Ask Bracher (Questions & Responses)

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Question: (E-001)

As a manager, how can I resolve the apparent differences between the ethics and values I choose to hold in my personal life and those that seem to be imposed on me by the business community? The competitiveness of the business environment and the expectations of Wall Street and stockholders create conflict between what I feel I need to do to meet their demands versus my personal value system.

Perhaps you are seeing a conflict that is of your own making. The real question is, "within your value system, how can you make a positive contribution to your various stakeholders?"

After answering the hard question regarding your ability to contribute where you are, you will know how best to proceed. Act in accordance with your values.

Question: (E-002)
published in Jim Bracher's Integrity Matters newspaper column on December 4, 2002

"Firms must tell the truth"

What obligation for truthfulness does management have with employees? Obviously, Enron stepped over the line by outright lying to employees. But how much truth is enough? When business prospects are down, when consolidations or reorganizations are being considered, when units are being sold or spun off, when business strategies change -- all with potentially adverse impact on employees' continued employment -- how much information should be shared with those being impacted?

Management has 100% responsibility to deal with all of its stakeholders truthfully. Leaders provide appropriate they see it. Sometimes optimism may seem naïve in hard times. When circumstances fail to improve then these same leaders can be accused of ignorance or malfeasance. They make mistakes.

However, leadership can never skirt the truth. Timing of the telling of the truth requires judgment, which can be imperfect.

Great leaders err on the side of disclosure. Look for patterns and act accordingly. If someone lies one time, that is an event, or, perhaps, even a misunderstanding. If they lie twice, there is a pattern. If they lie a third time, it has become a habit. Habits are hard to change.

Question: (E-003)

I am frightened. Recently my husband returned from one of several long business trips. He has never been under such pressure to sell products, raise capital and keep his board happy. We talk, as we have for the twenty-nine years we have been married. He considers me his best friend and sounding board. So, this is what scares me.

We were talking about his job, where he is the president, and he said that things were rough, so rough that he hopes he is dead before they ever get this rough again. What can I say or do to help him?

Now, more than ever, we need our friends and loved ones. It is their understanding and support that will sustain us. Your husband sounds overwhelmed and why not? These are rough times. Keep the doors of communication open. Continue to listen. If this is a one-time conversation, the listening may be all that is needed. If the conversations continue over an extended time so that it is clear the conditions are not temporary, then help him plan an exit to a healthier situation. Life is short! Handle with care.

Question: (E-004)
Published in Jim Bracher's Integrity Matters newspaper column on December 31, 2003.

"Look for integrity in a leader's eyes"

I'm in the Human Resources Department for a high tech company. Our business is way down, like most companies in our industry. Having lost 40% of our employees over the last two years has created a lot of wear and tear on me because I'm involved in outplacement. I really don't have any good news for the laid off staff. There are no new jobs to be had in our area for most skills and it doesn't look like we'll be rehiring anytime soon.

But what's really bothering me is our senior management. They seem to be in denial. There's so much money being wasted. We still have our corporate jets, fancy perks and big expense accounts. There's also a rumor that the CEO and COO paid themselves substantial bonuses last year. I read about WorldCom and Enron and start to get really cynical. Are all companies run by greedy me-first people? I don't know if I can look one more co worker (about to be ex co-worker) in the eye as I hand them their severance check and try to explain why they are being laid off. On the other hand I find it tough to stand on the moral high ground when I feel so desperate to keep my own job so that I can take care of my family.

You are not alone. You are not in control of the behaviors of others. Your integrity stands on its own. From the time history was recorded, bad things happened to good people. Given your responsibilities to yourself, your family and your colleagues, pause and put together your own plan. If you cannot see integrity flickering in leaders' eyes, engineer a plan for your own exit. You cannot represent integrity in an organization that has none. Balance your own desire to sustain your personal and organizational values while simultaneously remaining responsible for the health and welfare of those you love best.

Now, for the future. If nothing substantive changes where you are, you will probably move on. Establish the right criteria for responsible leadership. You can develop the list from what you see done poorly where you are and from what might also be done well. Build this list into a performance scorecard. Utilize the information in future interviews. Even painful learning is learning.

In summary:

  1. Assess your own needs and those for whom you are responsible.
  2. Determine what the right (sensible and prudent) time is to move on, only after thoroughly addressing financial needs and future opportunities.
  3. Seek leadership next time that more clearly fits with your definition of integrity in leadership.
  4. Move on when you find the right situation.

