Sunday, June 21, 2009


When a child is stricken with a disease, it can be harrowing for all concerned. When that disease is rare, one with little ongoing funding for research, it can be even more devastating.

One of the partners in a firm where one of my readers works is facing such circumstances. To counteract the lack of funding, he has established his own foundation to fund research into this disease.
"All very laudable and understandable," my reader writes.

While the partner tries to keep his foundation work separate from his work for the firm, she adds, "there is some inevitable bleed-over, especially since the foundation's staff work in his firm's offices."

Even more bleed-over occurs when the foundation hosts its annual fund-raising dinner to raise money for its research fund. The firm's executives are invited to attend this black-tie event, but the rank-and-file employees are not given the same opportunity.

My reader understands that the partner cannot ethically extend an invitation to the fund-raiser to every employee. Doing so might make some employees feel that they were being coerced to give to this cause, even if they could not afford to do so. They might fear that, if they didn't give, their standing at the firm would be jeopardized.

Nevertheless, she says, by inviting only the executives, the partner breeds resentment among the uninvited, lower-tier employees, who already feel that the firm's management style is very "ivory tower, us-and-them."

"The perceived snub of this annual exclusion is like rubbing salt in a wound for some employees," my reader writes. "There is a great deal of quiet grumbling in the lunch room around the time of the event."

Is the partner handling this in an ethical manner?

There's nothing unethical in raising money to try to find a cure for a rare disease. My reader is right in finding the partner's desire to do so laudable.

The partner is also right in choosing not to put the rank-and-file employees in a position in which they might feel pressured to contribute to his foundation. In such a situation, whether they contributed or whether they didn't, hard feelings wood be inevitable.

By not keeping his foundation work entirely out of his workplace, however, he has created an impression that somehow the non-executive employees are less significant than his executive colleagues. He may intend only to spare the feelings of those who cannot afford his foundation's fund-raiser, but in reality he probably has no idea of who can afford what. In making this decision for them, he's making unfair assumptions about them.

So, if he's wrong to invite them and wrong not to invite them, what's the answer? Obviously he shouldn't put himself into this position in the first place.

In other words, his mistake lies in not keeping his work and his cause separate and clearly defined. If the foundation were a not-for-profit offshoot of the firm, it might be reasonable for its staff to share offices with the firm. If the other executives sat on the board of the foundation, it would make sense for them to get the pricey invites not sent to others at the firm.

Neither is the case, however, so the right thing for the partner to do is to draw a clear line between his work for the firm and his work for the foundation, starting by finding new office space for the foundation. That way, if others at the firm choose to contribute to the foundation or to participate in its annual events _ regardless of their rank in the firm's hierarchy _ they can do so on their own time and without any sense that their professional interests may somehow be involved.

The partner has done nothing wrong, in short, but he's done the right thing in the wrong way. It's time to straighten things out.¶

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


Bill Jacobson said...


The line of what actions are ethical are blurred beyond recognition when the survival of your child is on the line, so I applaud the partner for the steps he has taken to keep his actions in focus with his ethical obligations.

If, as you have, you concede that his choice to limit fundraiser invitations to those above him is the ethical course of action, then by definition his failure to extend invitations to those below him can not simultaneously be unethical. Either he took the correct course of action or not.

Ethical actions OFTEN come with consequences - that some easily offended people might find themselves so is unavoidable - better that than those who can't afford to contribute feeling pressured to do so.

That he is utilizing company resources in his efforts is a non-issue IF the executives and the board have signed off on it - most firms provide a variety of pro bono or charity work which they write off. It really is unrealistic to think that such work to save his child wouldn't overlap anyway.

If the easily offended worker is so interested in attending the fundraiser, I can't imagine that the partner would have a problem with the worker approaching the partner to request an invitation.

Offense should be saved for those situations where its warranted. It isn't here.

William Jacobson
Cypress, CA

Phil Clutts said...


Couldn’t the partner deal with this situation by using whatever house organ or electronic communications the firm has to state the date, time, place, cause, etc. for his fund-raising dinner? This could even be an add-on to some other all-employee communication to make it less coercive-sounding. The message would make it clear that all employees are welcome, but in order to receive a formal invitation, they should request one from a designated party on the foundation’s staff (secretary or admin aide).

Phil Clutts
Harrisburg, NC