September 2009 Archives

Ethics Make Martha Sick

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The problem with most ethics blogs I have seen is that they are too removed from real life. While, as a professor, I hate it when people say that , it is true in this case. I read blogs on why corporations need to be legal persons and I won't go on but just say that was the MOST down to earth one I found!

Let me tell you about Martha. I have changed identifying information to protect the innocent and guilty. Martha said,

"I have cried over this, prayed over it and actually gotten sick. Sometimes I don't know what I should do. Sometimes I know but cannot do it. Here is what is going on ...

Martha's program is average size, has a budget between $300,000 and $500,000. They are totally broke. No programs for the summer. Layoffs or time off without pay for all staff. This has happened several times in the ten years she has worked for the program. A lot of people talk about her program, suspect something is wrong. Here is what Martha found out ...

"Over $30,000 of the money on our program has been misspent. There is no way I can prove it. For example, we spent $12,000 on office supplies. The Project Director has a big family. She goes to town and buys thousands of dollars in notebooks, pens, paper, printer cartridges, flash drives and all of that stuff two or three times a year. On the weekends, or at the end of the day, her children will show up to 'help her' at work and each leave with a backpack full of supplies. Say $100 per kid and she has a dozen grandkids and this happens a few times a year. We have receipts for all of the office supplies, so she can prove these were a legitimate expense. Since it has been going on for years this is even our USUAL expense.

Other expenses, from toilet paper, to cleaning supplies - same thing. This program has probably been adding to the income of her extended family $3,000 a month, for years.

OF COURSE people have brought it up before. At one point, her son, who used to work on the program was fired, supposedly it was for coming to work drunk, which he did, but a big part, too, was people knew funny things were going on with this program. Still, she is still here and the rest of it is still going on. It has improved a little since he was fired six years ago, since he really didn't do anything and now the program has that salary back in our budget. Still, we end up out of budget before the end of the year more often than not.

Everyone thinks there should be a simple solution to this but there ISN'T. Eventually, good staff members get disgusted and quit. So, we are just letting them get away with this. People have complained to the council who agree with us in private but say what can they do. Sure, it looks like they are spending too much money on supplies but what are they going to do, make them account for every pencil? Besides, this is just one little program. No one cares that much. My representative said,
 'What are we going to do? Search everybody when they exit the building? And how do we know they did not have that stuff in their bag when they walked in?'

My husband said we could tell the police and get a federal sting operation going. I talked to my friend whose husband works for tribal police and he laughed and said,
 "Your husband watches too many cop shows on TV. They aren't going to do that for not very much money on a not very big tribal program. "
Lots of people have suggested that the workers should really work on collecting proof over the next year and getting the director fired. That's not going to work. Certainly not for everybody. Bonnie can't afford to go without pay for two months in the summer so she'll just have to quit. What about the people who use our program? They'll get no services at all.

The thing is, though, I could fix it ..."

By now, Martha is almost crying.

"I am in charge of our accounts. I could go in and edit the money spent for the rest of the year to show it was paid to the Program Director as a payroll advance. I found this by accident when one time I typed in the wrong things and it went through the whole system as if Bonnie had gotten an extra check. She came to me, I found my mistake and fixed it. If I did this, no one else would know. They wouldn't know who did it or how. The money would get taken out of the Program Director line item and we would have money in our budget for supplies and the rest of the staff salaries. She could argue all she wanted with the council but if that is what is showed in the computer, no one would listen to her. Besides, they would like to get rid of her without too much trouble. 

So, all I am really doing is taking back the money she took. Bonnie could keep working here. I wouldn't have to go without two months pay. We would have our summer programs."

Now, Martha's eyes are really filled with tears,

"I was going to do it.  I really was. I sat down at the computer and I got sick to my stomach. I had to run to the restroom. I tried again, and I just could not hit that last button. It's lying. It's saying something that didn't happen did happen. Just like them. What if I do it and somehow I get caught? I'll lose my job at the very least, my reputation. Even if people think it's an honest mistake they'll think I am too stupid to be trusted at a job. Working with that program, no one is going to believe it was an honest mistake.