Question: (E-005)

Do we terminate an employee who we know committed sexual harassment? Do we fire the individual now or when the boss returns?

Assuming due process, you need to do what is right...immediately. Forget convenience and honor integrity. Suspend or release is your call.

Question: (E-006)

Three months ago my wife came home from a "Business Opportunity Meeting" she was invited to by someone at our church and she was very excited. She said that a couple of people who spoke at the meeting were showing off checks for over $25,000 that they had received in monthly bonuses for putting together sales organizations selling vitamins and herbs. No matter how much I told my wife that this sounded like some kind of shady pyramid scheme she said we could use the extra money and she was, "going for it".

So far, after spending $700 on product and training materials, she has made a grand total of $140 in commissions. More troubling is that my wife has gotten many of our friends and relatives into her little enterprise. I think she has too much pride to admit she's been had by visions of "striking it rich". She still insists that with more time and by recruiting even more friends and relatives that she will start making big money. I'm worried that the only thing we're going to end up with is a bunch of damaged relationships from the people my wife has encouraged to join her business crusade.

Is there any chance that my wife's business can pan out? Should I force her to give this up before any more money and time are thrown away?

Obviously, you love your wife, care about your friends and are concerned that your wife's business skills may not match the needs of the enterprise. Losing any of the above can be costly … therefore: Ask your wife if she is motivated by the mission of her new enterprise or by its promise of dollars. In all likelihood, your wife needs to make her own decisions, so you help best by asking her the right focus questions.

Generally, among the successful people I know, all know profits are the by-product not the goal. If the product is good, it will sell assuming it is properly capitalized, marketed and supported. Most business owners, such as your wife, develop budgets for enterprises and once the investment capital is exhausted, they decide to dig deeper or say "enough" and close the doors. Check the company. Check your wife's plan. Be open about the budget. Make the decision. Move on. Integrity is to be maintained, personally and professionally.

Question: (E-007)

How can credit card institutions live with 22%-25% interest rates on unpaid balances?

I resigned from my job when it became apparent that our institution was preying on the poor.

Because they can. Their lobbying pressure is powerful in Washington, D.C. and in state capitals. So far, we seem unwilling to police those who fleece the poor. Elected representatives need to wake up and protect those less able to protect themselves. Education can assist by teaching individuals to spend with discipline. Political institutions can enforce reasonable rates. Business leaders can balance their successes by quality of life for more people while controlling self-serving greed. Certainly the media can focus the spotlight on their greed.

Question: (E-008)

In professional team sports, the best players...those with the proper mix of skill and talent … take the field/arena/etc. on "game day", regardless of their color, race and/or religion.

In professional organizations, however, the best "players" do not fill the key positions. Often this is because of their color, race, religion, network and/or affiliation … not skill and talent.

Is there a reason for the different sets of standards given all the laws and regulations regarding equal opportunity employment and non-discrimination?

Your question relates to the manner with which positions are filled. Insecure leaders often fill key positions with "known quantities." Depending upon the priorities of some enterprises, winning is a distant second to harmony and family comfort. How else could one explain the lack of a winning tradition among some sport teams? On the other hand, some leaders prefer to employ friends or socially comfortable "slot fillers" instead of seeking only the most qualified to do the work.

One aspect of this socially sensitive approach is admirable, caring for the less obviously capable. The other side of this "relationship coin" could be described as biased, even discriminatory.

In the meantime, enjoy the winning sports programs that grasp the winning team concept and avoid investing in the capitalists who place productivity and profits after their "good old buddy" network of employing friends and pals, male or female.

Question: (E-009)

The company I work for is actively involved with the United Way. In addition to corporate support, each employee, including myself, is "encouraged" by the Chief Executive Officer to contribute. I would rather contribute to other organizations and not feel as if I "have to" contribute to the United Way. What can I do?

Because the United Way has created a reputation of good deeds, it is often difficult to "opt out" of the contribution expectations. Given the competitive format (namely, what percentage of employees participate), it may be cumbersome "career-wise" to not contribute.

As with all volunteer efforts, the metrics can sometimes be more admirable than the tactics.

Ask yourself if the "work" of the United Way is within your personal budget. If yes, participate. If no, then find a way to gain understanding with those directing the efforts, perhaps by showing them the positive contributions you are making to others, or by asking United Way to direct your contributions to a specific recipient.

