What’s Your Duty When Your Boss is Out of Control?

What are an employee’s responsibilities when the boss is out of control — when he or she is self-destructive, doing damage to the organization, or both? It’s one of the hardest problems of workplace ethics.

A case in point is the staff at Toronto’s City Hall, who have and continue to labour under Mayor Rob Ford, a mayor whose strange and erratic behaviour must make continuing the city’s work all but impossible. And bad news continues to pile up for Ford. This past week Toronto Police revealed that they were in possession of a certain video, one that apparently shows the mayor smoking crack, a video the existence of which the mayor had previously denied. And then details surfaced regarding Ford’s behaviour on St Patrick’s day of last year, when he showed up ‘very intoxicated,’ both at City Hall and in public.

Ford has been, in effect, a train wreck. But not exactly merely a private train wreck. He’s been a train wreck in public, and at the office. This raises an interesting question for the people who have worked with him. What are your responsibilities when the boss is a mess? Should you cover up and enable? Should you confront? Should you keep your head down? Staff at City Hall may be facing a particularly public form of this question, but it’s a problem faced in many workplaces.

Junior employees typically have the most to lose, so let’s deal with them first. The first thing that needs to be said is that junior employees aren’t always obligated to speak up, especially when speaking up puts them in personal or professional peril. For all our talk about ‘speaking truth to power,’ there’s a limit to how much we can ask people to sacrifice. It can be OK to keep your head down. This is a question of ethics, but ethics isn’t about always doing the maximum; it’s about deciding the right course of action, based on a range of relevant considerations. And keeping your job is one of those.

The corollary to the permission to keep your head down, though, is an obligation to learn from the situation, to figure out how you might help to avoid such situations in the future, and to resolve never to put junior employees in such a bind when you yourself are at the top of the ladder.

Of course, if your boss’s antics are putting lives at risk, that’s an ethical consideration that should probably outweigh your own concern with staying employed. Valuing your own job above the public safety implies a level of egocentrism that is incompatible with our general social responsibilities.

But an employee’s level of responsibility for the boss varies with power and proximity. A senior advisor with a lot of influence has a responsibility to use it. When you’ve got the boss’s ear, you owe it to him or her to give good guidance, even what it’s advice he or she does not want to hear. But if the boss won’t listen, and if your position gives you the relevant authority, you should take action. Just what action to take will depend on what options are available to you, given your organization’s governance structure.

Most crucial of all is to remember that you owe your primary allegiance not to the boss, but to the organization. With very few exceptions, an employee’s duty is to the mission of the organization as a whole. In normal circumstances, it’s up to the boss to coordinate and motivate employees in pursuit of that mission. But when the boss strays far off mission, or wanders into utter ineffectualness, then there’s justification for deviating from the usual chain of command. Good leaders — ones who are aware of their own foibles and who are focused on the good of the organization — will make it clear to their employees in advance that that’s what they would want them to do, should the need ever arise.

5 comments so far

  1. Dr. L.Brody on

    THIS ARTICLE IS FULL OF WISDOM. I have confronted these issues as a young professional and as and ethical committee chairperson. There also situations where committees will not support confrontation for fear of recrimination or lawsuits.At that time ethics was not an issue because professionals were on a pedestal, with reputation to protect

  2. […] Ethics Professor, Chris MacDonald discusses the ethical implications of working for such an individual. This is a worthwhile discussion because as information seeps out, those closer to the situation […]

  3. Marvin Edwards on

    As long as the problem is unclear or the rules are vague, then “keeping your head down” may be valid.

    For example, only the police had evidence of the mayor’s worst behavior. Their obligation is to even-handedly enforce the law. So they were ethically required to arrest the mayor when and if they observed him breaking the same law that they would enforce with other citizens. And it may have been that they were in the process of doing that.

    Employees witnessing the mayor’s “erratic” behavior would only be required to act if it was interfering with the mayor’s duties. Many alcoholics are high-functioning, and the fact that they are drinking may only be a problem when they get behind the wheel.

    But a clear incident of breaking a significant “company” (or state) policy would become every employee’s responsibility to report to their immediate supervisor.

    If that is to include those directly supervised by the offender, then policy ought to provide an alternate route as well. If no such route is provided, then the employee is put in an untenable position.

