Tuesday, October 13, 2009

My Stumble

I couldn't sleep the other night because I had not been honest. Well, that doesn't really get to the root of the matter. I couldn't sleep because I knew I had to correct a dishonest decision and, no matter what I did to fix my transgression, it could all end up badly.

One of my favorite people called me up and informed me that, while closing stores in the latest round of downsizings, she was going to sell off some electrical accessories and use the money to give her people a party. The amount of money was a few hundred dollars, the fixtures were going to be thrown away anyway, so I paused for a second or two, then said "we didn't have this discussion."

The moment the words came out of my mouth I knew it was wrong. If it were my business, I'd have given her the money without a second thought. But that was the thing that weighed on my mind: it was not my business and I had just condoned stealing from the owner. Worse yet, my employee, though she presented the plan to me as a done-deal, was more honest than me because she was asking for my official approval, albeit after the fact. In my career, I'd seen people make such a personal attachment to the company they worked for that the lines of ownership were, in their minds, confused. They believed, wrongly, that they had been entrusted with powers well within their rights to exercise, though in doing so they went well over the line. These people were usually good, loyal, dedicated, honest, and well meaning. They were, also, usually fired and disgraced.

I believe I had fallen into that same mindset. My authority to make decisions affecting finances and business operations is quite extensive. I can obligate the company to large expenses merely on my say-so and without any counter signature. I can hire and fire; I can give raises and pay cuts. I literally have the power to make or break the company.

What I don't have is the power to use or authorize the use of company assets for personal gain, and that is what I had agreed to by using the wormy phrase "we didn't have this discussion." I was no better than a thief, for I had been informed of a future theft of assets I was charged with protecting and had done nothing to discourage or prevent it.

I had a few options. I could call the employee and tell her I could not condone the appropriation of company property, even though it was being discarded, for personal purposes. It seemed, on its' face, to be a petty thing to do. I could tell the owner someone was going to steal from him, but that seemed equally petty and just about as dishonest since I had already given tacit approval to the theft. Or, finally, I could ask permission to allow the sale of useless assets for employee use.

I took the last option. If the owner said "no," then I'd have to rescind my approval and be vigilant to be sure no assets were being sold without my knowledge, which would put the strain of distrust between me and my favorite employee. I might even find myself in the position of firing her for theft. Oh, how I could have avoided all this with just a simple statement of "this is not right."

I put the question to the owner simply, "would you mind..." He said he didn't. Total time of discussion: fifteen seconds. Total amount of sleep lost: hours and hours.

Today I called the employee. I told her I had gotten approval for her plan and it was all good. She thanked me profusely. I could hear the sound of relief in her voice. She, too, had been bothered by her own plan. Maybe she had been bothered by my response, since I had not given official approval and therefore had put her in jeopardy if the scheme had been found out. Whatever the case, we both breathed easier.

There is not much about this story that is exclusively libertarian except that being libertarian is, at its' core, perfect respect for the property of others. I had failed to live up to my principles. Or maybe I had just stumbled on my path and regained my balance.

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