I work in a large cultural institution close to a major metropolitan area. As in many not-for-profits, the employees love the institution and their work, but morale is low due to cutbacks in staffing and pay raises for several years in a row. However, as is often the case, the upper level management (Director, C.O.O., Marketing Director, etc. are quite well paid, to a factor of 4-5 times the average worker’s salary. For the holidays, as a morale booster, a raffle of a plane ticket to an exotic place was held (several airlines are major donors to the institution). The second prize was getting one’s birthday off in 2008 (it was a distant second in terms of desirability). All the employees were entered, and a lot of people were hoping to win a ticket that they couldn’t afford otherwise.
When the raffle was held, with much fanfare, the winner turned out to be the Chief Operating Officer, who made her delight perfectly clear, much to the dismay and shock of everyone else in the room. Not only had she been fortunate enough to travel to the country designated on the ticket, she was easily in a position to afford another trip. Virtually all of the people I have mentioned this to, inside and outside the institution, said she should have put the ticket back in the pot for another drawing. I know she is not required to do this, but would it be the honorable, ethical thing to do? The morale has also declined further, as a side effect of this episode.
The Luck of the Draw?
OFFICE-POLITICS REPLY BY FRANKE JAMES
Dear The Luck of the Draw,
Should the headline for this letter be “Chief Operating Officer wins Office Raffle”, or “Chief Operating Officer ‘rigs’ Office Raffle”? You’ll see I’ve rewritten it as ‘rigs’.
Perception is reality
Whether or not the Chief Operating Officer actually rigged the raffle to ensure her win, she is certainly gambling with her reputation. No wonder her behavior has left a bad-taste in yours and other employee’s mouths.
What a dumb-headed move on so many counts. From a PR/media perspective: Dumb. (Imagine the newspaper headline. Would most readers believe she won the raffle fair and square?) From a morale-boosting perspective: Dumb. (The message it sends to employees is that you are all ‘losers’, certainly the opposite of what was intended and great fodder for the rumor mill.) From an honesty perspective: Dumbest of all.
Execs no longer have ‘the benefit of the doubt’
By accepting the prize she has thrown into question the honesty of herself and all the executives in her company. CEO’s, CFO’s and COO’s no longer have ‘the benefit of the doubt’. That day is long gone. So many high-ranking execs (think Enron, WorldCom, and Tyco for starters) have brought dishonor to their companies for accounting abuses that even the mere whiff of an ‘oddity’ can make people nervous and suspicious. CFO.com’s July ’07 article ‘How Many CFOs Have Been Convicted?‘ found that 53 CFO’s in the past 5 years, as well as 214 CEOs have been convicted. I’m sure if you dig you can find even more.
A Good PR Move
Now you may be shaking your head and saying “C’mon, this was a raffle. Not an accounting fraud.” But I don’t agree. Look back in history and you’ll see it’s often the small, seemingly insignificant things that trip people up, exposing patterns of behavior that they’ve gotten away with for years. As a high-ranking executive she has more power in your organization than any of you foot-soldiers. There was nothing smart about her grabbing the prize. The classiest move would have been for her to throw her ticket back in the pot. Imagine the difference in perception. All of a sudden she would have attracted admiration for her ‘selfless’ act. But in reality it would have been (in part) just a good PR move.
Most expensive career mistake to date
Instead she has attracted gossip, derision and suspicion. The ticket she won may be her most expensive career mistake to date. For educational value, you should follow her career. With behavior, and bad judgment like hers, she’s sure to get in a few ethical scrapes. This is just the first we’ve heard of.
So what can you do? It’s unlikely you’ll want to do battle over this — however it would be very smart of your non-profit to take steps to ensure everything is clean and above-board in future contests. Most contests have strict rules that forbid certain parties (e.g. the CEO, CFO, and COO and their ad agencies) from entering the contests their companies are running. Those rules should have been in place for this raffle. It’s just common-sense, and it protects the Executive board from being seen as having their hand in the cookie-jar (or raffle pot in this case).
A good moral compass
You’ve got a good moral compass by the sounds of it. Management could use some of that, especially with more focus on ethical behavior and compliance with good governance rules. Have you thought about aiming for the executive level?
Thanks for writing to Office-Politics. Let us know how it goes.
Franke James, MFA
Editor & Founder, Office-Politics.com
Inventor, The Office-Politics® Game
Franke James, MFA is the Editor & Founder of Office-Politics.com. She is also the Inventor of The Office-Politics® Game a dilemma-based social game that teaches you how to play, and laugh, at office politics. It’s used by HR departments, and corporate trainers worldwide. The Office-Politics Dilemmas have been inspired by the hundreds of letters submitted to Office-Politics.com.