Sunday, June 02, 2013

When the boss believes the rules don't apply to him

Many of us regularly face situations where we know we should do something, but we find ourselves stumped on how to proceed.

A reader from the Midwest is facing such a situation. She works for a public organization that regularly hires independent contractors. One of these contractors owns an excavation company that does a substantial amount of work for the reader's organization, work he acquires through an appropriately conducted bidding process.

But the reader has recently discovered that the head of the public organization, the boss, has used this same contractor a few times to grade the driveway at the boss's home.

"I know this is a conflict of interest at best," she writes. "Worse, I understand that the contractor is not paid for his work, making the situation even more untenable."

The reader finds the situation more troubling because, she writes, "the contractor is a good, honest man who would legitimately get the jobs." She believes he might be grading the boss's driveway to be nice. "I would not want him to get in trouble."

The reader is sure that the boss knows that what he is doing is unethical and, she imagines, illegal. "He is a smart person," she writes, "but he often seems to think rules don't apply to him. He is also vindictive to anyone who questions anything he does."

She's torn about what to do.

"Is there any way to draw attention to this problem without getting the contractor in trouble?" she asks. "Part of me wants to just ignore it because the boss intends to retire within the next year, but the other part of me knows that it is not the right thing to do."

If the situation is as the reader describes it and the excavator is providing free personal services to the boss, there is little chance of drawing attention to the situation without getting the excavator in trouble. But then, the observation that the excavator is "an honest man" seems dubious given that he must also know that what he is doing is wrong. Granted the boss is presumably in a position of greater power here, but as soon as the excavator began doing personal favors that could be construed as buying favor with the public organization's decision maker, he crossed a line.

The fact that the boss is retiring soon could be an opportunity to call attention to the issue without giving him the opportunity to exhibit long-term vindictiveness.

In a public organization, the focus of that organization should be on fulfilling what the mission of the organization is to the public, not enabling a rules-challenged boss to feather his own nest at others' expense. Giving him what he wants or turning a blind eye to go along to get along sends a message that such behavior is allowed.

Others in the organization who drew the reader's attention to the pavement problem must know what's at stake as well. The right thing would be for the reader to make sure she has all the facts and then, if they hold up, to talk with these others and then report their concerns to other officers within the organization or to the board. If neither takes action or responds, they should consider reporting their concerns more widely. 

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 program at Harvard's Kennedy School. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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(c) 2013 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.


Anonymous said...

Let's assume that what the employee suspects is true. What the employee has described is not just unethical - it's illegal. This should be reported and investigated. The employee should make a report to the next higher authority so an investigation can be made.

Anonymous said...

It's awfully high-minded of the reader to analyze this dilema but the bottom line is with all this sluething and evaluating, the reader is not in management and will cut her own throat if she makes trouble. Perhaps the employees should could go as a body to the boss and confront him? However, with the type of man the boss is, it is doubtful he will react positively to this type of interference and the reader will not fare well for the interference.

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC