Gini Dietrich

When a Leader Learns of Unethical Behavior

By: Gini Dietrich | December 12, 2013 | 
138

When a Leader Learns of Unethical BehaviorBy Gini Dietrich

When I was a kid, I remember my dad coming home from work one day and saying a guy had been fired.

The image I had in my head was the guy literally on fire. I couldn’t understand a) why anyone would do that to another person and b) why that was okay.

In retrospect, I was probably eavesdropping on a conversation between my parents so it served me right to have that image and all those questions.

What I later learned – much, much later – is being a business leader isn’t always rainbows and sunshine.

You sometimes have to fire people. You sometimes have to have conflict-filled conversations. You sometimes have people who end up hating you (which really, really sucks). And you always have to take responsibility when something goes wrong.

Embezzlement and the IRS

In 2009, as the economy was crashing around us and organizations were shutting their doors, I learned the accountant we used had embezzled money from us.

We owed the IRS a lot of money that we thought we had already paid. Turned out, we had paid it to the accountant who never sent the check, but managed to cash it himself.

It was a great, big mess and it took a long time to figure out what had happened and how he had managed to get a check made out to the government cashed.

But he did.

And, as the leader, I was responsible.

Even though I did everything I was supposed to have done and I had no idea this was going on, it was my responsibility.

There were lots of tears shed and I’m pretty sure I said, “This just isn’t fair” about six thousand times.

But, in the words of my mom, “Life isn’t fair.” (For the record, I still think it wasn’t fair.)

We got the whole thing straightened out and we ended up having to pay quite a bit of money to the IRS, but it could have been a lot worse. There could have been jail time. It could have been really, really bad.

Being a Leader isn’t Always Fair

Sometimes the people you trust to do their jobs do bad things. And you have to take responsibility.

It isn’t right. It isn’t fair. But it’s part of being a leader.

A few months ago, we had a situation where an employee was accused of doing a bad thing. We took the appropriate measures to look into the accusation. We also had conversations with the accused and the accuser. We came up on the side of the employee.

But a couple of weeks ago, new evidence came to light and it pointed in favor of the accuser.

Imagine the panic I felt when this was brought to my attention. Not only did I defend the accused when the issue first came up, I did so very publicly. I completely and wholeheartedly trusted this person. But now the cold, hard facts in front of me proved otherwise.

Hindsight is 20/20

In my hindsight, 20/20 vision, it’s easy to now see the one thing we missed when the situation occurred.

We missed it initially. I missed it.

I live and die by my ethics. The culture here is one of honesty, transparency, and accountability. We hire people who demonstrate those same characteristics.

But sometimes things go awry.

I don’t think this person is bad. I don’t think this situation was done intentionally. It could have been a case of too much work or being overwhelmed or simply wanting to put a best foot forward without thinking through the consequences.

It happened. What’s done is done. I missed – or blissfully ignored – the facts.

Because of that, I owe the community here an apology. I was adamant the transgression hadn’t happened…and I pulled many of you into the conversation about it.

But we did do something unethical. It has been fixed. We now have a change in our process should this ever happen again.

I’m very, very sorry.

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro.

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138 Comments on "When a Leader Learns of Unethical Behavior"

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chelpixie
2 years 9 months ago

Love to you, Gini.

NancyMyrland
2 years 9 months ago

You’re human, Gini. I love you, okay?

ginidietrich
2 years 9 months ago

chelpixie Thanks, love!

ginidietrich
2 years 9 months ago

NancyMyrland No, I’m not! My team calls my robot for a reason! Ug.

Howie Goldfarb
2 years 9 months ago

And these are the blog posts you love to op up on that editorial calendar.

Sorry you had to go through this. Wish the employee had just admitted it up front. We have choices when we take actions. Sad that so much of our culture in the US supports lies and deceit to be it’s own industry (like your accountant!). I mean how could the Sopranos succeed if law and honesty were best policies for everyone. Or the ‘democratic’ Elections!

It’s ok Kid. Here. Have a lifesaver.

Katherine Bull
Katherine Bull
2 years 9 months ago

In my book… A good boss, employee, friend, partner, etc. who readily admits s/he is wrong are the most trustworthy people in the world. You did good, my friend.

ginidietrich
2 years 9 months ago

Katherine Bull Thanks. It has been a pretty terrible couple of weeks. Lots of lawyers and debates about going public. I’m very much looking forward to the Christmas break!

ginidietrich
2 years 9 months ago

Howie Goldfarb I would love a roll of cherry Lifesavers!

jasonkonopinski
2 years 9 months ago

Your character and ethics are a big driver of our success.

ginidietrich
2 years 9 months ago

jasonkonopinski I hope so. I suppose that’s why it hurts so badly when it goes wrong.

jasonkonopinski
2 years 9 months ago

ginidietrich I believe it fully.

