A Publication of WTVP

Have you heard the sad story of Mike Price? He was the incoming University of Alabama football coach. The players and alumni were looking forward to great seasons under his leadership. Note, however, that we’re talking in the past tense here. Price never coached a game for The Crimson Tide. He was fired before he could even begin to demonstrate his ability. 

Price represented the university at a pro-am golf tournament. He spent hundreds of dollars of his own money and program expense money at a strip club, and one of the dancers evidently ordered more than $1,000 in room service, which was added to Price’s hotel bill—to be billed to the university. That’s a lot of scrambled eggs. Price’s personal and professional behavior was inconsistent with university policies, said Robert Witt, the university’s president. In addition, the money involved was not his own. 

Okay—I don’t want to start preaching in this column, but ethics ultimately is about choices and behavior. Employees and their supervisors face a persistently difficult problem with managing company reputation and expenses. When an employee—whether a front-line worker or CEO—is on company business, he or she is on company time, using company money, and is the visible example of what the company is like. Sometimes employees forget they’re stewards of the company’s resources, tangible and intangible, when they’re away from the company. 

A major ethical dilemma is when an employee no longer represents himself or herself and instead represents the employer. Some might say one always represents himself or herself. After all, the person comes with the package. Some people present themselves very well. They’re articulate, knowledgeable, considerate, and focused on the customer. Others can be more self-centered, or even rude and arrogant, when dealing with customers and fellow employees. 

Bad behavior can be monitored more closely when the employee is near home base. His or her work is visible, and the person usually is held accountable more quickly for what she or he does and says. Send a person to a conference, trade show, regional meeting, or distant sales call, and there can be trouble. There’s an old saying: “The true measure of a person is what happens when no one is watching.” 

Freed from the restraints of the office, the measure of friends and the routine of home life and family, employees sometimes exercise bad judgment. The employee may go out to a bar with business colleagues and have too much too drink. Under the influence of alcohol, people do and say things that they might otherwise hold inside. Like Mike Price, they may “go crazy” and go to a strip club or use an escort service. 

Or how about the employee who bails out of the conference to go shopping or visit with family members—even though the employer has paid for the airfare, given a per diem for expenses, and paid for a hotel room? The employer has sent the person there to represent the company, gather information, share resources, talk with vendors, and become more familiar with the industry. The employee may make a quick round of the exhibition hall, go to a keynote speech, or have one conversation with a key person. The rest of the time is devoted to sightseeing and shopping malls. And employees aren’t the only ones who do this. Public officials on the taxpayer’s dime do so as well. 

In any of these cases, the employee is representing the company. She or he might be at a conference in a splendid resort or a bustling city—but it’s not personal time or vacation time. It’s business time on someone else’s dime, whether provided by shareholders, stakeholders, or taxpayers. So how an employee uses the time and money of an employer, and how an employee conducts himself or herself, is of direct concern to supervisors and managers. Those supervisors and managers need to remember also that they model an example for others to follow, so their self-presentation on a business trip is critically important, too. 

Finally, it may be important to set the boundary the other way: when is the employee off the clock on a business trip, free to do what he or she wants? There are two key indicators. First, employees are on their own time when the business has finished and when they’re paying their own expenses directly, without reimbursement. Or the time can be counted as vacation time or comp time. 

Remember we live in a small world, and even though you or I may think we can make poor choices when no one is looking, you inevitably will run into people who do know you and who’re looking. Will they accept what they see? Mike Price knows the answer to this question. Let’s make a note of what he learned. IBI