Right from wrong
BY JOHN SULLIVAN, PMP, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR
Earlier in my career, I worked with a facilities manager who had a reputation for getting gifts from our suppliers as a reward for giving them business. He was quite arrogant and vocal about his accomplishments, which included a house full of furniture courtesy of our interior design firm. One day I overheard another example of his blatant unethical behavior and decided to take action. Too scared to call from inside the office, I walked outside to a pay phone to report the incident to the company's ethics officer. He wasn't in and I was afraid to leave a message. I never called back because I feared the facilities manager would discover I made the report and take action against me.
My fears were justified. Despite changes in laws in some countries over the last 10 years, the practice of “whistle-blowing” remains a solitary and risky pursuit that often ends with dismissal.
That's how it was for Cathy Goodman, Ph.D.
One Project Manager's Story
Dr. Goodman's project team was forced to use a vendor's equipment “despite the fact that our engineers had tested it before the project and said it didn't work,” she says. After continued complaints, she was warned to never question management again.
Frustrated, she escalated her complaint through sales, the engineering organization and the project management office. Each time, her claims were dismissed without investigation. She then contacted the company's ethics department, which referred her to a staff attorney who called a meeting with the engineering manager. After the attorney divulged Dr. Goodman's name and story, the manager defended his decision, claiming she was wrong.
The attorney “took the engineering manager's word without asking for data to the contrary,” Dr. Goodman says.
Shortly after, she was told to quit and her request to transfer was denied. Dr. Goodman refused to resign and demanded and received a severance package. The project ended, creating a new product that managed to get into the sales catalog without required testing, but in time to ensure year-end bonuses for the team.
There was one key element Dr. Goodman didn't know at the time.
It turns out the vendor's sales manager had worked at Dr. Goodman's company and reported to the very engineering manager who was so keen on using the faulty equipment. And he and some other team members had returned from a vendor visit full of stories about the hospitality they'd received.
What to Do
People like Dr. Goodman who are facing serious ethical dilemmas at work that implicate their personal legal and financial interests should consider seeking personal legal counsel, says Lester A. Myers, Ph.D., J.D., CPA, director of advisory services at KPMG Forensic in Washington, D.C., USA.
“It is prudent for the employee to seek his or her own legal counsel to preserve a zone of legal privilege in which to deliberate about the requirements for and consequences of each incremental stage of reporting alleged incidents of fraud or misconduct,” he says.
Here are some other tips from Dr. Myers:
- Look outside the inner circle.
Try to find a “separate apparatus,” such as an ombudsman's office, where you can report concerns. An internal group could qualify if it's independent from the company's own legal counsel, but he suggests avoiding any corporate attorney. “Attorneys that work for the organization, work for the organization,” Mr. Myers says.
- Respect the chain of command.
If possible, follow the established process for making a complaint. Going around or over someone can brand you as reactionary or rebellious and diminish your credibility, which is why it's important for an employee to get as many facts as possible, to deliberate carefully, and to act in good faith when filing a report alleging fraud or misconduct. “Sometimes, alleged violations may turn out to be benign or innocuous and employees and other covered persons must respect the process to preserve the integrity of their conscientious concern and the credibility of their message,” Dr. Myers says.
- Use an internal standard. Adopt a company code of conduct as the basis for your report. Although an outside standard such as the PMI Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct is helpful, using an internal one can show how the company is “at variance with everything the organization says about itself,” Dr. Myers says.
Worth the Effort?
Dr. Goodman, like all whistleblowers, performed a great service by making her report. But given the isolation and damage most whistleblowers suffer, it's understandable why someone might be hesitant to report unethical behavior. “Ethics makes demands on us,” Dr. Myers says. “To be good, free people, we need to live according to a principled discipline and to understand and interpret all relationships within the context of a broader moral community that exerts a priority of claims on us.”
The facilities manager was eventually dismissed. No one heard the reason, but we all figured it was due to an ethical issue because of his reputation. The moral community had triumphed. PM
John Sullivan, PMP, is a project manager and writer based in Dayton, Ohio, USA.
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