One litmus test: Would you want your family to find out about it?
Government officials keep flying too close to the sun.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price drew scrutiny this week after Politico reported he’d chartered five flights for work trips last week at an estimated $60,000 cost — in contrast to his Obama-administration predecessors, who’d flown commercial. And Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin courted his own controversy last month with his use of a government plane on a trip to Kentucky, where he toured Fort Knox and glimpsed the solar eclipse. (The Treasury’s watchdog is reviewing the incident, though Mnuchin later insisted he wasn’t very interested in the eclipse.) Mayor de Blasio in July, meanwhile, came under fire for a trip to Germany’s G20 summit that used city funds for his security detail.
“Many companies create employment agreements that allow executives a certain number of hours on the company’s private jet/helicopter fleet as part of their total compensation packages,” HR consultant Laurie Ruettimann told Moneyish. “It makes sense that Price and Mnuchin, who come from this world, would have certain expectations.” But the government is “not a corporation,” she adds, and public officials tend to be held to different standards.
Though public and private-sector workers face admittedly different standards when it comes to perks, it’s worth asking: When is taking advantage of company resources appropriate, and when does it cross a line?
Executive coach Linda Sharkey knows of several instances in which people were fired, reprimanded or made to reimburse their company for abuses or unapproved liberties — including using a corporate jet to transport family members to a vacation home, charging hotel-room expenses incurred from an affair, and using a work computer to watch pornography.
Where’s the line between milking company perks and abusing them? https://t.co/5VqAdSqTnf
— Moneyish (@Moneyish) September 21, 2017
And employers do take notice, Sharkey warned: “There’s a lot more transparency that goes on in the workplace” due to technological advances, she told Moneyish. “People know when abuse happens — and companies are monitoring that.” Sharkey’s general litmus test for an abuse of resources: “Do you want to see this in the newspaper? And if you don’t want to see it in the newspaper, don’t do it.” Similarly, “would you want your family to find out about this? And what would they think of you?”
But the line is blurry and can depend on the organization, said career strategist Cynthia Shapiro. Some companies are hawkeyed with finances and “make you submit for every little thing you want to get reimbursed for,” she said, while others tend to be more lax. There’s also scale: the difference between taking a paper pad and pen home versus lugging home an entire ream to sell on eBay, for example, or internet surfing at work for a half hour versus cyberloafing all day to the detriment of a project. In general, companies should lay out rules in an employee manual or morality policy, Shapiro said.
Then there’s the psychological factor: Studies show that unhappy workers are more likely to steal from their employers, Shapiro said. On the flipside, employees who are highly valued by the boss and company are more likely to “get away with more” or escape with a mere wrist slap — while less-liked workers could land under greater scrutiny. “They won’t necessarily tell you where the line is, because they want you to cross it,” she said. “And then they’ll get rid of you.”
Leigh Stringer, a workplace strategy expert at the architecture and engineering firm EYP, models a litmus test after her company having transitioned to an employee stock ownership plan earlier this year. “My rule of thumb is: If we all owned stock in the company, would I spend another person’s money on this?” she told Moneyish. “It’s not just taking something from some … random, amorphous firm; it’s taking something potentially away from somebody I work with.” Stealing gets easier to mentally justify if the victim is several degrees removed, she said.
For Paul Osterman, a professor of human resources and management at MIT Sloan, the threshold is intuitive. “All I can say is that the line is fuzzy in that many people might take home paper clips from the office,” he said. “But if it’s abusive, we know it when we see it.”
Ultimately, Sharkey said, companies need to create an environment in which all employees — starting with the man or woman at the very top — operate within a framework of ethical behavior.
“If you’ve got a ruthless culture, people do things because they can rationalize and they can justify,” she said. “If you’ve got a great culture that values people, values ethics (and) treats people with respect and fairness, they’ll in turn operate with respect towards the company. And you’ll find they’ll go the extra yard for you.”
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