by Jim Farrar (1986)

I guess anything's grist for the mill. I'm thinking, specifically, of a new game that's on the market called Scruples, a sort of parlor game of ethics that places its participants in a hypothetical dilemma and then asks them how they would resolve it. Other players vote on the response and on whether or not they think that their opponent has responded in a way that's consistent with his or her character. Without going into too much detail, the game pretty much concerns itself with real-life situations, with problems to which there's no glaringly obvious solution, the kind of problems we face often enough in our day-to-day lives, and the kind which certainly don't seem like much of a game when we're actually forced to deal with them.

Making a party game of such anxious situations only seems redundant and not a whole hell of a lot of fun. Or at least it's not my idea of entertainment.

Real life offers us enough moral dilemmas, I think. My wife, for example, works for a large insurance company, one of a handful of organizations that administers the Federal Government's Medicare program. One night, while working late, she accidentally discovered that one of the supervisors in another department had been charging a large part of his payroll to the Medicare account, even though the labor he'd recorded as being Medicare-related had absolutely nothing to do with its administration. This meant that the Federal Government was, in effect, paying for services that it really wasn't receiving.

Though Medicare, like so many other government agencies, can hardly be considered a paradigm of bureaucratic deportment, I also find it difficult to sympathize with the all-too-common corporate mentality which assumes that anything having the potential to make or save money, regardless of its legality or ethical ramifications, can be justified on the grounds that the person or the institution being short-changed is just as dishonest as the one perpetrating the crime.

It's the old "it's all right, just don't get caught" attitude, a mind-set that I've seen frequently in my own business dealings. Experience has taught me that in many companies such an attitude, while publicly decried, is quietly condoned, or at least tolerated and rationalized in one way or another. In the case of my wife's employer, common sense should have prevailed. It should have been glaringly obvious, especially to a man in a position of administrative responsibility, that falsifying Medicare records to save corporate operating expenses is an illegal use of public funds and that there would be hell to pay should he get caught.

Nor does such behavior fall under the realm of good business ethics. Some things are just plain wrong and should not be done. It should've been obvious, but it wasn't.

Now, my wife can hardly be considered a moral crusader. She gives money to the United Way every year, buys Girl Scout Cookies and sponsors every kid with a jump rope who knocks on our door with a pledge sheet from the American Heart Fund or the March of Dimes and that's about it. She's a good person, concerned about the other inhabitants of this planet, but she's hardly what one would call an activist or a fighter. What she is, however, is unfailingly honest and scrupulous. So, when she discovered that the Medicare payroll was being tampered with, she did what she thought to be the right thing: she told her boss. He listened to her politely and smiled; he agreed with her, it was terrible. And then he did nothing. He tacitly chose to look the other way, mumbling something about it being Medicare's problem, not his. It would be their secret, he said, to be used as leverage, perhaps, against the man at a later date, if the need arose.

This sort of reaction is disappointing, though it can hardly be considered surprising. After all, the situation didn't directly affect him (though it did), nor was it really affecting the company or any of its employees. Indeed, the company was actually saving money by this clandestine tampering, and, if one thought about it, nobody was being directly hurt on either side (the company later lost the Medicare account, for this and various other reasons, and about forty people lost their jobs to help offset the financial loss).

So now my wife was faced with a dilemma. Should she remain silent? Her conscience said no. Should she speak up? Go to the president of the company? No, that could backfire on her. She might put her job in jeopardy by going over her boss's head or, worse yet, he could make things so miserable for her that she'd be forced to quit.

The only alternative, she felt, was to go outside the company. She wrote a letter to the U.S. attorney explaining what was going on and her concern about it, and she sent photocopies of several payroll sheets that had been altered to prove it. Several months later, the company was audited by the General Accounting Office. The audit uncovered many other irregularities and the company was put on notice that the Federal Government was seriously considering awarding the Medicare contract to another carrier, which, as it turned out, was precisely what happened. The person who'd been responsible for the payroll fudging was told that he'd best look for another job.

This would be the end of the story but for one thing: my wife felt terrible about the whole affair. Not so much about what had happened with the Medicare account, because she found out later that the government had suspected fraud for quite some time and that the audit probably would've taken place regardless of whether or not she had written her letter. Instead, she felt guilty about the secrecy with which she'd sent that letter. She felt that she should've first confronted her superiors with the problem before going outside the company with it. But she'd feared for her job and that made her feel selfish.

Such problems rarely yield themselves to easy solutions. It's one of the many gray areas that we seem to spend so much time wandering around in. Few decisions in life are clear-cut.

And what are scruples? Beats me. I've been trying to come up with a good working definition for the last three days and I honestly can't tie it up that neatly, in just a few sentences. The best I can do is say that they have something to do with values, with what's important to the individual and how strongly he or she feels about it.

And that's basically what I told my wife, though I knew that it was a pretty feeble answer. But at least she took action to correct a situation which she perceived as being wrong. She acted in good conscience and good faith, in accordance with her own values and principles. And, as far as scruples are concerned, that's not a bad start toward finding a definition.

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