Sunday, April 20, 2008


Here's a new one: "The person I report to is incompetent."

OK, maybe it's not so new. Many of us have heard it dozens of times from friends, colleagues or loved ones ... or, heaven forbid, even thought it ourselves.

It's one thing to conclude that you're working for an incompetent, however, and quite another to decide that his/her incompetence rises to a level that merits taking the matter to a supervisor.

That's my reader's plight. She has reported some of her boss's mess-ups, such as inappropriate language in the workplace and inability to manage his employees, to his immediate supervisor. Her boss has confided to her that he has been told by his immediate supervisor that he is "close to being fired" -- and has enlisted my reader to keep any mishaps "between them" when he messes up.

My reader and her boss work for a state agency, and last year her boss misreported information that could have ended up costing the state a lot of money. When my reader caught the problem, her boss asked her to adjust the numbers.

"It was a manipulation of numbers to cover his mistake," she says.

Still she made the changes, because her boss told her to.

Now, a year later, her boss has made similar mistakes in reporting information to the state.

"I feel like a tattle if I report his incompetence," my reader says. " ... I am at a loss. If I tell, he may lose his job."

Making her decision even tougher is that her boss is in his late 20s, and his wife is expecting their second child.

Even if the mistake isn't caught, she says, "I will know."

Should she cooperate with her boss's efforts at concealment, or should she speak to the supervisor again and let the chips fall where they may?

If the boss's drawbacks were limited to routine incompetence -- tardiness, unresponsiveness or awkwardness at meetings -- his behavior likely wouldn't have risen to a level requiring his subordinate to report him to his supervisor. This sort of thing is subjective, after all, and the supervisor must be the judge of it.

But once her boss started fabricating numbers on a report and tried to enlist the help of his employees in doing so, he crossed a line. The right thing to do became to turn him in.

My reader complicated matters by following her boss's directive to change the numbers a year ago, even though she knew it was fraudulent to do so. If she goes to his boss now, she must expect the question, "Why did you participate in this cover-up last year?" Her "I was just following orders" response is unlikely to fly.

That's a prime danger in allowing yourself to participate in one small lie. It's difficult to avoid further lies to cover the initial one.

My reader would be wise not to agree to "fix" the numbers again this year. She should recognize that the harm her boss is causing her agency and herself outweighs any loyalty she may feel or any desire to save him or his family from the consequences of his actions. If he wants job security, he shouldn't be falsifying reports.

The right thing for her to do is to report his behavior.

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Anonymous said...

Your reader, as you pointed out, should have refused to commit fraud last year. While her boss may be incompetent, she has committed a criminal act. Repeating the offense this year certainly compounds the problem she has created for herself. If she is aware of one "error" that she has been asked to cover up, it is likely that there are others she's not aware of -- whether or not someone else has found them.

Her boss may be incompetent, and perhaps, never been required to take responsibility for his actions. His family situation, while unfortunate, is irrelevant. She should absolutely refuse to commit another criminal act. While owning up to last year's cover-up ("I let myself be coerced...") may still result in her being fired, repeating the cover-up could land her in jail.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Typical of many of today's young workers, especially in a public type organization and this employee turns out to be a wince who not only participated in something unethical but also illegal. There is nothing for her to do but go to the big boss and fess up. This will probably cost her job (as well as her screwup boss) but this cannnot be allowed to go on any longer. The hard thing to understand is why this employee would allow herself to be used like this. Is a job so precious that she would be willing to lie, knowing that eventually this would all come out. Also, a comment about jobs in the public sector - it is suspected that this type of shennanigins go on all the time in government type jobs, where there is no profit motive and accountability.


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