being said, Kenneth remains in the restroom until they have left.  Overhearing this conversation poses a number of troubling questions for him.  After hearing this exchange, he may have reason to believe that people are tampering with the union vote, scheduled for the next day, but he cannot be sure exactly what the men were referring to.  He wants to alert union officials to the possibility of tampering, but has promised not to use any of his interactions with these drivers in his research.   He is fearful that calling any attention to the situation will result in his no longer being welcome to conduct research at this company, wasting the time he and the participants have spent together and the interesting data he has already collected.  What should he do?


  1. Should Kenneth have stayed out in the common area when he saw the workers approaching?  Was he “eavesdropping”?  Do the workers have an expectation of privacy in a common area of the factory?
  2. How does the fact that the workers in question have opted out of his research affect his obligations to them?   Does Kenneth’s responsibility not to include these workers in his field notes extend to a responsibility to protect them in other ways, such as in the current situation?
  3. Does his status as a researcher give him different responsibilities in this case than if he were there as a fellow worker, or someone with no formal involvement in the company?  If he had overheard the conversation off of company property, would this change his obligations?
  4. Does the fact that the conversation had little to do with the specific focus of his research change his obligations of confidentiality?
  5. How can he be sure about the meaning of what he overheard?  If he does decide to tell someone about what he overheard, who should he tell, and why?  Would telling someone put Kenneth’s safety at risk if his name got out?
  6. If he does come forward, and his disclosure prompts action on the part of the union and/or the company, what are the ethical implications of a researcher affecting change in the research site?
  7. Would Kenneth’s obligations change if he had overheard employees attempting to ensure unionization, rather than attempting to defeat it?
. . To Tell or Not to Tell. Online Ethics Center. DOI:.

The author of the prior commentary sees this as a case of conflicting obligations of a researcher, falling within the realm of research ethics. The main questions concern the confidentiality that Kenneth promised to everyone, the special status of the three workers who didn’t want to be involved, and Kenneth’s dilemma when it came to reporting or not reporting the overheard conversation.

I see this case as only partly a matter of research ethics and partly a broader matter of politics, or of general ethics. Here are a number of observations:

  1. There is the whole problem of what actually Kenneth overheard. Kenneth believes that the particular dialogue snippet indicates that someone is going to tamper with the votes. But the snippet “Don’t worry — I’ve been working with Marie and a couple of others to get that situation under control. You’ll never see a union voted in here” may mean a number of things. The statement may have nothing whatsoever to do with tampering with the voting results. It may for instance refer to a planned last minute persuasion campaign which the worker believes will have the effect of deterring unionization. Or it may refer to some last minute threats or incentives that he knows that Marie has planned in order to deter worker unionization, and which he believes will work. Or something else.
  2. Another question is whether Kenneth’s agreement with the three workers really required him to go as far as to duck away into the restroom in order not to be seen! But perhaps there was something else going on that made Kenneth believe that he would better not be seen, but which we have not been told — for instance, perhaps Kenneth already heard something of what they said as they approached, or perhaps they looked very conspiratorial, etc. The fact that these workers did not wish to be part of a study is not suspicious by itself. However, Kenneth may have had his own particular suspicions about them. We need to know more about the reasons for Kenneth’s decision to avoid meeting the workers.
  3. The controversy over unionization is useful as a framing event, as controversies usually are, making people more willing to express their feelings and beliefs about the company and other matters. Perhaps we should know more about what kinds of things Kenneth hopes to investigate through his observations? The connection to gender research, the theme of the study, is missing in the Kenneth example. (Also, is this study only involving observations and not interviews? The word “interview” is not mentioned).
  4. An interesting question that this study raises is, “Whose side is Kenneth on?” and also, “Whose side should he be on?” In controversies, this is an important matter for a researcher to resolve. From the story it seems that Kenneth is identifying himself with the workers who want to unionize rather than with the workers who are against unionization. What is the rationale for this?

