Sunday, June 29, 2014

Relying on karma is not an effective management tool

How responsible is a boss for responding to complaints about a manager who's alleged to have bullied employees, danced around the truth on expense reports, sought favor for relatives over those more qualified, and generally treated employees reporting to him miserably?

For several years, a manager at a mid-size organization had been berating employees reporting to him -- chastising them for not showing up to meetings he'd never told them about, trying his best to embarrass them at company-wide meetings by questioning how hard they'd worked on a presentation, asking a new employee to say she'd been at a company dinner so he could pad his expense report, assigning tasks to a relative that typically would have gone to more senior employees.

Many of his actions involved his word against the employees', so it was difficult to pinpoint concrete evidence of any wrongdoing.

Helping him enormously was the man's ability to charm the managers to whom he reported. In business, the pejorative expression used to describe such behavior is "kiss up and kick down."

Employees who tried to broach the subject with the manager's bosses were generally shunted aside with comments suggesting they were "overreacting."

The manager took full credit for any successes in his division. Any shortcomings were laid fully on the backs of employees.

Morale deteriorated. Some employees asked for transfers to other divisions. Others found new jobs elsewhere.

Finally, the president of the organization asked for a particular member of the manager's staff to work on a pet project. Those involved met frequently as a group. On one such occasion, the employee found himself walking with the president from a meeting back to their respective offices. Sensing an opportunity, he told her about some of the issues that had been simmering for years involving the manager.

The president wasn't surprised. She reassured the employee that all would be well because in her experience "what goes around comes around."

Was she right to presume that those who behave badly ultimately get their comeuppance rather than to address the issue head on?

Whether or not the maxim holds true, the president and other top brass were wrong to turn a blind eye to inappropriate treatment of employees by a company manager. Relying on karma is not an effective management tool.

The right thing would have been for the manager's bosses to take the complaints seriously and investigate. When the reports reached the president, she should have insisted that the problem be explored and addressed.

It's fine to drive employees hard and have high expectations. It is not fine to belittle and abuse them in the workplace.

Ultimately, a new president took over and the manager eventually lost his position. By that time, more employees, including the one confiding in the previous president, had left the company. Karma may have factored into the outcome, but by turning a blind eye the organization lost good employees in the long run.

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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Sunday, June 22, 2014

Making peace with lies is bad business

Sixteen years ago, I wrote an article for the business magazine I helped to edit about the lies entrepreneurs told to get their businesses started.

I wrote about the guy who wanted to get through to a difficult-to-reach leasing agent and finally lied to the receptionist by saying he was the agent's doctor. The same fellow had also purchased a check embosser and regularly typed the words "certified check" on his checks so delivery people would leave supplies they wouldn't have left without receiving payment by cash or certified check.

One of the points I was trying to make was that there's a difference between posturing to appear more established than you are and outright lying. I postured that it was perfectly acceptable to go into a meeting confident and eager to take on the hardest of business tasks. When a prospective customer asks, "Can you do the job?" there's a difference between saying "Yes" to that question vs. "Yes" to the question, "Have you done a job like this before?" Yes to the latter is lying. Yes, to the former exhibits the disciplined exuberance that most entrepreneurs need to get off the ground and thrive. 

I ended the article by suggesting that the danger of becoming known as a liar is that others will quickly recognize the behavior and either discount your word or, worse, lie right back. 

The reaction to the story was typical to that of similar stories I'd written for the magazine. A group of readers took me to task for not understanding that being light on the truth was how business got done and it was naïve to believe otherwise. Others found it appalling that any entrepreneur would think it was OK to lie to get what he needed to get his business going. Still others told me that my defense of posturing was a slippery slope and I should reconsider my thinking. 

But my belief that outright lying to get ahead in business is wrong still holds. 

More than a decade after writing that article, I received an email from the entrepreneur telling me he was sitting in an airport waiting for a flight. He wanted to take the time to let me know the article that featured his tactics had stuck with him all of these years, but that, unlike me, he still sees nothing wrong in what he did. He maintained that he did what he had to do to get started, words very similar to what he had said 10 years before. 

The question for me was how to respond to his email. Was a strident, "You just don't get it and here's why," called for? Or was no response the best? 

The right thing, I decided, was to respond, thank him for his email and let him know that while I'm glad he was at peace with everything he described doing in the article, I still was not and hoped that others would not be, either. Each of us seems comfortable with our truth. 

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 Apartis a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 


Friday, June 20, 2014

Send your ethics stories and questions...

For the weekly newspaper ethics column I write for the Tribune Media Services Syndicate called "The Right Thing," I am always looking for stories of ethical challenges, dilemmas, and perplexing situations. If you have such a story or question based on an incident and would like it to be considered for the column, please email it to me at 

Please make sure to include enough details about the story, the issue that you're wrestling with, and your name and the city and state or province where you are located. Include a way for me to contact you. 

If you know of others who might have interesting stories, please forward this on to them by clicking on the envelope below. 

Thanks in advance for your stories.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Griping neighbors need to check their facts

A handful of houses are being built in a small town in the Northeast United States. The town, known for its beaches and other attractions for summer vacationers, is a mix of full-time residents, summer renters and second-home owners who vanish in the winter but reappear shortly after Memorial Day.

In one particular neighborhood, where construction began several months ago on a home, locals have watched as trees were felled to clear the lot, the foundation was poured, framing went up, outside walls were constructed, and cabinets and appliances started to be moved in.

Year-round residents living nearby have responded to the work at every stage of construction. Among their gripes: "They took down too many trees." "Why'd they put the house so close to the neighbor's backyard?" "Why would anyone plant trees along the boundary line right before winter hits?"

No one has raised any of these issues with the builder or the owner, both of whom neighbors have described as seeming to be pretty nice guys.

Now that summer has arrived, and neighbors are spending more time outside, the finishing touches are being put on the house. Chief among these is the landscaping, including installation of stone that requires a significant amount of sawing to fit the pieces into patios and walkways. The noise and dust generated by this work are significant and neighbors once again have taken notice.

"I hope you're not a late sleeper," one said to another, observing that the sawing had been starting at 7 a.m. and ending well after 7 p.m.

Convinced that the workers are violating a town ordinance that prohibits starting work on residential construction before 8 a.m., some neighbors think they should report the workers to town officials. Others have argued that, in spite of what they believe to be a violation of local noise ordinances, reporting the assumed violation would only slow the work and prolong completion of the house.

What's the right thing to do?

Short of reporting the violation, the neighbors could break from their past behavior and talk to the builder or the owner (who are both regularly on site) about their concerns.

Even if they don't do this, the neighbors are not ethically obligated to report what they assume to be a violation. However, town officials rarely patrol all the areas of town where construction is occurring. If neighbors don't report a problem, it's unlikely to become known to those charged with enforcing local ordinances.

But while it's long been assumed by neighbors that the legal start time for activities that produce neighborhood noise is 8 a.m., none of them has bothered to call the town hall or check the town website to see exactly what the ordinance says.

Such a check of the site took exactly two minutes. There, it was clearly worded that such noise-producing activity must be limited to between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m.

The new neighbor and his builder are starting and finishing each day's work precisely when the town permits them to do so. The right thing is for the neighbors to let them get the job done.

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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