Integrity Matters
September 25, 2003

Boss may tell you his experience was an oversight

Question: (E-069)

Dear Jim:

I work for an executive who has always been held in high esteem, but just recently he submitted an expense item for me to OK for reimbursement, that I believe to be personal. This involved an expensive dinner with friends and for which there was no business purpose, not even relationship-building, as their personal friendship is well established. Of course, he could (and no doubt would) justify it as a legitimate business expense if challenged, and my push back would be seen as a complaint. Chances are that the conversation between us would not yield any results other than irritation for everyone concerned.


When someone who has been held in high esteem disappoints us, it is natural to feel disappointment, sometimes even anger. When we perceive values, small or large, are violated, one or both of the parties involved can feel a tear in the relationship fabric of mutual faith and confidence. The breaking of a trust, in this instance, the inappropriate use of company funds, can signal that a halo of an individual with perceived integrity was tarnished. Casual or irresponsible behavior about what is and what is not a proper use of a business expense account can shatter an otherwise worthy reputation. It sounds as if your role in the company places you in a position to exercise your fiduciary responsibility for the conduct of others, even some who are held in high esteem.

What is the integrity-centered action in this instance? First, let's check this situation carefully. In general, I've found it helpful to view such matters as isolated incidents from this perspective:

If it happens once, it is an event. If it happens twice, it is a pattern. If it happens a third time, it is a habit, and habits are very hard to break.

If the executive in question has not been sloppy with expenses before, then it may be prudent to ask if this expense item was an oversight. If the leader's "halo" is still in place and you are correct that the meal should not be charged to the company, then mentioning the issue should allow the other person, and not you, to rectify the error. Sometimes a simple question, "Did you mean to do this?" will remind the executive that he or she lives in a fishbowl, and that their behavior is being observed and emulated. As a consequence, leaders' behaviors are open to question, if only for clarification.

With a basically honorable person, such a reminder will be sufficient. Their response will also tell you a great deal about whether this was an incident, a pattern or a habit. If the executive's behavior is habitual, you will want to extricate yourself from that situation. Sooner or later, habitual abusers of funds, small or large, will do harm to the enterprise. They will create enough distrust that increased regulations will be required and new rules will hinder relationships and stifle motivation. Integrity matters 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Leaders are role models, for better or worse, on purpose or by accident.

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