Question: (E-010)

My company has a "forced distribution" for annual performance reviews. I received a significantly lower review score than I should have. My manager said that, "Compared to all others, that's how it works out." This means a much lower bonus and options for next year. Is this fair?

A long time ago, someone suggested to me that I could exceed an unlimited budget. Once it became clear to me that this was not a compliment, my spending habits changed.

Everyone sees themselves as "above average", and there is a chance your manager has been fair. On the other hand, if you are a high performer and are truly failing to be recognized and rewarded for it, ask your supervisor how to improve your productivity. After all, you want to be in the top group. Once you know what to accomplish, you can then determine if your leader is eager to support your quest for success, or if your leader simply sees you as a statistical contributor who enables others to gain more substantial rewards.

No matter which way things turn out, you will know a lot more about the integrity of your boss and your organization. The answer will determine your tenure.

Question: (E-011)
published in Jim Bracher's Integrity Matters newspaper column on December 11, 2002

"Get off your duff and enjoy life's ride"

I went on an international assignment as part of my "high potential" cross training. The assignment was cut short as the company decided to close the office. I was then re-assigned a lower level job because the company said, "There is nothing open right now." It has been a year and I have gone from a rising star to a disgruntled, demoted employee. What should I do now?

Sometimes we win and sometimes we finish "out of the money". Life and work involve taking calculated risks. Had your international assignment continued, you might have re-entered the home office a conquering star. Now, we will never know.

However, simply because this did not "work as planned", you must not choose the victim role. Search for the next opportunity. Thomas Edison did not succeed...until hundreds of tries. Colonel Sanders was 65 years old before his "special recipe" launched Kentucky Fried Chicken. So, you fell off the horse. Get back up, dust your demoted self off, and "get moving". The only guarantee we have is death. Until then enjoy the rewards (the education) that come from risk.

Question: (E-012)

We are told daily about cost containment and reducing the budget. At the same time our Chief Executive Officer buys a failing company and proceeds to lose 20 million dollars before we simply close the doors. Why should I mind how many pencils are bought when it makes no difference based on leadership decisions?

Leaders can make big dollar mistakes because the rest of us are making penny-wise decisions. Bosses make mistakes. If you learn financial disciplines early, you may be in a better position to offer sage counsel before future financial blunders are made.

Keep in mind that another's carelessness is not a permission slip for you to become mediocre. Count the pencils!

Question: (E-013)
published in Jim Bracher's Integrity Matters newspaper column on December 18, 2002

"Banks have right to make a profit"

How can banks pay 2½% on savings accounts and charge 9% for loans? Are banks cheating customers?

No, they are practicing free enterprise. They are doing what is legal, not necessarily what is moral! Hopefully, the marketplace will seek alternatives and force banks to be more responsive. Why else do people invest their funds in other places and borrow from non-banking sources? Banks have enjoyed a level of non-responsiveness which needs to change. Everyone knows that financial institutions have overhead expenses. Profit is essential. If increasing numbers of bank customers choose other resources, the marketplace determines how much is enough.

Question: (E-014)

How much is enough? Compensation is totally out of whack. Is compensation about ego satisfaction or contribution to the organization?

Many years ago a mentor of mine told me how today we could learn from the American frontier. During the days of stage coaches and gun slingers, a traveler might encounter masked robbers on horseback who would shake-down travelers with a pointed demand, "Your money or your life." In those days people often turned over their money because they knew the difference and they recognized the values of life.

Today, we are too often wrapped up in the external rewards of title, influence, money, or empire. When these symbols become the measuring stick by which we evaluate our worth, there is likely never to be enough.

Compensation at the higher levels of many organizations is out of whack. Ego satisfaction replaces rational reward systems and becomes a rat-race that can easily wreck corporate morale and risk the viability of the enterprise.

This crazy system will change when integrity informs the ways boards of directors set compensation and reward productivity.

Until then, free enterprise will function at the whim of uninspired leaders with an underachieving workforce.

Question: (E-015)

My company is involved in a Political Action Committee (PAC). I would rather control my own contributions. Each time the senior team meets lately, the Chief Executive Officer goes around the table and reports who has contributed what to date. He then "encourages" his directs to get all their people "on board". I am feeling pressure to contribute when I do not want to. What should I do?

