Leadership Nugget #24: Bad Management Or Unethical Decisions ? You Better Know The Difference!

As I look back on my career in leadership there were two decisions made above me that caused me to question whether or not I could comply with what was asked. Was management above me making an unethical request or were they making a horrible decision with which I was in total disagreement but which I was bound to follow and make work? How I discerned the issue could cause me to offer my resignation if I was forced to comply.

One decision was very clear to me. I was asked by my boss to violate my personal and religious convictions. In this case I appealed to leadership and proposed an alternative that would allow me to stay true to my beliefs and to stay in my position. I trusted that my years of excellent performance both in productivity and in being a team player would earn me the ear of upper management. If my alternative was not accepted, I was prepared to resign my position and leave the organization. Fortunately, on that day leadership listened to me, accepted my alternative, and I lived to fight another day.

The second situation was much more ambiguous. Over the years I had the fortune to work with talented people and to build a high achieving organization out of a bureapathological one (see https://9by9solutions.com/2015/05/changing-a-sick-organizational-culture-the-story-of-a-slow-elevator/).

As the organization grew and evolved highly talented people wanted to be a part of it. I worked in the central personnel department of a state government. This organization was tasked with ensuring that “merit” drove the hiring and promotion in state agencies.

At one point in time a position was open in our organization. We had multiple exceptional candidates apply for the position. While we were in the process of interviewing applicants, I received a call from my Commissioner. He asked me if I had a position open. When I answered in the affirmative, he told me that Governor of the state had called him and wanted the wife of a high level, powerful government official placed in the position. This official was an upcoming leader who was projected to be a powerful future political leader, possibly even Governor. He had called the existing Governor and asked that his wife be placed in my division. When my commissioner told me what he wanted I was taken aback and had little time to think. I told my Commissioner to send her resume to me and I would be glad to consider her for the position. He said he would forward the resume but he wanted me to be sure I understood what he was telling me: this was not a request for my consideration but a directive to do what had already been decided above me.

When I got the resume, I was not impressed. The woman lacked the depth and breadth of skills of other applicants. She would not have been in the top-tier of candidates that our division would have considered. My staff looked at the resume and concurred. I called my Commissioner and explained the dilemma to him but he was not receptive to any alternative other than acquiescing to the Governor. Then, as Paul Harvey would say, he told me “the rest of the story”. The woman was not only to be hired but she was to be hired at an advanced pay level. Since my staff received promotions and salary increases based on the quantity and quality of topics they taught, this would put this new hire at a higher salary level than 50% of my staff. This had the potential of destroying the morale of my high producing employees.

At this point I made an important decision: I took time to be alone and to think. My thoughts revolved a central issue: was I being asked to do something unethical or was this a bad management decision that I should obey and make it work even though I violently disagreed with it?

As I analyzed the situation, I knew there were two issues. First, could I ethically hire the woman? She met the minimum criteria to qualify for the job. Therefore her hire did not violate the cardinal principle of a merit based human resources organization although it was clearly not in the spirit of “merit”. as others were much more qualified than her. Second, what would hiring this woman at an advanced level do to my staff? I felt as if my performance based system for promotion and upward mobility was being raped. This caused me severe angst both in being forced to violate my own process and because it felt like I was violating my integrity.

I called my boss and told him that I wanted to be on the record that I would hire the woman with severe reservations but only because she met the minimum qualifications listed for the job. Since she met these minimum qualifications, we were not asked to violate the merit principles that our organization was created to protect. However, I would only hire her at the entry-level pay for a new hire because paying her a higher salary than existing staff would destroy the morale of my organization. It would also damage my integrity as a leader. Paying her an undeserved salary, in my opinion, violated the merit principle, and made our action a sham.

My boss told me the woman would be hired at the higher salary and my reservations were noted. I told him if he was going to do that he would have to sign the hiring authorization paperwork indicating it was his decision because I would not put my signature on an action that violated the very principle for which his agency stood: merit in hiring and promotions. I also told him that if the woman was hired at an advanced level I wanted all staff who were paid below he proposed salary to have immediate salary increases equal to her starting salary. Much to my amazement he agreed to do this.

The End Of The Story
The woman was hired at the salary level her husband wanted and existing division staff received a totally unexpected pay increase. They were initially elated but soon the story came out as to why their salaries were increased. Like me, they lost respect for the management above them. I turned in my resignation and left my job. My respect for my Commissioner was sufficiently damaged that I could no longer work for him with a willing and enthusiastic spirit. I was disappointed that he had not stood up to the Governor and defended the values his own agency was to protect. I was even more disappointed that he had put me in the position to stand up for a principle that he did not have the courage to defend.

The woman stayed with the division for a long time. She was a mediocre to average employee at best. Many of her talented peers left the agency after I did.

What Goes Around Comes Around
A number of years later I was sitting in my den watching television. The evening news and the headline story came caused me to yell for my wife to join me. The story was about a high government official who had misused his position for personal gain. He had just been convicted of fraud in federal court and was being sentenced to prison for his crime. It was the husband of the woman who I had been forced to hire. It reminded me of the Bible verse, “Be not deceived, God is not mocked. For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” I had lost a job I loved but I had retained my convictions. Robert Frost came to mind, “I took the road less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.”

The Commissioner retired with great honor and was given a cruise around the world by his staff as a going away present.

Leadership Lesson
There are decisions that are made above a leader in an organization. Sometimes those decisions are not what the lower level leader would have done. In some instances the lower level leader may even violently disagree with senior management’s decisions.

If a decision is not unethical, illegal, immoral or unsafe, it is the job of the lower level leader to try to influence that decision. If the decision is made anyway it is the job of lower level leadership to implement the decision to the best of his or her ability. (One might have to hold his or her nose while doing so!) That is what being on a leadership team requires.

However, if upper management’s action is illegal, immoral, unethical or unsafe, then the leader had better be willing to stand for his or her convictions despite the personal cost.

While it may take time and thought to discern the difference between the two, a leader better take the time to distinguish because “the road less travelled by can make all the difference”.

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