Bad breath boss

Dear Michelle

I have a great job – but there is just one problem. My boss is a close talker and his breath is terrible. I don’t mean coffee breath or pizza for lunch but all day long just plain bad. I don’t want to hurt his feelings but it is really unpleasant. In all other regards he is an excellent boss and mentor. I thought I might leave a bottle of mouthwash on his desk as a gentle hint or leave him an anonymous note. But I really don’t know how to proceed. What should I do?

Holding my breath

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Everyday Ethics

Ethics is a hot button issue. Unfortunately we too often use an ethic’s filter to judge other people’s behaviour. The media sometimes confuses ethics with laws or rules and regulations.  When “ethics” is co-opted by religious groups – as in Christian values – it distracts from the real difficulty of leading an ethical life.

There are no simple answers. Ethical thinking can be hard. But like any difficult task it is easier when you train and practice. Everyday Ethics examines the types of problems we often encounter and deal with. They are not life threatening. Sometimes we recognize the “ethics” in the problem. Other times we only feel the pain that comes from not knowing the absolute best solution. Other times we resolve the issue with nary a pause. Using an ethic’s filter to examine our own actions builds character and confidence.

To explore everyday ethical issues presented as an “advice column” please select Everyday Ethics from the category list to the right.

Teacher’s dilemma

Dear Michelle

I have just started teaching college students and I thought it was important to make my expectations very clear at the outset. I explained that it was my policy to set a deadline for assignments and that I would not give extensions. Late or missed assignments would receive a zero grade. When asked if there could ever be exceptions I said that it was possible but to not rely on it. If bad things happened letting me know as early as possible was the best way to find a resolution. No one assignment was  worth more that 5% of the overall grade. I told them that the best way to deal with a hard deadline was to get the work done as early as possible.

Several weeks into the course one of my best (and one of my favourite) students came to my office to tell me she had missed the deadline because – and she proceeded to tell me a story that I had no reason to disbelieve and that would understandably result in her missing the deadline. She asked for an extension. Having to make a decision on the fly I told her that there was no harm in asking. I thanked her for explaining what had happened but that my policy was clear and she would receive zero.

But now I wonder if I did the right thing?


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The Devil Made Me Do It

good_vs_evil_warfare_400_clr_6236Let’s assume for a moment that there is a Supreme Being. Let’s call this entity IT – not to be confused with Stephen King’s novel about a sewer dwelling evil clown named Pennywise.

According to the story,  IT decided to confer the Truth on one person. Put aside for a moment your curiosity as to why IT as Supreme Being didn’t simply tell everyone. (The rumor is that most people couldn’t handle the Truth.) In any event, IT decided to share the secret with the chosen one – henceforth referred to as CO. (Feel free to substitute your favourite variation about the CO.) Continue reading “The Devil Made Me Do It”

Data held hostage

Secure dataIn common parlance, governance is the responsibility to take care of things – the ownership of which lies elsewhere. It is all about taking care of other people’s stuff.

So when an employee’s responsibilities include protecting a city’s computer system and its data – to whom does  that employee owe the duty of trust?

According to the San Francisco Chronicle – this was the issue confronting a computer engineer, Terry Childs, in June of 2008. Mr. Childs fully understood that San Francisco’s data was sensitive. He was well versed in system security and knew the need to protect the network from viruses, hacking and corruption. Unfortunately, Mr. Childs had grown to believe that the biggest risk to the network was his co-workers. Continue reading “Data held hostage”

When evil comes to town

Snidely Whiplash“The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing”.

Often attributed to Edmund Burke, quoted by John F. Kennedy, and traced to Charles F. Aked – it is one of the most popular quotations of the modern world.

The origin of the quote is less important than the message. It seems to clearly state our individual responsibility to stand up against evil – things, people and practices.

I think, since this is such a popular quotation, it is safe to say that we collectively believe that we should take a stand against evil. Yet it seems that not a day passes without some corporation, business person or politician being caught out in deception or bad behaviour. This seems at odds with our stance against evil.

Perhaps the word “evil” is too melodramatic.  I know it makes me think of old movies in which good and evil were clearly distinguished – sometimes by the colour of the actors’ hat – sometimes by his moustache. In any event – it was easy. You rooted for the good guys and booed the bad guys. And the cavalry rode over the hill and put everything in order.

I’m sure that most of us believe that we are “good guys”. Not necessarily perfect, but certainly not evil. And, I’d wager that those politicians and business people do not see Snidely Whiplash or another “bad guy” when they look in the mirror.

As humans, we have an amazing capacity to fill the information gap with stories of our own making. And since we never have complete and accurate information we have a lot of room to be creative. Given that we believe ourselves to be basically good we sometimes find the need to reconcile our temptations (and actions) against our self-image.

We do not know how many people cheat (or lie or pad their expense accounts). It is fairly obvious that in certain situations there is reward for cheating (or lying or padding our expense accounts). If everyone else is doing it then we reason that we can too and still be a good guy. [Comparison against social norms is a powerful tool.]

We don’t see as the small “bad” as evil. We excuse questionable business practices as “just business”, certainly not evil – unless the practices affect our stock prices. Well that’s different –although perhaps, still not evil.

We see evil in murderers and rapists. We see evil in foreign leaders – although we need to be told which ones are evil and which ones are just eccentric.

We don’t see evil in the small cheats, the deceptions, the shirking of responsibility. Evil is too heavy a word for those things. And so we can quote the saying and feel that we will combat evil – if it ever comes to town.

Whether it a business decision or a board room discussion we need to recognize those things that make us uncomfortable – if they are not evil maybe they are slithery or not quite right. 

We cannot eradicate evil from the world but we can monitor ourselves. We can create new stories to fill the information gap – stories in which we believe that good people do not cheat (or lie or pad their expense reports). It is a small thing – but it may be all we can do.

[N.B. All references to “guys” should be read as gender neutral. Relax – this is not the worst thing you will deal with today.]