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When Ethics and Policy Collide

Policy management buffs, put on your thinking caps. A school lunch program in New Hampshire has given us a doozy of an example to consider about ethical conduct, strategic priorities, and third-party management.

You may have seen the story already. A cafeteria worker at Mascoma Valley Regional High School in Canaan, N.H., was fired the other week because she allowed a student with no money to receive lunch anyway. The student paid back that debt the next day, but the woman’s employer said she had essentially stolen $8 worth of food from the company, and sacked her.

The Manchester Union Leader has the full report. The crucial issue for compliance officers is this: the school district had contracted out its lunchroom services to a firm called Cafe Services, and that contractor had policies against theft. The district, meanwhile, had its own policies never to turn away students who couldn’t afford food.

Kimball

Caught in the middle was the cafeteria worker, Bonnie Kimball, who had been feeding students at Mascoma Valley High for four years. They knew her, and she knew them. We can imagine how that familiarity brings another compliance challenge into sharp relief: when to grant an exception to policy, in the interests of larger strategic objectives.

Let’s add a few more facts to the tale. The incident happened on March 28, when a student placed several items from the a la carte menu onto his tray. Kimball discreetly let him know that his account was empty, and that his mother had to refill his account that night. Then Kimball let student go on his way with the food.

As all this was happening, a Cafe Services manager witnessed it. The manager was there because Cafe Services’ contract with Mascoma Regional was up for renewal, and the company wanted to be sure operations at the high school were running smoothly.

The student returned on March 29 and paid up his bill. Regardless, two Cafe Services managers fired Kimball that afternoon. In the termination letter Cafe Services gave Kimball, the reason stated was clear: Kimball failed to charge the student for his food.

Policy vs. Objective

The fundamental issue here is one of policy management versus conflicting objectives, with a helping of third-party governance on the side.

First, the school district did have a policy about feeding students who had no money: cafeteria workers were supposed to give those student the “meal of the day,” but not let students help themselves to food from the a la carte menu — which, to be clear, is what this student did. So when Kimball let him proceed with a warning, she violated district policy.

The question for ethics and compliance officers is what Kimball was trying to accomplish by violating that policy. Was she trying to defraud the district of $8, or was she trying to do something else that was still in the best interests of the district?

Kimball’s termination letter. Source: Manchester Union Leader

One could easily argue — and, spoiler alert, I do argue — that Kimball was trying to uphold the district’s operational objective of keeping students fed; and an ethical objective that we all would support: compassion.

No matter what Kimball did, she was always going to uphold the district’s operational objective, because the student was going be fed even if Kimball took back the lunch he had selected and served him the meal of the day. In that moment, however, she also had the opportunity to uphold the ethical objective of compassion for a hungry student who didn’t have enough money for what he wanted to eat.

So if you were advising the school district, how would you want Kimball to behave?

If she gave operational objectives higher priority than ethical objectives, she would have stopped the student and only given him the meal of the day. On the other hand, if Kimball  gave ethical objectives the higher priority — then she would have done exactly what she did do.

Now, we’ve all attended enough compliance conferences to know what business executives would say at the abstract level: “We always give ethics the highest priority,” or “Employees should always put ethics first,” or some answer like that. Everyone says it.

We can’t forget, however, what that means in a practical context. If we say that ethical objectives are more important than operational ones — then by definition, at some point, doing the right thing will require an employee to deviate from policy. That’s what giving something higher priority than operational goals means: under some circumstances, the operational goal side should be put aside, because something else is more important.

That was the failure here. When Kimball decided that the ethical objective of compassion was more important than the operational objective of only giving students the meal of the day, the school district wasn’t prepared for the choice Kimball made.

Accommodating Ethics

So what should the Mascoma Regional district have done? Or more broadly, what should large organizations do to avoid such a fiasco?  

First, you can let employees seek exceptions to policy quickly and easily. Those exception requests don’t have to be granted, but an organization should provide an easy way to submit them.

At the least, that tells employees that the organization understands that difficult situations sometimes arise. It also allows you, the ethics and compliance function, to be aware of the situation and to provide guidance as necessary.

policyThat said, in many scenarios an exception-request process isn’t practical. Was Kimball supposed to consult with a manager over $8? Would that risk humiliating the student, for a negligible amount of financial gain?

Which brings us to the second idea: train employees thoroughly on the organization’s priorities, and then trust them to act accordingly.

Kimball knew this student and his family. She knew other students in the school, and the economic climate in the town. She knew the past history of students who paid up their tab and students who abused generosity. She also knew — first through common human decency, and hopefully by the school district’s culture — that we should be kind and compassionate to the unlucky when we can.

So organizations should train employees to exercise judgment about when to disregard policy and operations in pursuit of a large ethical objective, and then trust employees to do it.

If you can’t trust them to make those choices, then revisit your hiring and training processes. Don’t choke off the ability to put ethics first. The result is a pitiless corporate culture that eventually leads you to outcomes like Macoma Regional’s: legally correct, yet morally offensive.

Third, make sure your third parties align their operations to all these priorities.

Let’s remember that Kimball was not actually an employee of Mascoma Regional; she was an employee of Cafe Services, subcontracted to Mascoma. So while the school district had objectives of keeping students fed, Cafe Services had an objective of fulfilling its current contract so it could win a renewal.

From Cafe Services’ perpsective, the managers wanted flawless performance, so they could argue that they deserved a renewal. But flawless adherence to the contract put Mascoma Regional in the position of placing business concerns (not allowing students to run a tab) above ethical concerns (treating students with compassion).

Did Mascoma Regional ever discuss that alignment with Cafe Services? Did Cafe Services discuss it with Kimball? I suspect not.

So when Kimball exercised judgment herself, Cafe Services pursued its business objectives (fire an employee who deviates from a client’s policy), but that had the perverse effect of harming the client’s ethical objectives (treat students compassionately).

In other words, a total mess — and considering how Corporate America now relies on subcontrated labor all the time, an increasingly possible one. Don’t fall into this trap.

Just Desserts

How did it all end? Don’t die of shock, but once Kimball’s plight became news, the Mascoma Regional school district declared that if Cafe Services didn’t rehire Kimball and give her back pay, the district wouldn’t proceed with a new $500,000 contract.

Kimball, however, says she doesn’t want to return, and that “they all just want me to get the press off their backs.”

Well, at least one person in this drama knows how to tell everyone else to go stuff themselves.

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