Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Client Obligations and Handling your Boss

By Jessica Silliman

Rosie Alexander had recently lost her job from the dot-com bust when she decided to switch industries and join a medium-sized consulting firm where she helped individual clients manage their personal portfolios. Although the firm wasn't the top in the market, the firm had several long-term clients who gave them a good reputation amongst peers.

One long-term client, Betty Fitz, emailed Rosie's boss, Conor Hall, asking a few questions about a recent acquisition of stock. Conor forwarded the inquiries to Rosie, asking her for help. Rosie, new to the job and not fully aware of Ms. Fitz's financial background, wasn't able to answer all of Ms. Fitz's questions-they needed to be put to someone with more expertise. So she wrote an email back to Conor, letting him know that she needed more information before she could fully evaluate Ms. Fitz's situation. She explicitly stated in the email to Conor that her reply was an inquiry for further information and was not meant to be forwarded on to Ms. Fritz. Rosie felt her answer was still in an informal, rough form and left many questions unanswered.

A few days later, Ms. Fitz emailed Conor again, asking if he had gotten her questions answered. In a rush, Conor forwarded Rosie's email to Ms. Fitz. Later, he told Rosie that he felt her response was good enough and that he didn't have the time to waste composing a whole new document. When Ms. Fitz complained about the lack of detail in the response, Conor placed the blame on Rosie, his "clearly incompetent assistant."

"He messed with my reputation," said Rosie. "I don't normally like to create commotion, but I felt this was a necessary battle I had to fight."

In Rosie's mind, Conor had not only lied to a client and implicated her, he had also damaged her professional reputation with a longstanding client. She looked unreliable.

Rosie approached Conor the following day and said that all he needed to tell Ms. Fitz was that he had forgotten or hadn't gotten a chance to look at it yet. Either way, each answer would have made him appear busy-something completely justifiable to the client. And even if Rosie had messed up, she told Conor that she would expect him to either fire her or cover for her-not damage her reputation and leave her unable to defend herself.

Surprisingly, Conor agreed and apologized to Rosie-and later apologized to Ms. Fitz.

Discussion Questions:

  • Do you think Rosie was fair to her boss?
  • How could Rosie have handled the initial problem of having not enough information differently?
  • What's the impact of Rosie and Conor's decisions on Ms. Fitz, the customer?
  • Is it best to be honest with customers, even if it shows your weakness?
  • What are three important ethical qualities to look for in a boss?

Jessica Silliman was a 2006-07 Hackworth Fellow at The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

June 2007


New Materials

Center News