  4. […] via What’s Your Duty When Your Boss is Out of Control? | The Business Ethics Blog. […]

  5. Kamira on

    Your blog focuses on ‘what are an employee’s responsibilities when the boss is out of control? You have discussed some very interesting points regarding what is ethical for the employees at different levels, in the situation when the boss becomes a source of damage to his personal self as well as to the organization. Before going into details of claims made in the blog, I would like to comment that the blog actually emphasizes on the importance of whistle blowing by the employees when the boss goes out of control. A whistleblower is a person who exposes wrongdoings, alleged dishonest or illegal activities occurring in an organization (Near & Miceli, 1995). The alleged misconduct can be classified as a violation of a law, rule, regulation or any activity that is a threat to public interest, such as fraud, corruption or health and safety violations (Mesmer-Magnus & Viswesvaran, 2005).
    While discussing the responsibility of the employees regarding reporting the misconduct or illegal activities carried out by the Mayor Rob Ford, you claim that junior employees are not always compelled to act against boss, especially when their action results in putting them in personal or professional danger. You further claim that for all our talk about ‘speaking truth to authority,’ there is always a limit to how much a person can sacrifice. While considering this limit, sometimes it can be OK to keep your head down. You state about the ethics that ethics doesn’t always ask for doing the maximum, rather it is about choosing the right action, based on relevant considerations. And saving ones job is one of those.
    There are some weaknesses in these claims. In fact these claims contradict with your own statement regarding employees’ responsibilities at work place, according to which if boss actions are putting lives of the people at risk, it becomes obligatory for the employees to take necessary actions against it, instead of bothering about their job. Before going in to further details of these claims, I would like to ask some questions. Why do we need to discriminate between junior and senior employees when it comes to whistle blowing? Why is it OK for the junior employees to keep their heads down to save them from big personal or professional sacrifices, but not for the senior employees? Why is it ethical for the junior employees to not speak up for the benefit of organization or other employees, in order to save their job?
    Whistleblowing is the process of exposing any illegal, immoral or illegitimate action by the member of an organization under the control of employer, to a person or organization that has the ability to effect action (Mesmer-Magnus & Viswesvaran, 2005). In this regard no distinction can be made between junior and senior employees, because in case whistle blower is unsuccessful in stopping the organization from the wrong doings, he will have to face negative consequences for his action irrespective of his position (Milliken, Morrison, & Hewlin, 2003). The junior employees in the organization can first go for internal whistle bellowing. This involves reporting the wrongdoings to the higher management authorities inside the organization. This will give higher authorities more confidence over their opinion, while believing that they have people in the organization that are going to support them against Mayor. Instead of only considering the higher authorities to take responsibility of actions against the wrongdoings of the Mayor, junior staff should also be regarded as equally accountable. Losing their jobs cannot be an excuse for exempting them from this responsibility and putting the whole burden at the head of senior staff. Senior employees will have to face as much threat to their jobs as the junior ones.
    I agree with your point that a senior employee with a lot of authority and influence has the responsibility to give good advice to the boss. The probability that his voice will be heard and acted upon is always greater. But I also believe that junior staff instead of just neglecting everything in an effort to save their jobs, can chose to below the whistle in a way that can be effective and beneficial for the majority. According to Utilitarian approach, one should choose the option for action that can result in producing the maximum amount of happiness and the least harm (Fritzsche & Becker, 1984). Employees should act in the way that is going to benefit the future of their colleagues and organization, and in long run it will benefit their own future too.
    You are right in saying that it is necessary to put head down in order to figure out how to act in a given situation for benefiting future of organization and public. But you contradict here with your own view that, valuing your own job above public safety is something that is against our general social responsibility standards. I will support Kantian’s theory here. For Kantians, there are two questions that one must ask from his-self, whenever he decides to act: 1) Can I rationally will that everyone act the way I do? 2) Does my action benefit the goals of human beings instead of just benefiting my own purposes? If the answer is no to both these question, one should avoid that action (O’Neill, 2007). Keeping in view this theory, again this can be said that junior employees have as much ethical responsibility of acting for the benefits of organization and public, as the senior employees.
    Whistleblowers can be regarded as a courageous breed of a company’s insiders who are ready to risk their livelihoods in order to disclose information for the benefit of organization and people (Duska, 1990). It is very true that actions taken by the higher authority are more effective. But with few exemptions, an employee’s duty is to serve the mission of the organization. When things in the organization go out of order, there is no justification to wait for the relevant corrective actions from the higher authorities, instead of taking responsibility to personally act for the organizational benefit.

    Duska, R. F. (1990). Whistleblowing and employee loyalty. In J. R. Desjardins & J. J. McCall (Eds.), Contemporary issues in business ethics (2nd ed., pp.142-147). Belmont CA: Wadsworth.
    Fritzsche, D. J., & Becker, H. (1984). Linking management behavior to ethical philosophy—an empirical investigation. Academy of Management Journal, 27(1), 166-175.
    Mesmer-Magnus, J., & Viswesvaran, C. (2005). Whistleblowing in organizations: an examination of correlates of whistleblowing intentions, actions, and retaliation. Journal of Business Ethics, 62(3), 277-297.
    Milliken, F. J., Morrison, E. W., & Hewlin, P. F. (2003). An exploratory study of employee silence: Issues that employees don’t communicate upward and why?. Journal of Management Studies, 40(6), 1453-1476.
    Near, J. P., & Miceli, M. P. (1995). Effective-whistle blowing. Academy of Management Review, 20(3), 679-708.
    O’Neill, O. (2007). Kantian Ethics. Principles of Health Care Ethics (pp. 73-77): John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

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