If I don't do anything, she gets all these freebies for her whole family while I get behind on my bills and Bonnie is out a  job and all the people we are supposed to serve get nothing. So, me being honest helps those lying cheaters.

Then, I think, I tell my kids every day to be honest. How can I face them? If I did it and got caught, how could I ever face them.

In the end, I just couldn't do it. So, the layoffs will be announced by the project director next week, although no one else knows that, just me, since I handle the budget

I read a really interesting book by Maya Angelou, Letters to My Daughter, in which she mentioned talking to people who lived in the American south back when their were "Jim Crow" laws, when black people were forbidden by law to sit in the same waiting room, drink from the same fountain, attend the same schools as white people, when black people were being lynched and on and on.

She asked people the question that I have always wondered about,

"What were you thinking?"

How on earth could all of these people have watched the police arresting people for sitting at a diner, turn dogs and firehoses on people who had really done nothing wrong. The answers she got were fascinating to me because I do believe that her white friends told Ms. Angelou the truth:

"I never really thought about it. It had always been that way."
"Well, sure, I thought it was wrong, but I didn't see how you could ever change it."

She makes a comment that sums up exactly how I feel,

"Their responses confirmed my belief that courage is the most important of all the virtues."

Erich and I discuss that a lot, in fact, he even did a podcast on it. Erich thinks that whatever is the most important value depends on the situation. While there is some truth to that, I do think that lack of courage is what stops most people from acting in unethical situations. Especially in the 1950's and 1960's when American views on race relations were changing, there must have been a lot of white people who said to themselves, as did the person answering Dr. Angelou, "This is wrong," but did nothing.

I think it is a combination of two things, really. Often, I find myself so caught up in the little things of daily life, washing the dishes, paying the bills, getting my daughter to do her homework, getting the website fixed, answering email and by the end of it I look up and realize that women in Afghanistan were having their fingers cut off for voting while I was worried about cleaning out the backseat of my car or documenting a computer program. The other reason people don't take action is that they don't believe it will matter AND they are afraid. If they were just afraid, then they might do something, but feeling afraid and powerless at the same time is a lethal combination. So, they just give up and accept, "That's the way it is."

Well, I'm NOT giving up. Maybe that's the way it is but it doesn't HAVE to be that way. The first step in making a change is just lifting your head up and noticing that something is wrong. The second step is in determining to do whatever you can to change it, even if it is only a small part, speaking up, making one more person notice what is wrong, making one official uncomfortable, stopping a child from believing it has to be this way when they are an adult. In the end, all of those changes add up and tip the other direction.

Just don't give up before you start. 
As with a lot of large, close families the number of people living in our house changes on a pretty regular basis, Within months of the third of my daughters moving out to attend college, my niece moved in for a year and a half. Two months after my niece moved out, one of my daughters moved back in to go to graduate school. With all of the moving in and out, every few months I go through the closets, bookshelves, dressers, kitchen and bathroom drawers and cupboards and throw things out. If I didn't, we'd soon be drowning in stuff.

Today, yet again, I was tossing into boxes to give to charity books that we had two copies of (and no one had read either one), DVDs no one watched any more, clothes that had not been worn out but just outgrown or out of fashion. As usual, I went through all of the medals and trophies. I have one daughter who has been in two Olympics and an 11-year-old who has been competing in judo since she was four years old. As always, I came across lots of medals and trophies I did not know were won by who for what. My motto is, "

"If you don't know who won it, what it is or where you got it, it can't be of much sentimental value to you."

I kept all of Ronda's international medals, but much  of the rest of the shiny things went into the trash. As I carried yet another box of awards, medals and trophies out to the garbage, I thought of how out of touch so many people are when it comes to stuff, whether it is national championships, the latest electronic gadget or a t-shirt with your favorite celebrity's picture on it. Here is a a line I hear so much I am sick of it,

"AnnMaria, you just don't UNDERSTAND. Sure, I overlooked that the board members spent $150,000 on their own travel and entertainment expenses.  I am doing this for my kids, not for me. I have a family to support. I need to provide for my children. I can't afford to lose this income. It will be bad for my family. I can't take that chance."