LSSocialEngage
2 years 9 months ago

ginidietrich Katherine Bull A well deserved Christmas break I am sure 🙂 Sorry that this happened Gini.  I keep coming back here everyday to this community largely because of the character and ethics jasonkonopinski mentioned earlier.

ginidietrich
2 years 9 months ago

LSSocialEngage Thanks, Lubna. Ethics mean a great deal to me.

LSSocialEngage
2 years 9 months ago

ginidietrich I  know and believe it!

KelleeOReilly
2 years 9 months ago
“Own it” takes on a whole new meaning in situations like this. Whatever happened (and this post creates more questions than answers on that front), kudos to you for stepping forward: admitting that something was wrong, that you missed it, that it’s now been set right, and  – most importantly – genuinely and clearly apologizing to your community.  You are in real time setting an excellent example for all of us on how to “own it” when things go awry (as they do, and as they will again. Because life, and business ownership, is messy!) Congratulations and thank you for… Read more »
KristenDaukas
2 years 9 months ago

It’s not just ethics you have Gini – you also have huge amounts of loyalty and trust. It’s not easy when any of those are broken but at the end of the day, you’re human. It always shakes me to the core when someone that I trusted deceives me and it makes me question how trusting I am, but I would rather be that way than go thru life doubting everyone. People like us just aren’t wired that way. We <3 you, Gini D!!!

bdorman264
2 years 9 months ago

I have the same story when I was young and hearing a friend of mine’s father had been fired; it was very upsetting.

Yep, the buck stops with you and sometimes hard decisions have to be made, which is much better than hard time btw; just ask Martha Stewart…:).

You know what really bites the wienie is having to type w/ one hand…..but it keeps my reply brief, huh?

Julie Walraven
2 years 9 months ago

And the honesty of this post is why I have always liked you, Gini! Hang in there. This too shall pass. (My mom always said that) Merry Christmas and I have a ski hill full of snow for you up in the northwoods.

TaraGeissinger
2 years 9 months ago

I remember that post and the comments well. Ouch. But you know what? I firmly believe that everybody and every company makes mistakes. It’s how you handle them — and own them — that differentiates you from the rest. I hate that this happened, but I love that you handled it with the same integrity in which you handle everything else. And your immediate reaction to defend your staff? I love that too. 🙂

flt3
flt3
2 years 9 months ago

The embezzling thing is unfortunately rather common. The same thing happened to my dad, except he gave the tax check to his partner to handle. But good for you for doing what’s right.

kvjincpr
2 years 9 months ago

Gini wr have all stepped out to defend someone. Sometimes we are right..sometimes we are wrong. I just hope you don’t become do guarded thst you stop believing the best in people.

ginidietrich
2 years 9 months ago

KelleeOReilly Ug. I know. It was a HUGE debate with the attorneys. Having managed many a crisis for clients, I was expecting push-back, but also thought I’d be able to say more than where we ended. So I’m sorry there are more questions than answers. My hands are tied, which is another source of frustration for me.

ginidietrich
2 years 9 months ago

KristenDaukas You’re right. I definitely thought, “Should I be checking up on everyone all the time?” I immediately erased that from my mind because that’s not the leader I want to be, it’s not the culture I want to build, and I definitely would not want to work in an organization like that.

ginidietrich
2 years 9 months ago

bdorman264 I have to say, I’m impressed you ARE typing with one hand. I can’t believe you broke it! That’s my level of accident.

ginidietrich
2 years 9 months ago

Julie Walraven Maybe I’ll take today off and come visit! I could use some slope time.

ginidietrich
2 years 9 months ago

kvjincpr I don’t think I will (I hope not, anyway!). It’s not the kind of culture I want to build…and I don’t want to get so jaded I stop defending my team.

ginidietrich
2 years 9 months ago

flt3 Isn’t that crazy?? I had a friend it happened to, as well. Amazing.

ginidietrich
2 years 9 months ago

TaraGeissinger I’m like a mother hen. Sometimes it bites me in the butt.

TaraGeissinger
2 years 9 months ago

Yeah, I’d much rather have wrongly defended someone than wrongly accused or fired someone. 🙂 The truth always finds a way out.

@jason_
2 years 9 months ago

It speaks volumes to your personal ethics and leadership to publicly admit you were wrong about the employee. For you to then go on record and state something unethical occurred with an apology is amazing and not seen much in business.

I hated to read about the accountant who embezzled money and had you in hot water with the IRS. This is a fear of mine mainly because of how easily it can be done.

Have a great day Gini!