In some corporate circles this behavior must be commonplace. Perhaps large salaries are provided with an unspoken expectation that some of these dollars are to be "made available" for the candidates chosen by the leadership team.

Assuming these "expectations" are legal, then you have choices to make. Participate at the level you deem adequate or look for a different environment. If your frustration and resentment "bubble over" into your day-to-day transactions and become counter productive, it is your own reputation and career that are at risk.

Intimidation seldom fosters a healthy environment, regardless of the motive.

Question: (E-016)

I was recruited to a company with full relocation benefits, but when I actually spent 10 days moving, I had to take a non-paid leave of absence to do it. Nothing was in writing but I simply assumed I would be supported as with every other company I've been with. My manager says, "That's the policy". What can I do?

Given the current economy, learn to live with the disappointment. If you simply "assumed" the pay and you possess nothing in writing, be sure to rise above the forced 10-day vacation. Over the next ten years, that is only a day a year. With excellent work habits, appropriate promotions and raises, you will more than make up for the current disappointments.

Next time, get it in writing!

Question: (E-017)

Our company has an ethics hotline that is operated by an independent third party and all "tips" are treated anonymously. I have personal knowledge of a senior manager in the company who is taking sizeable gifts from groups to whom he awards work. There is no question in my mind that his actions are unethical. My question, am I creating an ethical dilemma by not reporting this individual. I really don't want to do this but feel I have an obligation to do so. Please comment.

Assuming you trust the confidentiality of your corporation's hotline and assuming that you feel such violations of integrity could or will risk the future of your organization, then what choices are left to you?
1. report unethical actions and affirm your values
2. risk repercussions while strengthening your company values
3. fulfill your obligations and exhibit social/corporate responsibility

If you cannot act, then you are becoming a participant in the ripping of the fabric of integrity that is the foundation of free enterprise.

If there are repercussions, then you have been lied to on the confidentiality issue. Would you then even want to work there?

The risks are real:
1. remain in an ugly environment and build resentment
2. respond and live with the consequences

Question: (E-018)

I lost money in the stock market, because some company executives were using very questionable accounting practices. The audit committees of these companies either didn't care or were ignorant about what was going on. What can be done to bring some integrity into the business world?

First, acknowledge that a lot of integrity already exists in the "business world"! An overwhelming number of times each day, all over the world, including in the United States, people "say what they do and do what they say". Milk from the carton is pure. Trash is removed. Police protect us. Goods and services are traded fairly and professionally. All in all, we have a solid foundation for commerce.

The problem is greed. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. When we refuse to do business with self-serving, greedy, unreliable business people, the market itself will "run them off".

Governmental laws will never take the place of individuals confronting "colleagues" with honest rebuke. We need to see the pendulum swing toward responsiveness and responsible business practices. The pendulum will be moved when it is nudged by our elected officials, the media and appropriately-principled leaders (in all walks of life). Those are the leaders who are willing to stand up and be counted.

Make a personal effort to compliment those who impress you with integrity, and to criticize (professionally) those who violate the principle. One at a time, we become the people we need to be.

Question: (E-019)
published in Jim Bracher's Integrity Matters newspaper column on January 1, 2003

"We lose when a trust is broken"

Is there possibly an economic system that is not so structurally flawed that it can result in a society that places its priority on leadership with integrity? Unregulated capitalism clearly results in an unfair concentration of wealth. Government regulation of a capitalistic system has clearly not been working in recent years, if it ever did, for reasons you have given to narrower questions. Socialism, democratic or otherwise, clearly results in concentration of wealth and power in a few government bureaucrats. How could we build an economic system that rewards integrity and ability at the same time so that those qualities are inherent in our leaders?

Regarding structurally-flawed economic systems and the ways integrity can improve them. First, structures are human. Humans are flawed. However, flaws, if properly addressed, can become strengths.

There is a statement that may have come from a philosopher, a rogue or someone hoping to find a "great" deal: "You cannot cheat an honest person!" These words sound naïve. They may or may not be valid. They do, however, prompt us to reflect on recent business scandals. Were the deals "too good to be true"? If they were, whose motives were flawed? The buyers? Perhaps. The sellers? Probably.

