The Ethicist: How Can I Make My Colleague Stop Stealing?

May 13, 2018 by Joshua
in Ethicist

My series answering the New York Times’ Ethicist column with an active, leadership approach instead of an analytical, philosophical perspective continues with “How Can I Make My Colleague Stop Stealing?”.

I work at a small college and have a tenured colleague who routinely misuses college funds. He charges the department for expenses that are clearly personal. I’ve heard he buys his kids’ school supplies through the office Staples account, bought two computers for personal use, brings his family to conferences and charges the college for a condo and so on. Recently, he rang up food charges (supposedly for his students) totaling more than $1,000 in a single semester, when the college puts a limit on such spending of a few hundred dollars a year.

I told two deans of his behavior; both said it should be addressed by the department chairman. It has been addressed at two meetings. He does not change.

Am I obliged to raise this issue with other college administrators — the president? The police chief? The treasurer? It has no impact on my paycheck or ability to do my job if he steals. But it is wrong, morally and legally, and I’m starting to wonder, particularly when college professors are supposed to model behavior for students, if I’ve done all I can by bringing this to the attention of administrators, all of whom admit it’s a problem but don’t seem willing to do what it would take to make it stop. Name Withheld

My response: Your appeal to authority didn’t work. You want to influence his behavior. In other words, you’re asking how to lead people, meaning you want to improve your leadership.

You sound as if you haven’t spoken with him, which suggests your relevant social and emotional skills are limited.

If you’ll allow me a quick analogy, if you want to learn to create art, taking academic classes in art appreciation may help you appreciate art others made but not to create it. You have to practice, starting with the basics.

Nearly every resource I’ve seen on leadership is leadership appreciation—that is, books on principles and such that help you appreciate others’ leadership but not to lead. To learn to lead you have to practice, starting with basics.

To answer your question on how to lead people, I recommend my book, Leadership Step by Step, which gives you exercises to practice the skills of leadership, not just to appreciate others’ practice. You have to do the work of the exercises, not just passively read it, but what expressive or performance-based practice can you learn without work?

I’m not just plugging my book. I wrote it because nothing existed to give you experience and skills, not just appreciation.

Unit 4 covers what you want, though I’d start at the beginning and do the exercises in order.

The New York Times response:

Your colleague would seem deficient in the capacity for shame. He must know that his pilferings have been discussed in departmental meetings, and he remains undeterred. This suggests some measure of sociopathy. Your feelings, on the other hand, display a feature common in people who uphold ethical norms: a desire to see the guilty punished. (I’m putting aside your concern about leading students by example, because this presupposes that they know what’s going on — and you don’t suggest that they do.) What rankles, clearly, is that a serious norm has been violated with impunity.

This moral sentiment shows up in a family of studies in experimental economics in which people play “ultimatum games.” In a typical game, someone is allowed to propose a split of a pot of money with someone she’ll never encounter again. If you accept the proposed split, that’s what you get. If you reject it, both of you get nothing. So it’s never economically rational to reject a split, however lopsided: You’re turning down money. Yet across many societies, people will reject a split they consider unfair. What this shows, researchers suggest, is that people will pay a cost to punish antisocial behavior. It’s said to be a form of “altruistic punishment.”

All of which raises the question of how much effort you’re willing to expend to see rule-breaking punished. If you told the president, you’d probably have to be willing to reveal to your colleague that you’d done so and to give evidence against him. Your chairman would most likely also be displeased to learn that you’ve exposed the department’s failure to act. If you went to the campus police chief, your college administrators would learn of your action, and, given the norms of institutional autonomy, they would take a dim view of it.

Is the wrongdoer still getting away with it? If so, you could, in theory, continue to escalate. The money he’s stealing doesn’t come out of your pocket, but it belongs to your nonprofit institution, and misusing that money entails a violation of the public trust. That should interest the trustees of your college. And if they did nothing, then, in principle, the attorney general of your state ought to take an interest.

How far would you be willing to go? At a certain point, the pursuit becomes fanatical. Although your sense of indignation is commendable, it’s not your duty to enforce these rules, merely to report violations to the appropriate authorities, and you have. I’d say you’ve already done enough.

Let me add that there’s something about this situation that puzzles me. Unless your colleague is hugely valued (for success in raising large grants, say), he’s putting his tenure at risk by this behavior. And the grants would be at risk if he were found to be indifferent to the distinction between mine and thine in his use of them. Furthermore, your chairman has plenty of ways to put pressure on him, like asking for refunds for unwarranted travel expenses, denying him raises and placing these facts in his personnel file so that there’s a paper trail to justify later termination. My puzzlement is not about why you feel that something needs to be done about the problem but about why it isn’t being done by the people whose responsibility it is.

A female friend says she is planning to sell her late husband’s vintage collection of Playboy magazines, which she says are in excellent shape and worth a lot of money. Normally, this woman is a progressive feminist. Selling this “literature” would seem to run counter to ethical values in our “#MeToo” world. Am I off-base here? Name Withheld

My response: You ask what’s ethical. Since everyone has different values, you’ll just get a label that not everyone agrees on.

Labeling something doesn’t change your situation. You probably want to resolve it more than label it. I suggest that more than a New York Times columnist labeling something for you, you’d benefit from developing the social and emotional skills to resolve the situation and improve your emotional well-being. You’ll lose the excuse to say, “But the New York Times said so” but gain the ability to resolve these inevitable parts of life without needing others’ help. You’ll make mistakes, but you’ll learn from them. Experience is the best way to learn these things, I’ve found, as have millions of others. I recommend accepting the missteps you’ll make, looking at them as learning experiences, and using them to learn and grow.

The New York Times response:

Within feminism, there is what one scholar has called a “maddeningly deadlocked debate” concerning sexual imagery and sexual subordination; you see this in the arguments over “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which some find to be liberatory and empowering of women and others find to be oppressive and glamorizing of abuse (and still others find to be just plain dull). According to Catharine A. MacKinnon, pornography “makes the world a pornographic place”; according to Judith Butler, pornography’s “phantasmatic power” lies precisely in its distance from social reality. But Playboy is nobody’s Exhibit A in this arena.

Playboy, though it has published significant journalism and fiction, has no doubt expressed disrespect for women, as has much of our popular culture. Still, thinking about the sexual body of a female stranger in a photograph doesn’t entail having any particular attitude to other women. Indeed, thinking about the sexual body of a co-worker, as people of both sexes surely often do, is harmful only if it leads to doing something offensive. Privately consuming pornography of this sort, or engaging in sexual fantasy, is not tantamount to harassment or assault or the creation of a hostile workplace. Nor can we assume that people will be made more likely to do these things by opening Playboy’s pages. Old magazines, like old movies, are prone to display the casual sexism of their day. That’s not an argument for consigning them to the dump.

In the age of the internet, what’s more, the disappearance of every copy of the magazine from the face of the earth would hardly reduce the availability of pornography. And — who knows? — maybe some of those who look through vintage issues of Playboy will encounter some fine short stories, by the likes of Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates and Ursula K. Le Guin. So your feminist friend can profit from her husband’s magazine collection, while remaining faithful to the ideas that drive the #MeToo movement.

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