Monday, August 01, 2005

Ethics in the Workplace

A friend of mine spoke with me about an ethical quandary he's come up against at work lately. Before I relate some of the particulars, I want to assure everyone that I'm not actually talking about myself, nor is this business the one I work for. Ok.

This friend works in a well-respected technical service company and is a designer and manager for one of their departments. He, of course, is salaried, but has hourly employees working for him in secretarial and other roles. He is doing well in his job and is someone who is well grounded in Christian morals and ethical principles.

Over a long period of time, he's noticed several payroll discrepancies that his company seems to be perpetuating - due to an unusual accounting practice, all the hourly employees in his company are being shorted several hours/year in their paychecks. As a result, the employees are collectively out about a total of $7,500 for the year.

Now for a company like this, $7,500 should be a drop in the bucket, more or less. Is that amount worth skimming from your payroll, and shorting your hard-working hourly employees?

He noticed this discrepancy and has brought it to the attention of the HR departement and higher ups, all the way to the president of the company. And he's been rebuffed, redirected and ignored at every turn. Which has made him angrier and angrier each time his inquiries have been pushed aside.

He's gotten to the point where, because of these ethical violations, he's ready to quit the company. The problems are, a) he's in line for a promotion a couple years down the road that will put his income in six figures. It will also put him in a position to actively do something about the account problems, b) if he leaves the job, there are only a couple other comparable businesses in town that he might be able to move to - and if they don't work out he may have to move, and c) he has a young family with a stay-at-home mom and two young kids.

He hasn't done anything yet, and is biding his time. He claims he will not leave the company until he has some kind of safety net - however, there are a couple other unethical practices he's noticed his company has engaged in, and I'm afraid his temper may get the better of him one day...leaving him high, dry and fired.

Here's my question - should an upstanding employee feel obligated to "fall on his sword", as it were, if he perceives that the ethical standards of his business are not up to where he thinks they should be? Should he feel he has to quit in order to satisfy his sense of right and wrong? As I said, he's tried over and over to work within the existing system but has failed to affect change. It's the higher-ups who are either cheating their employees or unable to see that other executives are massively screwing up. My friend hasn't done anything wrong himself, and is doing good things for the people he works with and for - including his hourly subordinates.

What level of ethical standards must an employer maintain in order to keep you working for them? What line do they have to cross to make it so uncomfortable that you might give up a future 6-figure salary and put in question your comfortable life and family financial security?

In my opinion, the details of the "violation" don't seem to be quite heinous enough to warrant quitting, even when combined with the runaround he's gotten from the brass. If the leadership were blatantly ignoring construction or jobplace safety regulations in order to pad their pockets - sure. I can see that. Or if the boss was quietly allowing noticeable environmental damage as a result of manufacturing I can see that too. Even if they were bilking their customers out of scads and scads of money (lawyers and their hourly billing rates - sorry, Gary - do this all the time to the point of it being a source of pride for them and a joke for rest of us) I could see that as being a reason to not be able to stay.

And one more thing - April linked yesterday to a great post called The Seven Deadly Trappings of Evangelism that mentions the difference between the noun "witness" and the verb "witness":
#6 Witnessing – Evangelism isn’t a form of Multi-Level Marketing. If you want to sell something door-to-door make it Amway products not the “Good News.” If you want to “witness for Christ” do what Christ did and love other people. Especially the “unlovable” – the smelly, unbathed men down at the mission, the annoying kids at church, the bonehead who cuts you off in traffic. In the context of the Christian life, “witness” should be a noun more often than a verb.
Could someone in my friend's position do more good staying at their job, being a "witness" (noun) to others on how the ethical game is to be played, rather than "witnessing" (verb) his objections by leaving?

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