As a fact-finding researcher Kenneth might want to keep an independent stance in order to find out about the reasoning on both sides in a controversy. (This is the approach I explicitly took myself in Defenders of the Truth, Segerstrale, 2000, an analysis of the participants in the sociobiology controversy). As some type of action researcher, again, one assumes Kenneth would want to take the side of the “underdog.” But who is the underdog here, and from whose point of view? Should Kenneth perhaps be taking the side which he believes that, if victorious, will cause less overall harm to the factory’s workers and their families? The families may be the real underdogs! (To make this judgment, we — and Kenneth — would need information on the possibility that the workers will find new jobs if the factory closes down, the prevailing rules for unemployment compensation, and other relevant considerations).

Of course, Kenneth may also be worried that his own research will be undermined if the workers unionize and Marie responds by closing down the factory. In any case, Kenneth needs to analyze more closely the potential consequences of his actions in a broader context.


  • Segerstrale, Ullica, 2000. Defenders of the Truth. The Battle for Science in the Sociobiology Debate and Beyond. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

In this case study, the central issue revolves around Kenneth’s role as a researcher.  First, how does this role affect what people at the site can expect from him in terms of confidentiality?  Second, how does this role affect how he responds to overhearing information that may change the course of the impeding union vote?  And how will it affect his research goals?

In terms of Kenneth’s role in his research site, does he have an obligation to act on behalf of the workers whose union votes may be tampered with?  Or does he have an even stronger obligation to avoid disrupting or changing the situation at his research site?  Should Kenneth act as an “objective” researcher, avoiding involvement in the situation, or should he be an advocate for his participants?  This is an age-old question in the social sciences and one without a completely satisfactory answer.

Proponents of traditionalist, positivist social science would probably argue that intervening in this developing situation would somehow contaminate Kenneth’s data, or keep the researcher from accessing the “Truth” — the one and only “objective” reality of the research site, which should unfold without his interference.  This may be true in the sense that getting involved may block Kenneth’s ability to conduct further observations at this company.  But growing numbers of social scientists realize that not only does the researcher’s very presence at the site affect his or her data, but that there are many “truths”, and not one objective reality.  Feminist researchers in particular have argued that the position of the researcher (his or her gender, race, social class, and other characteristics) as well as that of the participants, will influence the questions the researcher asks as well as the answers he or she finds (Deutsch 2004).  So there are many truths in each research site.  Since all researchers carry their own backgrounds and biases, truly “objective” social science is not a realistic goal and never has been.  Researchers need only to be honest with their audience about their own positionality, and, in some circumstances, should become involved in their research sites, especially when they have knowledge that may help their participants.  The goal is to retain validity while being honest in a way that traditional positivist research has often not been.  Although this latter perspective has gained much legitimacy within sociology, there is still some disagreement within the discipline along the fault lines between qualitative and quantitative researchers, and even among qualitative researchers (Taylor 1999).

At the same time, in this situation, there are other circumstances to consider. Will going public with the information he has overheard compromise the physical safety of the researcher?  Will it involve him in a legal battle if plans to tamper with the union vote are uncovered?  Not only does the researcher face the epistemological questions of his discipline, but the additional issues faced by whistleblowers everywhere.  Further complicating matters is the fact that he did not hear specifically what was being planned, only that one or more drivers, aided by management, are planning to do something to challenge the rightful outcome of the vote.

In this case, it seems that his responsibilities are conflicting.  The terms of confidentiality he offered to workers at the site would seem to cover the information that he overheard.  On the other hand, he seems to have an ethical responsibility to the other workers at the site that may be harmed by those who would tamper with the vote.  Perhaps he could mediate this conflict by reporting the information he overheard, but not providing names.  This would protect confidentiality while keeping union officials on heightened alert for vote fraud.


  • Deutsch, Nancy L. 2004. “Positionality and the Pen: Reflections on the Process of Becoming a Feminist Researcher and Writer.”  Qualitative Inquiry 10(6): 885-902.
  • Taylor, Peter Leigh. 1999. “Qualitative Cowboy or Qualitative Dude: An Impasse of Validity, Politics and Ethics?”  Sociological Inquiry 69(1): 1-32.