Sunday, July 15, 2007


Therapists -- full disclosure: my wife is one -- are fond of saying that the first step on the road to recovery is acknowledging that you have a problem.

Ethics writers are also keen on problem recognition. Many of us love to cite former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis' chestnut, "Sunshine is the best disinfectant," to make the case for individuals to fully disclose any potential conflicts of interest that they may have.

But sometimes simply acknowledging that you have a problem falls woefully short unless you also take the steps necessary to address that problem. Nor is fully disclosing conflicts of interest a particularly useful antidote to bad behavior if no one tells you to stop doing whatever it is that poses enough of a conflict that it should be stopped.

Bosses or colleagues may turn a blind eye because it's not in their best interest to thwart behavior that may be questionable but seems to be helping the overall interests of the organization and perhaps of the individuals themselves.

It's reminiscent of the scene in "Casablanca" (1942) in which Captain Renault (Claude Rains) decides to close down a casino run by Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart): "I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here," Renault says severely, as a casino worker hands him his winnings.

As long as questionable behavior appears to help all involved, in short, the status quo is likely to be preserved.

One of my readers appears to be caught in the middle of such a scenario. She works for one of her town's emergency-response departments. Her boss also sits on the board of a nonprofit organization that is totally separate from the emergency-response department. The nonprofit wants to buy some land owned by the emergency-response department, and her boss is trying to facilitate the sale. He is responsible for building new buildings for the emergency-response department, and believes that the money from the sale of the land could be used to build a new facility downtown.

Because her state's ethics-commission guidelines state that contracts should not be negotiated on behalf of business associates, my reader believes that her boss has a conflict of interest. She has told him so, but he disagrees.

The conflicts don't end there, however: His relationship with the nonprofit spills further into his full-time job via, among other things, an annual calendar sale that he spearheads for the nonprofit. He has made it part of my reader's job to track sales of these calendars. In other words, part of her salary, which is funded by the town's taxpayer dollars, is being used to do something that has nothing to do with the town's business.

My reader was right to express her concern to her boss. The right thing for her to do now is to ask that she no longer be assigned to tasks related to her boss's board responsibilities but not to the emergency-response department. Her town's taxpayers should not be footing the bill for her boss's work outside the department, regardless of how praiseworthy that work may be. And, being aware of the conflict, even if she cannot stop it, she should not participate in it.

The right thing for her boss to do would be to recuse himself from the property-sale process. The fact that he's facilitating a purchase for the nonprofit that stands to help his primary employer does indeed raise the specter of a conflict of interest. If the deal is one that really does benefit both parties, better not to sully it by raising suspicions that someone stood to gain personally.

If he doesn't, it will come back to bite him. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of his life.


Anonymous said...

If your boss saddles you with performing jobs that are rightly his responsibility, you have two choices. One, which I favor, is this person who gave you the extra assignment is your boss and if he gives you a job, you do it. You were hired to perform jobs for your boss. It is not your job as the employee to spend time deciding if the assignments that are not your usual responsibility come under the heading of conflicts or ethics violations. No wonder there are so many lawsuits since so many employees have overly developed senses of importance of their job duties. Your other choice is to cause trouble by telling your boss you think he is intruding into your space, or that the additional duties are a conflict or ethical intrusion. Of course, you will then be and should be terminated for this stupidity. When you take a job, you agree to do the work assigned to you. If you feel you can't do something you consider not part of your duties, you should quit and get other employment.

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, S.C.

Anonymous said...

A simple definition of volunteer work is to give your time and efforts to a cause you support. But it's support in name only for many of the often-photographed "volunteers". Across the USA, and no doubt around the world, there are many, many people who are lauded for their volunteer work.....but the beginning and end of their volunteer work is to show up at meetings, and then to show up for the cameras when "their efforts" have contributed to the success of a worthy cause. Their efforts consist of delegating work to subordinates, who perform the work. The boss gets the glory. The company gets the bill. This is supported by many companies, who (as public utilities) pass the cost on to ratepayers. It's supported by the officers of many companies because it's good public relations for the companies and because there are parties to go to, and that makes many of the wives happy.......even gets them "work" as chairs for the grand balls that may be the social events of the season. Or we have "volunteers" who are using their "volunteer" time to make contacts that lead to profits.....profits for them, not for the worthy cause. This volunteer's worthy cause is himself. What he is doing is unethical and may be illegal.

So we have an artificial volunteer, who is taking credit for the work of others while seeking to increase profits for himself by using his "volunteer" contacts.

Anonymous said...

The ethical question raised by the employee will leave bloggers on two sides of the ethical fence. The two sides comprise 1) those who use subordinates to perform "volunteer" work for them, or who work for organizations that benefit from such "volunteer" work; and 2) those who must perform such "volunteer" work for fear of poor evaluations and/or job loss, along with taxpayers, ratepayers, and consumers who realize they are paying for the "volunteer" work. I suspect those who feel it is ethical to have an employee perform the boss's "volunteer" work will fall on side 1. (I left out category number 3: those who truly perform volunteer work, i.e. those who do the work after work hours.)

Many governments have laws or codes of conduct that prohibit using employees to perform such duties. So the question for government employees is one of legality as well as ethics.

Public utilities (energy and communication companies) use employees to perform volunteer work during normal business hours, thus passing the cost on to ratepayers. The utilities publicize such employee involvement, thus gaining public recognition for such "volunteer" work.

In addition to utilities, other for-profit companies pay employees to perform "volunteer" work, with approval by company officers, or for company officers. Often, the "volunteer" work work is for what I call "social charities": museums, orchestras, arts festivals, private schools, botanical gardens, etc. In other words, the company subsidizes the social life of company officers.

True volunteers are unpaid. They give their time outside of work hours. That's what volunteering means......and we need more of it. But don't call yourself a "volunteer" if you don't perform the work yourself, if you don't freely give your time. And when you are being paid, it is not your time: your time is when you are off work. So be ethical, and be honest - are you a volunteer or are you doing something to benefit your career or your social life?

Anonymous said...

The non-profit in this case is a credit union, founded by the members of the emergency response department. The calendars in question are special calendars that reflect the 24 hours on/48 hours off schedule that employees of the emergency response department work. The credit union gives every employee calendars each year. Employees do have the ability to order additional calendars and the department does track those orders.

As for the property- the person in question is not a decision maker in either organization. He does have input, but the final decision is not his.

The only ethics question here is the disgruntled employee who is in trouble with her boss for other issues trying to impugn his integrity using this column.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like the poster on 7/27/07 is the boss in question?
People in stone houses shouldn't throw rocks!

"Everyone is doing it" is no basis for doing it yourself

Years ago, after I had left my job as a magazine editor and took a significant cut in pay to become an assistant professor at a liberal ...