What I understand is that you are using your children as an excuse for your own cowardice. I have certainly had my share of difficult financial times, when I was in college, then graduate school, when my husband died and I had three young children. What I understood was that my children needed values more than shiny things. Maybe Maria and Jenn did not get to go to the most expensive private high school, but she saw by example that you get ahead in the world through hard work and education, not by fawning on the right people. Maria graduated from New York University and is a superb journalist. Jenn graduated from SFSU at 21, taught school for a while and, at age 23, began graduate school at USC.

Your children don't need more stuff that will get thrown away in six months no matter how much they told you today that their life would end and no other child in their school would ever talk to them if they did not get that exact lunch box with the Jonas Brothers on it. They need ethics.Values. I guarantee you, you won't find yourself throwing those in the trash in six months.

Oh, what about the third daughter? I'll discuss her in my next post, "Do it for the widows and orphans." 

What good is generosity?

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In his latest blog post, Josephson asks whether it is really true that ethics are good business.Interestingly, he comes to the conclusion, "Sometimes they are and sometimes they're not. " Sometimes people with bad ethics go bankrupt, but sometimes people with good ethics do, too. Josephson said although it is no guarantee of success, we should do the right thing just because it is the right thing, not because it is in our self-interest.

I quote Michael Josephson often simply because he is one of the few people willing to openly discuss ethics. In the Introduction to Ethics on Indian Reservations course, Dr. Erich Longie asks "Are ethics a taboo subject on Indian reservations?"

To answer his question, I think it is not just reservations. People don't discuss ethics often anywhere in American society. Like religion, it tends to make people uncomfortable. Some people feel challenged, defensive, threatened.

Generosity is an ethical value that is really off-limits in a business setting. Oh sure, it's okay to brag about contributions you gave in a press release that gives you lots of good publicity. However, generosity with employees that is not just cowardice in disguise is rare everywhere, and, like Josephson said, it is not always good business, sad to say.

Two examples:
Sam is a manager whose generosity is really cowardice in disguise. Joe has worked for the tribe for 12 years, several years longer than Sam. He misses work at least once a week with excuses like, "I overstrained my wrist writing email to my family. Need to stay home and rest." or "I need to work at home because my cat is sick."

Sam knows damn well that Joe's wrist is fine and he doesn't even own a cat! Besides, who can't work because they have a sore wrist? However, Sam doesn't say anything because he knows that Joe will yell at him, complain to tribal personnel that his boss does not allow him to take sick leave and just generally cause him problems.

Susie, who works for Sam also, never takes sick leave unless she is sick, who asks to work at home one day a week just because she would rather work from home than drive through the snow every day, and Sam makes sure she has all of the paperwork filled out to approve this arrangement, reminds her if she forgets to record sick leave on her time card.

From Sam's point of view, he is a generous person, he never gives his employees a hard time about sick leave or other work arrangements. For some reason, though, Susie quits, Joe stays and his department is doing very, very poorly.

I've worked for Erich Longie for nearly 20 years. One reason that I continue to do so is not his brilliance and charm (no matter what he might tell other people!) but because he is very generous. I don't just mean in a financial sense. I do get paid well, but I could get paid as much or more somewhere else. He is generous in his treatment. If I say, "I need to take two weeks off," I don't have to go into a long explanation of that I am going to Palm Springs, my daughter's wedding or into surgery. He is generous with his respect. He treats me like I am an ethical professional adult and if I say I need two weeks off then that must be the case.

Sometimes, I have been working on solving a problem or analyzing data. For example, right now I am working on finding the best means to add an RSS feed to our home page (that's okay, you don't have to pretend you are interested). I may work 10 or 20 hours on a project and have nothing to show for it right away. Of course, in the end, there is a result. Erich is one of the few people I have worked for he does not demand to know what I was doing during that time. (Incidentally, all of the people like that, I have worked for a long time.)

When I call him to discuss an idea, he always listens. He has never once dismissed anything out of hand with, "No, I am the boss."

Incidentally, this is something I have noticed FAR more often on the reservations. When I first started working in North Dakota, it drove me up a wall. Couldn't we just vote and move on, for heaven's sake?

Years ago, I remember Gaylene Belgarde, Director of Special Education at the Turtle Mountain Tribe, at the time, explaining to me, in a soft, pollite voice,
"We listen to everyone because everyone is a member of the tribe."

