Ethically, what would you do? Commentary: Conference No-Show

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The November 2017 ethics scenario commentary from the Defence Ethics Programme discusses an earlier ethics column about using government travel for personal travel.

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In the September scenario, Conference No-Show, adapted courtesy of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the topic of using business travel to enjoy subsidized personal travel was discussed.

Such travel is permissible, if it’s done correctly. Readers who wrote in about this scenario agreed that it was wrong for the colleague (let’s call him Ross) to disappear during the conference, presumably to go skiing. It was a fraudulent use of government travel-related funds. The difficulty was that the faithful conference attendee (let’s call him Shaun) was put in a position where he was expected to denounce his colleague, mislead the authorities by silence, or to lie to the authorities for Ross.

Many readers felt that Shaun should have confronted Ross directly, insisting that he admit to the manager what he did. Once Ross spoke with the manager, Shaun would then speak with the manager himself. Readers wanted Shaun to do this as soon as they arrived back at the office; however, the way the scenario was written, this opportunity was missed. In the scenario, Shaun did not confront Ross at any time prior to having a three-way meeting with the manager, and even then, Shaun remained silent about Ross’s absence.

Confronting Ross at the earliest opportunity would have allowed Ross to make amends for his mistake, and understand that he’s not off the hook. Postponing the confrontation was not a good idea, as it made Shaun look like he agreed with the situation.

One reader wrote that Shaun should have searched for Ross the moment he noticed he was missing from the conference, because he could have been having a health crisis or another emergency. Even if Shaun was unable to reach Ross, at least he would have made the point that Ross’s absence was both unexpected and significant.

A lesson learned from this scenario is that making a joke is not always harmless. In this scenario, on the flight to the conference, Ross and Shaun joked about how they should ditch the conference to go skiing and sightseeing. Shaun thought this was just in jest, and had no intention of skipping the conference. Regardless of who said this on the flight, Ross took it to heart. Ross could defend himself to the manager by claiming that Shaun implied it was okay to do some sightseeing. Although this would not be an effective defence for Ross, he could succeed in getting Shaun into trouble since both of them made light out of the issue.

Finally, another reader pointed out that Ross could have done some legitimate skiing, provided that it was properly planned and authorized ahead of time. All he would have had to do was extend his stay past the conference and cover the extra expenses himself; his airfare would still have been paid.

Send reader feedback and suggestions for future scenarios.

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