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The Ethicist
March 14, 2011

Randy Cohen writes "The Ethicist" column in The New York Times Magazine. If you'd like help with a moral dilemma you're facing at school, at home, or at work, send your question to: ethicist@nytimes.com or The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10018, and include a phone number.

Can I Tell the Teacher That A Group-Project Member Is Slacking Off?

A large portion of our grade for a business school course I'm taking is based upon group projects. One person on my team has taken a free ride on the hard work of the rest of us. Most of us have already turned in our final papers, so telling the professor would have no practical purpose, but it might teach the guy a lesson. Should I rat him out?
K.F., Oakland, California

RAT AWAY and right away, not to teach the guy a lesson but to give your professor an honest account of how the project was accomplished. It's misleading to include this student among those who did the work if he didn't.

Actually, you should have spoken to your teacher when the problem emerged. I consulted a business school professor who said, "The ground rules for dealing with free riders are sometimes explicitly laid out—for example, the free rider may be fired by an appropriate majority or supermajority of group members."

Keep in mind, too, that managers in the real world must sometimes cope with teams comprising both workers and drones. The professor I spoke to said, "One of the explicit benefits of working in groups is that it forces students to confront these and other management issues."

UPDATE: K.F. didn't tell the professor, deciding that his teammate had not harmed anyone enough to warrant it.

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 143, March 14, 2011)