All of this is good for me and encourages me to work with people. Is it good business? In my case, yes, I think. However, there are others who will take advantage of that same situation. They will be the Joes who call in when their non-existent cat is sick.  If you don't have courage to stand up to Joe, generosity can actually be a bad thing for your business.

In the short-term, treating those people with generosity will be bad business for anyone, no matter who you are. You give them the benefit of the doubt, and then they take advantage of you. However, in the long-run, your generosity MAY result in you keeping more good people. So, what do you do?

I think Josephson had the answer. You treat everyone with generosity because it is the right thing to do. 
Last week, I was having dinner with my daughter, Ronda, who is 22 years old, and a few friends my age (which is a whole lot older than 22).  I don't remember the specific unethical individual who came up or what he had done - used A LOT of money meant for his program on his own travel and personal expenses, I think it was but I do remember very clearly Ronda's question,

"How do people like that sleep at night? No, seriously, I am asking. If I even say one mean thing to a person during the day, it bothers me and I feel bad about it. How can you take $25,000 out of a budget that is supposed to help people and spend it on yourself, or try to raise votes for someone you know isn't as good as the other candidate and will do a horrible job, but they promised you some position... I mean, how do you even look in the mirror without thinking about yourself, @!#, I am really a @!#%?"

I have no actual research on this, so I am trying to think back. I'd like to believe that many people come into an organization as basically ethical and it is a slippery slope downward. They make a small compromise, telling themselves,
"Well, yeah, I know Joe should not have charged the food for his party to the grant, but, hey, I can do so much good here, there is no point in causing problems and maybe getting fired. How many people could I help then?"

Like I said, I'd like to believe that, but I think it usually happens way before people get to the workplace. Certainly, by my age, you run into lots of people who are willing to sell out, who don't seem to have much ethics, and if they could get away with not coming to work and collecting a paycheck, using  the tribal credit card to pay for their gas all month or whatever, it wouldn't bother them the slightest bit. They'd just shrug it off.

Although I always hated those sappy 'talk to your kids about drugs commercials' (I guess they didn't have the same ad budget that the beer and tobacco companies did), they do have a point. As the old saying goes, the tree grows the way the twig is bent.

(COMPLETELY unrelated note - I was in Georgia and there are some very cool trail markers by the tribe that lived in the north Georgia mountains a hundred years ago. They would literally bend a twig and it would grow into some weird shaped tree and that was one of the ways they marked trails through the mountains.)

I think one way you make ethical people is by talking about ethics. It almost seems like a taboo subject, not just on the reservations but in society as a whole. It's not "nice" to call someone a liar or mean or stingy or a thief. Erich wrote a blog on how the Dakota used to put liars to death and how now people need to at least DISCUSS lying!

From the very beginning, I think as a parent, you need to discuss ethics. When my children were as young as five or six years old, if they had told a friend they would come over to play, and then another friend who was maybe more fun, more popular or whatever, asked them to play, I would say this,

"No. You can't go. You told someone else you would be at their house. You gave your word. And that means you have to do it. That is very, very important that when you say something you do it. That is a big part of what makes a good person."

Okay, so yes, I realize that those aren't very big words but remember, I am talking to a kid in kindergarten here.

 What about generosity?

I heard a show on This American Life, on the Cruelty of Children. I have to say that much of it was not something I would let my 11-year-old daughter listen to, just because of the adult nature of the discussion, but there was a section on a teacher who started a rule in her class "You can't say you can't play".

I talked to Julia about it and we had a discussion on children's feelings, on bullying, on how people feel left out. Now, Julia was the first fourth-grader to be elected to the student council at her school (it goes up to the eighth grade) and got re-elected this year. She is not an unpopular kid, but the word other parents and teachers use to describe her often is that she is "kind".

I would like to pretend I am brilliant,but the truth is that I think I learned all this from the conversations my grandmother had with me, usually at the same time as she was kneading bread dough or cooking dinner. What you teach your children matters.

As adults, the Tribal Leaders Institute is trying to promote these same discussions. The good news is, from what I have seen of the results so far, it is never too late to make ethical people.