American Sociological Association

Case 17. Responsibilities as an Employee


Paula Sowell has a Master's degree in applied sociology and for the past 8 years she has worked in a research center where she has progressed from a data entry clerk to a position of project manager for an important long-term study undertaken by the center. Her immediate supervisor, Sharon Trusdell, the director of the research center, is a Ph.D. in sociology who oversees Paula's work. Her supervisor is confident in Paula's ability to manage the project on a daily basis and work with the technical experts who are responsible for research design, instrumentation, and data analysis. However, on numerous occasions, Paula and the center director have had serious disagreements over the parameters of Paula's work. These conflicts are primarily due to a "personality conflict" between Paula and her supervisor, rather than a serious question about Paula's ability, although on numerous occasions, the center director has threatened to "fire" Paula for insignificant differences of opinion.

Becoming dissatisfied with the working environment, Paula decides to return to school to further her education and eventually work in a higher level position elsewhere. She applies to schools in January and knows by spring that she will be attending graduate school in the fall. Although Paula knows there is no one within the research center who can immediately take over her duties and that the project she manages will be at a critical stage for completing a final report, she doesn't feel she can inform the center director of her impending departure early on (i.e., in the spring). Paula realizes that if she informs the center director too early, her replacement might be hired and she could be without a job for a number of months before she begins school in the fall. Moreover, there could be a number of other negative repercussions because of their past history. Instead, she "gives notice" two weeks prior to her departure, which is what most jobs require.


  1. What ethical dilemma does Paula face when she decides the timing of his "notice" to resign from the research center?
  2. Is Paula's decision to give only a two week notice appropriate? Justify your answer.
  3. Even if Paula's two week notice did not violate any organizational policies, are there other ways she could have handled her resignation so that the negative impact on the center could have been avoided?


Although Paula has been promoted to higher ranks, given more responsibility, and had increases in pay over the years, interaction with the center director has been particularly difficult. On many occasions, the director has been verbally abusive and undermined her authority with the workers she manages. Because of these problems, Paula did not feel any obligation to give an earlier notice of her impending departure. Paula does have the right to protect her livelihood and she did give two week's notice to the center which is what most jobs require.

On the other hand, Paula knows that she has a responsibility to fulfill her commitments, particularly when others are counting on her. If she leaves before a replacement is hired, it will present numerous difficulties for the research center. The center's completion of the final report could be delayed and they would have problems to hire and orient a new person within the two week period.

Personal integrity, honoring commitments, and living up to obligations are important standards to uphold. People expect this from professionals in an employment situation. Paula must recognize the importance of fulfilling one's obligations, particularly when not doing so can result in significant negative impact on someone (or an organization). Paula can take steps to reduce the negative impact, but it would require that she give earlier notice to the center director--perhaps a month. It would also necessitate that she spend the time putting everything in order and preparing the important documentation for the new project manager. In this way, the transition would be easier. If she has major responsibilities for the final report, Paula should also take steps to complete this prior to her departure, or leave it in a shape that it can be easily completed by the new manager. If the new manager is hired while Paula is still there, she can take the necessary time to orient the new employee. If feasible, Paula can also be accessible to the new manager, after she leaves, to answer questions. Depending on the situation, Paula might also offer to work part-time, or on a consultant basis, while the new manager gets oriented and the final report is completed.

This case also points to the ethical obligations of an employer, as well as an employee. An employer who treats his/her employees fairly and maintains a good working relationship with them is likely to have this behavior reciprocated. 

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