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Feb 29, 2008

Due Diligence

Wikipedia defines due diligence (also known as due care) as the effort made by an ordinarily prudent or reasonable party to avoid harm to another party. This applies to areas other than civil law. For example, this is something I am learning to do in my job. It is not easy, and I probably fail a lot, but I am trying.

Someone like me finds oneself at the center of many different interests and agendas. People come to me to talk about their problems and issues, and I made it very clear that this is very welcome. We cannot operate without informal information exchange. However, most people’s problems have to do with other people, and I am always drawn into discussions of someone’s actions when that person is not there. Some people take the high moral ground and refuse to discuss others in absentia. This is highly impractical, because it would shut down most of vital conversations. Such a strategy would certainly be impossible to carry on in my position anyway. However, discussing someone when that person cannot be a part of the discussion has its ethical and practical problems, which need to be taken good care of. Impracticality if a radical ethical position does not imply lapse of all moral obligations. The problem is with asymmetry of power. Imagine A comes to me to complain about B, but B does not know about it. A just got an unfair advantage over B. This is not necessarily a conscious attempt to manipulate me against B; rater, A has a particular view of B’s behavior. In a conversation, people tend to agree when possible, so my tendency is to see the point A is making about B. It is important to understand that any conversation implies some readiness to accept your partner’s premises, at least to some extent. Otherwise, there is no conversation. So, by the virtue of having my ear, A has created a story that becomes a part of what I know. B does not necessarily have a chance to challenge that story, because she might not know about A’s complaint. Due diligence requires me to find B’s side of the story to avoid imbalance. However, how do you do that? What A is telling me might be said in confidence. If I came back to B and ask, say, I have hear you did this and that?, this will give away the fact of our conversation with A away and breach confidentiality. However, if I never ask, I will never know the other side of the story, and become a hostage of A’s allegations.

This is the dilemma. Whoever comes first, gets a certain narrative established, and it is not easy to exercise due diligence. What do I do? There are several tricks. One of them is to try to challenge A’s story by suggesting different, more generous interpretations of B’s actions. The risk is that A thinks I am taking B’s side in the conflict, because I am looking for excuses for B. In general, when you are trying to challenge or investigate someone’s story, you inadvertently challenge that person’s honesty. Not many people routinely recognize that their perceptions might be limited, and dependent on their interests and positions. Another trick is to delay any kind of actions and decisions, and then try to verify the story indirectly. It does not always work, because a question about a specific incident will almost always allow the person in question to trace the source of information. And yet another trick is to ask someone other than A and B about the same story, to get an independent opinion. The risk here is that any C who knows about the story might already been in my position, and have been influenced by A or B for exactly the same reason as I get influenced by whoever bring the story to me.

Why am I dwelling on all these complications of human interactions? For a very simple reason: I don’t want people to be offended or put off by my exercise of due diligence. I simply need to know other sides of the story not because I mistrust their account, but because we all have specific points of view, and I cannot do anything that can potentially harm someone else without due diligence.

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