You make a million decisions in the course of a week, but every so often one stops you in your tracks because it calls up a bigger question of values. Jeffrey Seglin, Inc.'s resident ethicist, responds to some recent ethical queries.
You make a million decisions in the course of a week, but every so often one stops you in your tracks because it calls up a bigger question of values: What's right and what's wrong? Here are some recent queries.
Women Need Not Apply
I've just survived the horrendous experience of being falsely accused of sexually harassing a woman who reports to me. Though I was cleared of any wrongdoing, my name and reputation have been dragged through the mud for months. As a result, I'm determined to never consider a woman for employment with me again. It's just too risky. I know there are a lot of legitimate charges brought, but certainly I can't be alone in my experience. -- Wall Street Executive
It's no wonder you're mad as hell and determined to never take it again. But imagine what you might experience if you follow your present course.
You should recognize now the inherent risk in your policy of never hiring another woman. If you get caught, it could cost your company a bundle. In a 1992 case, State Farm paid $157 million to a group of women who charged they'd been sexually discriminated against because they hadn't been considered for jobs as sales agents.
So you have to remind yourself: it's unethical, illegal, and financially risky to not hire women.
Still, you're probably not alone in having been falsely accused. Of the 17,000 charges resolved by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1998, 42% were dismissed as having "no reasonable cause." It's a murky area, though. Since the "evidence" is often of the he said, she said variety, charges may be hard to prove. And, of course, it's likely that most harassment doesn't even get reported in the first place.
Pocketing Payroll Taxes
I'm the bookkeeper for a small company. I've worked here since the company was started, four years ago. We've experienced tremendous growth in revenues but often find that our cash flow is very tight. There have been occasions when the company's owner and I have sat down and gone over the list of places we owed money to and prioritized who'd get paid when. Our accounts receivable don't always come in in time to cover what we owe, so we dribble the money out. Until about four months ago, I was fine with that practice. But now, the owner -- my boss -- has told me to hold off sending the payroll tax to the IRS. "It's just a short-term loan," the boss assures me. But I'm really uncomfortable with the process. Two questions: Is this a common practice? And if it is illegal, could I be held responsible for the money if the IRS catches on? -- Cook of the Books
If you go by the IRS's numbers, your company isn't the only one holding back. According to the most recent IRS records, as of September 30, 1998, 2 million businesses owed $49 billion in unpaid payroll taxes. The IRS will likely investigate anyone whose signature is on the payroll checks, according to Richard M. Colombik, a tax lawyer and president of International Tax Associates, in Schaumburg, Ill. But, he adds, "if you're the bookkeeper and your boss says, 'Don't pay the IRS or you're fired,' you really don't have the ability to choose who gets paid, and you likely won't be held responsible." Once the revenue service catches on, however, it will go after your boss -- and aggressively.
As bookkeeper, you may be in a pretty good position to assess the financial health of the company. Often when payroll taxes aren't paid, the bigger issue is this, says Colombik: "A lot of people are too intent on dealing solely with the tax issue. They don't take a step back and ask, 'Is this business worth saving?' "
Here Come the Bribes
I'm a senior sales manager in a multinational company. The president of the company has instructed us to always be nice to prospective customers during our first meeting, but never to try to sell our product then. Instead, we're to show interest in their company and give them a nice pen with our company logo on it as a gift. Nine times out of 10 we get the business, even if we're not the cheapest. All that is fine and good, but the practice of giving pens to win business revolts me. My boss just laughs and says, "What's wrong? Can't you be nice to people anymore?" How can I convince him this practice is immoral? -- Conflicted Sales King
Sometimes a pen is just a pen.
Let us know what's on your mind by writing to Ethics, Inc., 38 Commercial Wharf, Boston, MA, 02110. Or send an E-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 617-248-8458. Seglin is an editor-at-large at Inc. and the author of The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart , due out this month from John Wiley & Sons.