CXO

Ethics: Keeping quiet cost member his job

Knowing when to keep quiet is a valuable skill, and it's equally important to know when to speak up. Read about one member whose silence cost him his job, and chime in about what you'd have done in his place.


He thought he was doing the best thing for himself in a tight situation, but TechRepublic member A. Fellow (name changed to protect anonymity) found that compromising his ethics by keeping quiet was the wrong move. Although he’s now happy with his new employer—one whose “ethics are impeccable”—he went through quite a nasty ordeal.

After you read about his dilemma and how he chose to deal with it, join the discussion and tell us how you would have reacted in his situation.

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Where the trouble began
A consultant with “one of the most prestigious consulting firms” in his field, Fellow was working with one of the firm’s most lucrative clients. During the first two months, he reviewed and reported on over a dozen of the client’s IT projects. Then, when the engagement manager had a personal emergency that lasted too long to leave the position vacant, one of the two principal consultants took over day-to-day supervision and the other became the technical guru—we’ll call him Mr. Smith for simplicity’s sake. Smith was under the mistaken impression that the original manager had been auditing Fellow’s work and decided that he needed to do the same. Smith asked that Fellow allow him to audit all reports before their release.

While both Fellow and Smith were respected within their professional community, Smith also had a reputation for having some unorthodox views and a wicked temper. Fellow said Smith “espoused an eccentric and controversial interpretation of the formal set of rules that the practitioners of our specialty work by,” and “had a reputation for being irascible and dogmatic.”

Fellow said an analogy for Smith’s incongruent views would be “a data security consultant telling a client that the only ‘hackers’ that might break in to their network are simply kids looking for a challenge, so their industrial secrets only need to be protected against electronic vandalism, not theft.” Fellow said that, unfortunately, his many discussions with Smith confirmed the character flaws.

The path of least resistance
Smith changed every report Fellow prepared to reflect his interpretation of the rules. Fellow said he felt he had two choices: He could stand his ground and defend the majority viewpoint or ignore the blue-penciled copies of his reports and quietly deliver the original versions to the client.

“But I felt that I would be risking my job by taking either action, and I needed the money,” he said. “So I resigned myself to doing something that I felt was wrong and justified it to myself on the grounds that I was just following orders.”

Those “orders” didn’t make the client any less alarmed when, three months later, they noticed an abrupt change in the reported figures. Smith’s changes made it appear that the client’s project success rate had “dropped precipitously for no reason,” Fellow said.

Rather than owning up to his part in the scandal, Smith hired another consultant to audit the figures, and “with great fanfare,” this consultant uncovered all the instances where Fellow had supposedly failed to follow the rules.

“Once again, I could have spoken up, but I was concerned about the adverse effect of airing our discipline’s laundry in front of a client, not to mention putting a man with a short fuse into a hot seat, so once again I kept silent,” Fellow said.

He said he was convinced that being the cause of any argument between the two principals would get him fired, no matter how it was resolved.

The final outcome
To his surprise, Fellow was terminated and escorted from the building before the secondary audit was completed. By not leveraging his familiarity with the projects, the firm was forced to reinterview the client’s staff for information that had already been gathered, Fellow said.

“Instead of paying me for a few hours’ work to merely retrieve my original versions of my reports from my hard drive, the consulting firm paid someone else several weeks’ salary to re-create them from scratch,” he said.

The client’s contract specified that the consulting firm had to foot the bill for the remediation process, which “attained such a high profile and ruffled so many feathers that the client cancelled the contract,” Fellow said. The recession that ensued after the World Trade Center attacks was already under way, so many talented consultants found themselves unemployed as a result, he said.

Smith withheld Fellow's final paycheck and ordered him not to discuss the engagement with anyone. Two other consultants with whom Fellow had worked closely on the project and who “knew the truth” betrayed Fellow by signing a document blaming him for the problem, he said. After six months, a letter drafted by an attorney, and a reminder that if it went to court the firm could be liable for severance pay and damages, Fellow received his final paycheck.

“I couldn’t find work for eight months, especially with a gap in my work history that I didn’t dare explain to a prospective employer.”

Eventually, Fellow gave up on consulting, took a full-time job for the same salary he had earned in 1985, and relocated to the opposite coast. He had to leave his wife stranded in what was supposed to be their retirement haven until they could figure out what to do.

Lessons learned
Fellow said he thought that knuckling under to a breach of ethics was taking the easy path but found, instead, that it was disastrous for him, his firm, the client, and the entire professional community. He later learned that Smith’s past “disciples” had ignored his unconventional teachings and followed the accepted standards behind his back.

“I set the stage for a disaster by ignoring my conscience and following orders,” he said.

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