Sunday, January 25, 2009

THE RIGHT THING: THE COST OF DOING GOOD

More often than not, doing the right thing results in a good outcome. In the workplace that makes sense, since good ethical behavior often parallels good management decisions: Treat your employees with respect, for example, and they're likely to be more productive and more inclined to work for the greater good of the company.

Let's face it, though: There are times when doing the right thing can cause pain. Sure, the action may have a payoff in the long term, but that doesn't diminish the pain in the short term.

A reader who is a licensed therapist learned this firsthand after leaving her most recent job as a supervisor for a mental-health agency.

One of the therapists whom she had been assigned to supervise had memory problems which led her to make significant billing errors. When my reader brought the problem to the attention of the agency's administration, the memory-impaired therapist was transferred to another supervisor. No action was taken to correct the billing.

Soon afterward my reader was assigned to coordinate one of her agency's specialty programs. The therapist she had reported previously was seeing clients through this program. Again my reader brought this therapist's billing errors to the attention of the administration, and again nothing was done to address the issue or to correct the resulting errors.

"When I left the agency for another position," my reader writes, "I felt I had done all I could to solve this problem and could not do anything further."

For her new position, however, she attended a compliance-training program and learned that the type of errors her former supervisee repeatedly made were considered fraud. If a licensed therapist has knowledge of fraud and doesn't report it, the trainer told the group, her license is at risk.

So my reader called the county fraud hot line and reported the errors. As a result of her call, her previous employer's billing was audited and her complaint was substantiated.

The call itself was confidential, but the fact that the audit team looked specifically at one particular therapist's work led the agency staff to conclude that it was my reader who had made the fraud complaint. Since the audit, none of her former colleagues will talk to her or respond to written communication.

"The difficult part of this is that I have lost all of my friendships at the agency," she writes. "I have accepted that the relationships are over, but I still wonder if I did the right thing."

I'm rarely one to quote scripture, but there's a terrific passage in the Book of Isaiah that captures the essence of this experience: "So justice is driven back, and righteousness stands at a distance. Truth has stumbled in the streets, honesty cannot enter. Truth is lacking, and he who departs from evil makes himself a prey."

Because my reader stood up when those around her refused to acknowledge a serious ethical lapse -- and, as it turned out, serious illegality -- she has been left open to the judgments of her former co-workers, even though the audit confirmed what she had been saying all along.

She was correct to report the billing errors, first to her administrators and then to the hot line when it was clear that otherwise no action would be taken to correct the issue. In the long run her profession benefits from her willingness to report the issue, not solely because of any legalities, but also because it was the right thing to do.

As for her former colleagues, they did and are doing the wrong thing. That my reader was forced to go to an outside authority is their own fault, and they should not blame her personally for taking an action which, if left undone, might have placed her own career in jeopardy.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry to be brutally honest here, but your "honest" reader, through no fault of her own, in what was a double attempt by her to follow the idiotic guidelines of her profession was rewarded by having her so-called associates blackball her socially. I don't see how anyone would want to work in a profession that has a work atmosphere and guidelines so unfair, that in an attempt to be honest, not once, but twice, she has lost her standing in her profession. Surely there must be some higher level of authority in the profession this woman has given her life to who could correct this monstrously unfair calamity that has befallen her. And, if there are no persons in authority in this so-called "profession" who understand the unfairness of what happened to this person, and thereby correct this professional injury, the worker should immediately contact a personal injury lawyer and sue the living daylights out of this organization.

Anomymous in South Carolina

Elian said...

Your reader is assuming that her former colleagues are reacting to the facts as she knows them, when in fact, they might have heard a different framing of events from their (still) administrator - such as anyone contacting your reader might lose their own job. Also, these people were perhaps interviewed by legal authorities, etc. Who knows what went on in the process of the investigation - all manner of discomforts that are now associated with her. Given time, it is likely that some encounter with a former colleague will fill in the blanks for your reader. In the meantime, what choice does a therapist have but to set an example of rising to the challenges of living by the dictates of one's own conscience -- regardless of the consequences. I'm rather surprised that your reader has doubts about having done the right thing. Would her colleagues continuing friendship have been the milestone by which she measured the rightness of her own actions? She's a therapist, and better placed than most to have insight into human nature. Perhaps thinking of this situation as if it happened to someone else might give her clarifying perspective; she needn't take it as a personal event so much as group dynamics. She did nothing wrong (I think that her question about having done the right thing or not, is just as much if she did something wrong in the process or not.)

PS: Your quotation from the Book of Isaiah sounds a lot like something one would read in the I Ching.

Carroll Straus said...

I have a slightly different take on this: I think the reader/whistleblower coud have contacted the former employers once more, to say she felt she had to report this as fraud (per what she had learned) if it was not corrected.

Fraud requires "scienter"-- knowledge and intent. Per the readers version of events, the original billing errors were due to "memory problems"-- ergo they were not fraud. Once this was brought to the attnetion of those who were not impaired, the analysis changes.

It is not stated whether the errors were in favor of the provider or the patients (or insurace companies!) or both. If they overbilled Medicare or insurance carriers there may still be he** to pay. But the reader could have given the folks a heads up to make sure there was no good faith oversight to correct the situation, before she called in the big guns.

PM Hut said...

Ethics in the workplace is a 2 edged sword. Sometimes there's a thin line between being ethical and being a snitch (cheating in school, anyone?).

As I run a PM website, I have recently published an article about ethics in project management, all of the points listed in the article are straightforward and will not get you in trouble, except for one: "Honesty all the time", this point can easily put any PM in the same position as your reader. Being honest is always the right thing to do, but sometimes you get to pay for it, and the pay sometimes can be high, as high as the loss of close friends.

M. Lawrence said...

I disagree with the respondent who believed that the agency should have been given a final chance to correct the problem before being audited. It is generous of the supervisor to say that the person who over-billed had "memory problems," but that is not something that anyone can know. The fact that not only was the problem not corrected, the agency chose to move the person to another supervisor who, presumably, wouldn't be quite as sharp eyed, makes the agency appear to be complicit in the over billing. And then, of course, it happened again. I say this agency deserved to be audited and that the therapist who reported it hasn't lost anything. That doesn't make her position any easier personally, but professionally, she did absolutely the right thing.

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