JoelFortner
2 years 9 months ago

Hi, Gini. You’re such a class act. These things are tough and it’s hard to not take them personally but as a good friend of mine often says, your business is what you do, not who you are. In other words, you’re not perfect, no one expects you to be and my hope is you’ll be easy on Gini. Again, you’re such a class act. In other news, life has kept me off Spin Sucks for too long! I hope to drop in more! I miss chatting with you and others here!

terreece
terreece
2 years 9 months ago
You always write great pieces, but the ones that truly grab me are these heartfelt unflinchingly honest ones. These are why you have the community you do here. The whole situation sucks donkey for you and the group right now, BUT it’ll benefit you in the end, kind of an iron sharpening iron thing. If nothing else you’ve provided case study for How companies should deal with this kind of thing. Hang in there *insert image of kitty dangling from a tree* Side note: why so people always steal the tax money? Of all the institutions they could short –… Read more »
Mark_Harai
2 years 9 months ago
Man, I went through the EXACT same scenario in another life in my very first business. Hairball. It really caused me problems for a few years until the IRS released me from liability. Turns out the accountant had done this to several businesses and went to prison as a result. In respect to the other situation. I would have done the same thing. People around me whom I trust and respect will ALWAYS get the benefit of the doubt. I’m scrappin’! Sometimes people let us down. They let themselves down.  I also admire how you dealt with it publicly. Come… Read more »
martinwaxman
2 years 9 months ago
This is an honest, tough and brave post, Gini. And a very important one. I’ve seen too many leaders pass the buck and push down the responsibility to those who report to them when something goes wrong. (The PM of Canada comes to mind as does the MD of a large PR agency I know.) I had a similar situation a few years back when an employee forwarded a snarky and potentially libellous email about the client to the client. I was actually at the head table of a public industry event when I found out and could feel my… Read more »
belllindsay
2 years 9 months ago

Standing ovation. That is all. xo

Ali_Davies
2 years 9 months ago

When the brown stuff hits the fan there is always an opportunity lurking in there somewhere.

RobBiesenbach
2 years 9 months ago

Damn me and my memory—I don’t even recall that second incident.

I think the initial instinct to defend an employee and give them the benefit of the doubt is always the right one, though.

Word Ninja
2 years 9 months ago

I’m sorry that you and your team experienced this, but the fact that you made a change in process and shared the issue with the community you lead here, speaks volumes. I admire that your default was to defend your friend.

Howie Goldfarb
2 years 9 months ago

ginidietrichbdorman264only typists can’t type with one hand! Us two handed 2 finger + thumb for space bar folks can do it with ease!

Howie Goldfarb
2 years 9 months ago

jasonkonopinski#BringIt ! ginidietrichloves my new favorite hash tag

lauraclick
2 years 9 months ago

Darn. This stinks. And, I hate this for you and your team. However, you didn’t have to disclose this on the blog and we would have never known. But, the fact that you owned up to it shows your integrity. We all make mistakes, but it takes guts to own up to them. Well done.

Howie Goldfarb
2 years 9 months ago

NancyMyrlandginidietrichI have seen bike accident photos. At the best you are a Cyborg Gini. Real robots don’t bleed or have contusions they name.

@corinamanea
2 years 9 months ago

I´m sorry Gini that you had to go through something like that. It´s not pretty at all. The great thing that you did, which I don´t see in many leaders, is understanding and doing something about. Not fire the employee (of course, if it´s not the case), but analyzing and taking the measures to not happen again. This is so rare in today´s business world.
That´s why, in my opinion, some are leaders and the rest are, well, business owners. 
Thumbs up! Well done!

DwayneAlicie
2 years 9 months ago

I’m sorry these things happened. I imagine it has felt terrible. But. You’ve walked your talk, as always, and turned the problem into an opportunity to prove how ethical you, your team and your company’s brand are. Congratulations! Steady onward and upward!

burgessct
burgessct
2 years 9 months ago

And with this piece Gini you have taken the road less traveled, but the road which should be the only road. 
Best to you,
Christopher

(A big fan, as you know)

KateFinley
2 years 9 months ago

The first scenario … OMG. That’s f’ed up. 

Second scenario … I don’t think that you handled it wrong because you told everyone that you all dug in and you stood by your team. I’ve been at agencies where the client, the customers, etc. were believed over the team and we, as the team, definitely felt the lack of trust.

You have to stand by your team. You also have to protect your brand. You’ve worked hard for it and you can let it deteriorate even if it means hurting feelings and addressing hard issues in the process.

Live strong, Gini.  😉

xoxox

sydcon_mktg
2 years 9 months ago

I commend you. You once again lead by example and practice what your preach. I am sorry you had to go thru this, but alas it goes with the territory of being a business owner. It’s one of those parts of the business no one enjoys. 

Keep doing what you are doing. Standing by your team, calling out spin and leading by example.

biggreenpen
2 years 9 months ago

What to say that hasn’t been articulated eloquently and clearly already? First of all, I have a tremendous amount of respect for you for writing and sharing this. I suppose anything else I could say would be superfluous. 🙂

JoeCardillo
2 years 9 months ago

I know you read that thing I wrote on Trial of the Century the other day, so I’ll just say that for me this falls into the being more human category and I admire your honesty here.

I personally relish being wrong, maybe it’s a little masochist of me but I believe you get to learn a lot about your own personal character when things don’t go the way your way. And of course once you get good at closing the loop you also get to catch most problems before they blow up.

Dayngr
Dayngr
2 years 9 months ago

belllindsay oh snap!!

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