You see the stockroom manager taking his toolbox home with him and using the tools for private use. You decide to do nothing because the stockroom manager returns the toolbox every time he takes it home. Explain what ethical standards are broken here and what your responsibility should be? -e-Factor!® scenario
This scenario is all about witnessing unethical behavior and making conscious choices about actions we take. As we’ve seen in the news these past few weeks, our obligation to observe our surroundings, evaluate situations, and take action could be the difference between life and death. This applies not just in our business life but also in everyday life. The scenario here relates to a business issue that may not seem to have much of an impact individually but added together with other individual situations could lead to cash flow issues, legal challenges or bankruptcy.
At first glance this might seem to be a simple scenario with just us and the stockroom manager involved. There’s much more to it. As leaders we’re always thinking big picture, but we want everyone in our organization to understand the consequences of their actions, don’t we? Each action or lack of action has both meaning and consequence, not just for us but for all internal and external stakeholders.
So who are the stakeholders? Let’s start with the easy ones. The stockroom manager is easiest. He’s taking something that doesn’t belong to him. Ah, but what we don’t know is whether or not this individual has asked for and received permission to take home the toolbox. We’ve jumped to a negative conclusion automatically. Is it important that the manager returns the toolbox each time he takes it home? Well, it does tell us something positive about his ethics. But is it the right thing to do? That depends on company policy, how long the manager keeps the toolbox (overnight vs longer time period) and whether or not the manager actually has permission to take the toolbox home.
We, the witnesses, are the next stakeholder in this decision. We see something that, from our background, experience, and interpretation, appears to be unacceptable behavior. But we look at the facts as we see them and make a judgment call. We decide not to get involved here because the end result is the toolbox is returned. No harm, no foul, so there’s no reason for us to report this or intervene in any way. Ah, but is the toolbox returned complete? Is someone else’s performance affected because the toolbox is not available? And is this end result truly enough justification to do nothing?
We don’t know the answers to these questions, but we’ve mentioned another stakeholder here – coworkers. If this is the only toolbox in the stockroom other co-workers may not be able to get their work done and this could affect the quality of their job performance. But what’s our obligation as a co-worker? Nobody wants to earn a reputation as a “snitch”, and what if the stockroom manager is our supervisor? If the business culture places high value on being a “team player” we might resolve this by borrowing tools from another coworker or bringing in our own tools in order to avoid conflict. Encouraging teamwork is great, but if it is taken too far it creates an environment where nobody wants to risk “getting into trouble” to do things that might “rock the boat”.
There is one more stakeholder – leadership. As leaders, it is our responsibility and obligation to create and enforce policies and procedures. If we fail to do this, we’re sending a very powerful message to each and every one of our stakeholders. In this case, we’re saying it’s ok to take company property, use it for personal gain, and return it. However, some people might interpret this as simply “take company property”. Some might return it, but not in the same condition as it was when they took it. And using company property, both tangible and intangible, for personal gain is a whole new can of worms…. If we do enforce the rules, we might not be very popular, but we’re clearly communicating what we define to be appropriate behavior.
The bottom line is that we set a precedent. At best, we’re communicating expectations clearly and providing behavioral parameters everyone can understand. At worst, we’re approving a lack of enforcement of that could lead to significant damage to people, property and organization.
The actions and their consequences start out small. They grow to become more and more serious, with higher costs to the company. I’ve seen major destruction of property, termination of great employees, physical abuse and major fraud as a result of leadership’s lack of enforcement. It’s our obligation to report what we see if we believe it is unethical or inappropriate. How do we encourage everyone to get involved? We need to be observant, get curious, and reward courage. Ask questions; don’t jump to conclusions, and pay attention. Even the smallest details matter these days. As we learned in the Boston Marathon bombing, a cut rope on a boat and noticing that a boy set down a backpack and just walked away made all the difference in catching the bombers. Everything affects our success and our reputation, both personally and professionally. What additional advice would you give here?