Sunday, August 03, 2014
Calling the boss out on his misdeeds takes courage
How far should you go to call attention to a colleague's wrongdoing?
A reader used to work for a publication where all the employees, including his boss, had a writing quota. An executive higher up at the publication instituted a policy that required the staff to pair up with one another and serve as one another's copyeditor. The reader was asked by his boss to serve as his copyeditor.
The reader began to notice that his boss was presenting old stories as new ones. As part of the copyediting process, the reader called his boss's attention to this.
"He brushed it off, saying he'd added new details," the reader stated.
No one but the reader seemed to notice the boss's practice.
Then, the boss began taking press releases submitted by outside firms and using them, unattributed, in his articles.
"I told him he had to stop or at least attribute them," the reader writes. His boss then informed him that he would no longer be his copyeditor. Not long after, the reader was let go.
He's not certain, but he suspects his boss was involved in the decision to let him go, but he decided not to blow the whistle.
"Should I have outed him?" the reader asks. "I have to admit I hoped someone would do it eventually."
Several months later, the company downsized and the boss and several other members of the writing staff were let go. Soon after, the publication filed for bankruptcy.
The reader would have lost his job a few months after he did even if he had stayed on. Whether or not he reported his boss's wrongdoing, the boss would have lost his job, as everyone else did. Given these factors, does it matter that no one ever called the boss out on his misdeeds?
You don't have to look far to see high-profile instances of plagiarism reported in the press. Misappropriating someone else's work as your own -- whether it's a news article or a press release -- is unprofessional and wrong. Passing off old work as new doesn't pass muster and misleads readers into believing they're receiving something that they are not.
Perhaps some sort of justice was served by the boss losing his job, even if it had nothing to do with his misdeeds. But because the boss was able to behave inappropriately without ever being called on it, he can move on to another job as if his integrity and professionalism were intact.
When the boss would not change his practice after the reader pointed it out to him during several copyediting sessions, the right thing would have been to go to the higher-up who instituted the copyediting pairings at the publication. If not then, then certainly the reader might have pointed out the problem when told he was being let go -- although at that point it might have sounded like sour grapes.
If fear of being fired was the reason for not reporting the plagiarism, it turned out that not reporting it resulted in the reader losing his job anyway. If the reader had reported the misdeeds, then at the very least the higher-up would have had the opportunity to do the right thing and call the boss on his actions.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications programat Harvard's Kennedy School.
Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin
Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to email@example.com.