Sunday, September 27, 2009

Very little big lesson

This is not a difficult one. Your boss asks you to take an action that will hurt someone else's ability to make an honest living. The action is legal. Indeed, the law encourages the action. The penalty is minor, maybe a small fine. The guys who will be fined are scrappy and will probably find other work.

You, however, believe the law to be immoral. If you refuse to take the action, you could lose your job. You stick to the high ground and refuse to take an immoral action, right? Oh yeah, you live in a small town and it has been hit hard by double digit unemployment in the middle of the worst recession since the Great Depression. So, again, do you risk losing your job, a job you can't afford to lose, so someone else won't have to pay a minor fine for violating an ordinance, or do you protect yourself and go along to get along?

This wasn't my first dillema with my libertarian principles, but it was the first one that got my heart pumping.

The year was around 1981-82. I was working for a small roofing company in my hometown of about 10,000 residents. It was a family owned and operated business, completely above board with all the proper licenses, permits, certifications, insurances, etc. With a crew of about 15 guys, we were the largest roofer in town.

My job was to do whatever the owner needed me to do. One day I'm answering phones and making coffee, the next day I'm carrying 500 degree hot asphalt in buckets up and down slippery roofs in 90 degree heat because a crew member didn't show up as scheduled. I was his right hand and his boy-friday. I cheerfully did anything he needed done because that was the nature of my job.

On that particular day, the boss and I were driving around town measuring roofs and preparing estimates. It was work that, for some reason, the boss hated to do. He much prefered to start a big job, say the tear-off and replacement of a factory roof that could occupy him for weeks at a time, than to give attention to the dozens of little residential roof replacements and repairs that were worth a couple thousand dollars and produced less than $100 profit each.

I was holding on my lap the sheaf of files I had created for each of the requests for estimates that had been previously phoned in. All of the files carried the date of the call, so I could see that some of the files were weeks old. More than once we would drive up and be met by an irate homeowner who did not understand why his call (usually in the middle of a rainstorm) was being responded to many weeks later. More than once we would find the request for an estimate to be a moot point as, clearly, the roof had already been replaced. I'd draw a slash across the information sheet inside the folder and put it aside, then move on to the next location.

At one of the homes we visited, we could see our services were not going to be needed because half of the roof had already been replaced and there were a couple of scraggly looking shinglers still working on the other half. The boss recognized the workers. Fly-by-night's, he called them. He hrumphed and told me to note this address, then call the City Building Commission when we got back to the office.

I didn't say anything, but I felt an instant stab to my gut. I put the folder aside as I was told, and we moved on.

Back at the office, I went to work on estimates, calling customers, cleaning the warehouse, filing, making keep myself busy, waiting impatiently for the boss to go home. He announced he was heading home (he usually knocked off an hour early, though he might come back to the office later and work until midnight) and I was relieved that the incident with the "fly-by-nights" had been forgotten.

"Goodnight," he said. "Oh, yeah, did you report the fly-by-nights to the Building Commission?"

"No." My stomach felt that stab again.

"Call them in the morning, then."

I paused a split second.

"No. I can't." My heart was pounding.

He looked at me, puzzled. I had never, ever, refused to do any work. I felt I was being in-your-face insubordinate.

"Why not?"

"I don't believe in building permits or licensing roofers. I can't turn them in."

He just stared at me for a few seconds.

"We have to follow the law, why don't they?" he asked.

"We shouldn't have to follow those law, either," I anwsered. The stab in my stomach eased a little.

"You understand, they're probably not even insured, don't have a license, don't have a permit, and so don't have our expenses. They can undercut us on every job if we don't stop them. It's not fair."

"No, it's not fair. But we shouldn't be forced to have those expenses."

"Hmmmm. Sounds good in theory, but that's not the way the world works," he said.

"It doesn't matter. I can't. It's not right."

The boss didn't answer. He just nodded, said goodnight again, and left.

The subject did not come up again. I don't know if he made the phone call himself. I was not reprimanded and I was not fired. Life went on. I don't think I ever again had the same fear of the effects of sticking to my principles. This was a very little big lesson in my life.