No Good Deed: At Whose Expense?

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No Good Deed is a column devoted to the discussion of ethical challenges we may face in our profession. Each issue we’ll feature a member’s dilemma and ask three PR experts to comment on it. We’d love to hear from you, too, so please weigh in on the various “what would you do if…” problems your colleagues are confronted with.

Dilemma du jour: I am the communications manager for an organization that has had budgets and wages frozen for the last couple of years. I need more money for my kids’ private school fees. I have money in my budget for weekly writing assignments currently done by a freelancer. I would like to take that work on myself, doing it over the weekends and just pay myself out of that line item. I mentioned this option to one of my staffers and they told me they thought it was unethical or at the very least ‘unfair’ to the freelancer who has done this work for a few years now.

 Is it unethical? I need the money and that’s an honest way to earn it.  My employer will still get the columns they paid for and I don’t think it matters who writes them.

 Signed, Needs the Money

If you have to ask if this is unethical, you have no business being a communications manager and should hang your head in shame that someone reporting to you has to point out you’re considering such inappropriate conduct. As a professional communicator, part of your job is to anticipate how people will react to information and actions. How do you think your organization’s senior executives will feel about your creative solution to getting around the wage freeze? What about junior staff members, many of whom might need the money for such luxuries as skyrocketing rents, but sadly for them, they don’t manage a budget they can funnel homeward? 

While your staffer’s point about freelancer loyalty is something we sole practitioners love to hear, no organization is morally obligated to keep using a specific contractor just because they always have. That said, there is no question your proposal is wildly unethical. If you were a publicly elected official, it’s unethical enough to create scathing headlines and get you driven out of office by angry citizens with pitchforks. As it is, paying yourself without prior approval from your higher-ups could be enough to get you fired.

That said, you have a variety of potential solutions to your dilemma. First, there is the ‘salvation in transparency’ route. Talk to your boss. Ask if your role can be modified to include the contract work and have your salary reflect the increased workload. (Caution: it’s unlikely they will agree, as they may think if you can do it for more money, you should be able to do it for your current salary.) A second option is to find another job - either one that pays more or one at your children’s school, since employees usually get half-off school fees. And there’s always public school. It won’t kill them and you’ll still have your weekends free to take the kids on a host of new adventures with all that money you’ve saved.

~ Karen McCluskey, APR, KM Strategic Communications

This reminds me of that old Seinfeld episode about double dipping. Unless there’s a strong case that your writing would be significantly better than the freelancer’s, and unless you just don’t have time to do it during normal work hours, then it’s best not to pursue this. You were clearly not the person in mind when the freelance budget line item was approved. 

If you want to take on this gig yourself, then whoever reviews and approves your budget better know about it and support the change. You’d also need to set it up so that you’re not the one approving the work and invoices.  Some organizations don’t allow employees to act as consultants, so you might have to be compensated with overtime.

Another consideration is the freelancer, not so much because it’s unfair to them (though it is), but because any good communications program depends on a range of talented people, both internal staff and contractors. By taking on all the work, you are limiting the depth and development of your communications team.

If your salary doesn’t cut it, better to figure out how to get a raise, look for another gig that pays better or trim your personal expenses. I hear public schools are on the mend!

~ Scott Jackson, APR, Program Manager, National Communications, Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada

About the Author

Deborah Folka is the editor of the ethics column, No Good Deed. She is also a senior accredited public relations professional with over 25 years of experience in strategic communications planning, issues management and crisis communications planning, prevention and management. In addition to working in-house for a variety of public, private and not-for-profit organizations, she has run one of the most successful independent pr consultancies in Western Canada for over 20 years.