The meeting ended. Will picked up his pad, stood up, tossed his paper cup into the wastebasket, and stepped through the doorway right behind Janet. But before he could get her attention, Ed got his.
"Will, just one thing to button up — can you stop by my office a minute?" Ed asked.
"Sure," Will replied.
It was a short walk to Ed's office. They stepped in. Ed closed the door quietly. "Just want to give you the charge numbers for this week and next," he began. He handed Will a slip of paper that had two account numbers on it.
"Here they are. Top one's for this week, the other's for next."
"OK," said Will. "That it?"
"Yep. See you."
Will opened the door, went around the corner to his own office, set his pad and the slip of paper on his desk and sat. Odd, he thought. Why the secrecy? And why split the work across two accounts, when it was exactly the same work? He wondered what was going on.
helps you stay out of
the gray areaWill never did find out. Perhaps it was legitimate, but it might have been a "budget swap."
In organizations that track expended effort, people charge their time to various accounts, represented by charge numbers. When "actuals" deviate too far from projections, the manager is often considered to have erred. Managers of overspent (or underspent) accounts are tempted to move charges across accounts to compensate.
In effect, they "swap" money across accounts. Here are just a few forms swaps can take.
- Altering time sheets
- This approach is less common today, because so many organizations now use electronic time reporting systems. Systems that still use hardcopy are the most vulnerable.
- Directed or conspiratorial misreporting
- Ed and Will might be a case of directed misreporting. Typically, this requires a level of naiveté or fear on the part of the person who's being directed. Conspiratorial misreporting occurs when all parties are aware that they're reporting false data.
- In Parking, team members are temporarily detached from Project A, and then attached to Project B, which has adequate funding. Once parked, they may continue to do "just a little" work on A — a meeting, or a quick phone call, or more — but they charge all their time to B.
- Out and in
- When two budgets use the same external vendor for labor, equipment, or materials, the vendor can overcharge one of the budgets, and undercharge the other to compensate. Usually, this requires collaboration between the vendor and the managers. It's much easier to arrange when both budgets are controlled by the same manager.
Managers who use budget swaps to conceal problems do real harm to their organizations. But they harm themselves, too, because of another, less visible swap — their budgets for their integrity. Top Next Issue
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For more about budgetary deception in the wider context, check out M. Jensen, "Paying People to Lie: The Truth About the Budgeting Process," European Financial Management, Vol. 9, pp. 379-406, September 2003. Available at SSRN.
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More articles on Ethics at Work:
- Email Ethics
- Ethics is the system of right and wrong that forms the foundation of civil society. Yet, when a new
technology arrives, explicitly extending the ethical code seems necessary — no matter how civil
the society. And so it is with email.
- When Others Curry Favor
- When peers curry favor with the boss, many of us feel contempt, an urge for revenge, anger, or worse.
Trying to stop those who curry favor probably isn't an effective strategy. What is?
- On Organizational Coups d'Etat
- If your boss is truly incompetent, or maybe even evil, organizing a coup d'etat might have crossed
your mind. In most cases, it's wise to let it cross on through, all the way. Think of alternative ways out.
- Difficult Decisions
- Some decisions are difficult because they trigger us emotionally. They involve conflicts of interest,
yielding to undesirable realities, or possibly pain and suffering for the deciders or for others. How
can we make these emotionally difficult decisions with greater clarity and better outcomes?
- Counterproductive Knowledge Workplace Behavior: II
- In knowledge-oriented workplaces, counterproductive work behavior takes on forms that can be rare or
unseen in other workplaces. Here's Part II of a growing catalog.
See also Ethics at Work for more related articles.
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- And on October 23: Power Distance and Teams
- One of the attributes of team cultures is something called power distance, which is a measure of the overall comfort people have with inequality in the distribution of power. Power distance can determine how well a team performs when executing high-risk projects. Available here and by RSS on October 23.
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