Sunday, March 21, 2010


A reader has been bothered by an issue at work for some time, but he doesn't know what to do about it.

"I don't know if it falls under the category of ethics," he writes, "but I will ask it anyway."

My reader's question does indeed raise ethical issues of people's responsibility to one another in the workplace.

He works for a land-surveying company. Every morning the workers meet at their office to establish who is going to work with whom, and then they get their jobs for the day. The process takes 15 to 30 minutes, after which they head out to their respective job sites.

There are a handful of guys, my reader writes, who "pretty much show up whenever they want." They are habitually late, which wreaks havoc on the morning routine. Since they don't know whether or not these laggards will be coming in, the rest of the workers have to wait to set up crews for the day.

All of the fellows who are regularly late have worked at the company for some time, between 5 and 10 years.

"It's a problem," my reader writes, "because nothing is being done to them as far as a punishment. They will call in for days off with what I consider to be pretty bad excuses. There are even times when they just don't show up, without a phone call or anything."

My reader and the rest of his co-workers, who do make it a point to show up every day and on time, are irked.

"I know my boss gets angry about this," my reader writes, "because he will express it to me. But there is no action being taken.

"Do I have a right to approach my boss with my discontent about the situation?" he asks. "And, if so, what do I say and how do I go about it?"

Yes, you have a right to approach your boss about the situation. You have to ask yourself, however, if you truly are prepared to do this and if it makes sense to approach him alone.

In Leading Quietly: An Unorthodox Guide to Doing the Right Thing (Harvard Business Press, 2002), Joseph Badaracco suggests treading carefully when confronting some challenging issues in the workplace. Not everything rises to enough of a crisis level to be worthy of complaint. My reader's issue, however, seems to have crossed into complaint-worthy territory.

Badaracco also suggests that there is strength in numbers. If others feel the same way my reader does, as he says they do, then perhaps a few of them should jointly approach the boss about the situation.

The right thing would be to focus on the facts of the problem, rather than to stray into the unknown - say, by speculating about the validity of the other workers' excuses for absence. The fact of the matter is that the entire group's effectiveness is being undermined by the behavior of a handful of workers, and only the boss can address the situation, if he chooses to do so.

The boss is, as my reader notes, aware of the situation. It is possible that an approach by a group of workers will spur him to take action, but it is also possible that, for whatever reason, he will continue to let the matter slide.

In either case, however, the boss will know that his workers want to do a good job well, and that they need his help to do so.

c.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Anonymous said...

Jeffrey, I don't see this as an ethics problem, I see it more as a severe management problem. Can't the workers who behave themselves, come on time, etc., go to the boss and nicely demand that he get the work assignment situation under control? These are very patient guys, I'd think most people would stand for something like this for a couple of weeks and then rebel (again, nicely!).

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC

Maddy said...

Is it possible to divide the work up among the people who are on time, and leave the late people no work to do? Then when the late comers do bother to show up, the boss can tell them there is no work left to schedule for them- it's all been allocated to others who were present for the day- and send them home unpaid.

I'm certain the tardy workers will find a reason to change their habits when it starts to affect their paychecks.

Madilyn Bruening
Salt Lake City, UT

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