Tough Questions of Ethics

Dear Joan:
I recently have been put in an awkward position of choosing between obeying my direct supervisor in an act which may be unethical, and ignoring his orders and risk losing his support and confidence.

The situation involves the publication of meeting minutes, which are to be forwarded to key management personnel and the members of the committee directly following the meeting. The committee meetings are a directive by the corporate office and are supposed to be held on a monthly basis. The purpose of the meeting is to get all levels of staff involved in solving problems within the respective divisions. The minutes of the meetings are to be published as a means of company communication and to make other levels of management aware of the committee's activities.

The conflict begins in a month in which the originally scheduled meeting was cancelled due to scheduling problems. Unfortunately, the meeting was not scheduled before the end of the month. At the start of the next month, my supervisor approached me about the minutes of last month's meeting. I was surprised he was asking me about them since he was aware the meeting was not held. I reminded him of that. He asked what was on the agenda. After reviewing the proposed agenda with him, he stated that much of this same information was discussed during our weekly general meetings. He then said that I should pull information from those meetings and construct the minutes for the committee meeting, which of course was never held. He ended the conversation with an eye-wink and a comment on what a fine job I was doing.

The publication of these minutes would be falsifying an official document, an act that could lead to termination. By not publishing the minutes I would be disobeying my supervisor and raising a flag to the corporate office that we were not well managed, since we did not comply with the monthly meeting guidelines.

It is important to note that I have been with this company less than six months. It may also be noteworthy to say that my supervisor is not on positive grounds with his supervisor. What do I do in this situation?

The question of ethics is rarely black and white. Perhaps the best way to evaluate any ethical question is to stand back and look at the whole picture; who would be the winners, losers, what is the bigger purpose, etc. This may help you far more than looking at this as a matter of rules and procedures that have been violated.

For example, in this case you said that the purpose of the monthly meetings is to get all levels of staff involved in solving problems within the respective divisions. The real question is, "Has the general purpose been reached if the general meetings achieved the same end goal of involving staff in solving problems?"

You can assume that the corporate guidelines were established so that managers would create participative environments where problem-solving meetings were held on a regular basis. The mandated meeting is simply a way to make sure meetings are held. If you can honestly say that employees have opportunities to participate and give input during the regular general staff meetings (even without the mandate) your supervisor may actually be more progressive than some of his peers in other divisions.

However, like you, I have a problem with the (wink wink) implication that he's pulling a fast one. If he's confident that he's meeting the goal of the directive, he shouldn't have to cover it up.

Here's a suggestion that might put the responsibility for this right where it belongs. You could pull together the issues from the other agendas, as he suggested. But start the minutes with a preface that looks something like this: "Since the monthly meeting was cancelled due to a scheduling conflict and was impossible to reschedule, the general weekly meetings were used to gather employee input and do problem-solving at all levels. The following is a compilation of issues that were addressed at those meetings."

If your supervisor insists that you omit this paragraph, suggest that he actually may look better-not worse-for making this employee involvement process part of the way he does business, instead of something that needs to be mandated. If he objects, you could say, "I'm a little uncomfortable leaving that off. Maybe you would like to take what I've compiled and use it to do the minutes the way you want." If all else fails and he insists, you could end the report with, "Submitted by _______________" (his signature) and leave your name off entirely.

The fact that your supervisor may be in trouble with his boss is no reason to go over your supervisor's head to complain about this. Not only will your boss be furious, his manager will probably think you are naive about the "chain of command" or even a trouble-maker.

Your challenge is to take the end goal into account while balancing your personal principles of fairness and honesty. From that will grow the judgment to do what makes sense in any situation. 

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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