Saturday, June 03, 2006


"A mistake is an accident," Rabbi Joseph Telushkin writes, "while a sin is a choice."

I can't get this thought -- from Telushkin's "A Code of Jewish Ethics" ( A Code of Jewish Ethics: Volume 1: You Shal... ) -- out of my head since I read an e-mail from a reader in southern California who is faced with the dilemma of either following her boss's direction to do something that she knows is wrong or telling him no and risking the loss of a job she began barely 90 days ago.

The company for which she works requires its employees to take Web-based compliance courses. The courses are monitored, and those who do not complete them are "tagged" and informed of their noncompliance.

"Recently the person I assist has been tagged for having only 20% of the required courses completed," she writes.

My reader has already completed the courses herself. Now her boss has asked her to log in and take the courses again, this time under his name.

"I understand that, by completing these courses himself, he loses out on a day to two days of productivity," she writes, "but I do not feel it is completely honest to expect me to take the courses for him."

On the other hand, as his assistant she wants to make sure that he is productive, because that will help her in the long run. And, as a relatively new hire, she doesn't want to put her job on the line.

"I have told him that I would do it," she writes, "but now I feel that I need a second opinion. I worry that, if I don't do it, he'll pass it off to another assistant and look down upon me."

For most of us, the most difficult ethical choices we have to make aren't between right and wrong. Most of us can resolve such stark choices.It gets harder when we're faced with multiple right answers and have to select the best one.

That's not the case here, however. The assistant should not take the courses for her boss.

It was dishonest for her boss to ask someone else to complete his required courses. If she agrees to do it, she will become equally culpable. As for her job, the chances may well be greater that she'll lose the job if it's discovered that she participated in this deceit.

These sorts of situations are precisely why ethics programs are set up within companies. Most feature some mechanism that allows an employee to anonymously report suspected egregious behavior.

The reader's company has an ethics hotline. Without hesitation, the right thing to do is to report this guy. She's right to be concerned that, if she turns him down, he may simply entice someone else to do the same thing. Regardless of how productive he is, such flagrant dishonesty and such attempts to manipulate employees into doing wrong should be unacceptable at any company. If top management does nothing to investigate and stop this boss before he acts again, it is making a farce of its ethics program.

Making the choice to do nothing would be, well, sinful. That goes not only for my reader, but also for the company that employs her and her wayward boss.


Anonymous said...

Gosh Dang! She is "caught" in an ethical crossfire. OK! I bet everyone in the company has "lied" about the boss being on the phone or at a meeting when avoiding callers. I bet all the employees have "lied" at one time or another about: being late, being sick, having a doctor’s appt, not finishing a project on nausea.
The only time people choose to become "ethical" is when it impinges on their time or personal sense of morality that applies to "others" and not themselves. A job description should be...IF YOU CHOOSE TO WORK HERE THEN YOU WILL DO ANYTHING THAT IS NOT ILLEGAL OR IMMORAL WHILE AT WORK.
Since we all lie for convenience then lying should not be a moral issue.
Yes companies have ethical seminars, web-based course and focus groups to "teach" us to be ethical. None of these will change any ones action because the decision to do becomes a choice at the moment based on a set of rationales developed over time.
So the old or new employee doing the requested course for her boss allows the boss to be more productive, allows the employee to do something that is productive(helping her boss stay productive is productivity....consider any employee doing anything assigned as a duty helping the boss focus on something more important.)
As a counter to the ethical question why not ask the following, "How many Companies in America require their Board of Directors and Executive management to take any type of ethical courses?"
To do or not to do is the question for the lady with the dilemma. If she were truly ethical then she would not be asking these questions on an open forum or newspaper.

Anonymous said...

There is an assumption that the ethics program is an ethics program and not a program to avoid lawsuits. Most ethics programs are misnamed in this way.

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