Those in authority who intentionally over promise are hiding behind their own fears that the truth will not be adequate. The actions of too many who are in high-powered roles seem to be saying, "If 15% return is not attractive enough for investors, then why not adjust financial reporting procedures to convince the public (buyers and investors) that more should be possible"? "Rat race" (over promising) behaviors are offering false hopes. Too many well-intentioned individuals feel they are careening wildly over the high cliffs of lying and cheating. The vehicle of commerce has been moving at uncontrolled speeds and the passengers are scared.

Perhaps it is a truth that you cannot cheat an honest human being. Trust is broken between and among the various participants and partners of the free market (stakeholders) when we allow our officials (academic, economic, political and spiritual) to feed us "lines" of comfortable (and dishonest) clichés. Traditional economic controls (the brakes) are broken. Passengers, those buying and investing, have lost confidence. They are casting about for sound and dependable counsel, financial and beyond. Passengers are flailing… out of fear, mistrust, uncertainty, and doubt. Such flailing energizes downturns that lead toward recessions and depressions.

The answer has been and will remain that "It should be common knowledge that free markets must regulate themselves or governments will". Bottom line: wisdom from the philosopher, M.H. McKee: "Integrity is one of several paths; it distinguishes itself from the others because it is the right path and the only one upon which you will never get lost."

Question: (E-020)
published in Jim Bracher's Integrity Matters newspaper column on January15, 2003

"Don't get into the habit of paying your bills late"

Last month a substantial number of my clients didn't pay their bills on time. Quite a few do so on a regular basis; they must think it's alright to let it ride as they see fit. I can't afford to cut them loose, and I can't afford to be "the bank," either. How can I guide my clients towards acting with more integrity in their financial transactions with my Company?

Dear Entrepreneur (with a receivables problem): When customers/clients pay late, you may want to assess the situation utilizing these assumptions.

Assuming that you are providing excellent services/products and your customers are confirming their satisfaction with all aspects of what you are delivering to them (high quality, superior price-value, along with mutual respect and appreciation) -

Assuming that you wish to continue working with those "late paying" clients if they would pay as agreed -

Assuming you are willing to risk losing any or all of them if they continue to treat you poorly by failure to meet their part of the agreement, i.e. to pay you on time -

Assuming that you can speak forthrightly to those individuals for whom and with whom you have been providing services -

Assuming that they will respect legitimate concerns that you would share with them related to the difficulties their tardy payments are causing you-


  1. Set a time to meet with each troublesome client face-to-face to confirm your understanding of their thinking regarding not paying you on time.
  2. Consider asking each "late-payer" if there is any aspect of your working relationship that is not meeting or exceeding their expectations.
  3. Tell them you are beginning to feel that, despite your efforts to deliver to them the very best you could, they must be dissatisfied with some or all of your work or have lost respect for you and/or your services.
  4. Explain that you cannot survive long in business if you fail to receive payment from customers, as agreed, for your delivery of goods and services to them.
  5. Confirm that you would like to retain your working relationship with them but can only proceed if the integrity of the relationship goes both ways: timely and quality services are followed with timely payments.

    Remember: INTEGRITY IS THE GLUE OF SOCIETY. Integrity sustains relationships with mutual respect and treats each member of the transaction, whether personally or professionally, as a partner. Partnerships apply to each and every significant relationship.

Finally, if clients do not meet their agreements, and thereby respect high quality suppliers, bid them farewell. The time you spend on bad-faith clients could have been spent developing and working with new clients who will pay on time.

A letter in response:

I would like to express my appreciation for Jim Bracher's Integrity Matters column, to give your newspaper credit for having the backbone to publish it, and to relate two distinct ways it has made a difference in my business and personal life.

First, the column about a Receivables problem was right on the mark. I have that in a prominent place on my desk, and I have already referred to it as a blueprint for handling this type of customer issue. Raising a Client's awareness in the manner Mr. Bracher suggests has already resulted in better response from, and ultimately better relationships with my customers.

Secondly, on a more personal note, I am pelted with sales calls on a daily (and NIGHTLY) basis. Based on a shifted focus towards integrity (due in no small part to reading Mr. Bracher's column), I asked a long distance rep if she could fax me a list of social causes her company contributes to. She hung up on me. The response was proof enough that my question was the right one to determine what kind of company I was dealing with.

To close, thank you again for helping helping to remind us all that there are deeper, more meaningful values by which we may live and work.

Garm Beall
Woodland Hills, California

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