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Hiring the donor's daughter

When all else fails, think "transparency."

(Photo: Rodrigo Moreno/Getty Images)

(Photo: Rodrigo Moreno/Getty Images)

Non-profit and charitable organizations face many of the same ethical challenges that other organizations face, but they may also bump into a few special problems from time to time.

As an example, consider the following HR dilemma, which was posed to me recently.

I work for a non-profit organization in health research, and I’ve recently been told that I will be hiring and supervising a new individual whose parents are donating her salary for one year (it’s to be a one-year, limited-term position) in addition to making a sizeable donation. The hope is that, in time, the donors will make a significantly larger gift of a million dollars or more. The arrangement presents numerous challenges to me as a manager, since everyone in the upper levels of the organization agrees that the true nature of the arrangement can’t be revealed, but many employees will realize that the situation is unusual and will have serious questions about it.

I’ve presented my concerns to those involved, but the decision-makers are rationalizing their actions (they tell me it’s “for the good of the organization”), and asking me to embrace this “opportunity.”

Clearly, the mid-level manager here is in a tough position, caught between a rock and a hard place. The manager is being told, by those higher up, that this is the way things are. But the manager also has a team to manage, and the unorthodox hiring of this new “employee” may cause trouble.

Here are what I think are the relevant considerations:

1) I don’t think the basic arrangement itself is obviously unethical. The “employee,” here, is essentially a volunteer, being bankrolled by her father. A bit lame, for her, but if she provides the organization with some value, that in itself could be a good thing, in addition to the donation that her father is making and may later make.

2) Point No. 1 above assumes that this person will actually do some work, rather than just be padding her CV by means of this one-year position with a reputable non-profit organization. If she’s just going to take up space, then her presence is inevitably going to be resented and hence disruptive.

3) Then there’s the question of whether this “hire” is affecting anyone else’s job. From what I understand, no one is being fired to make room for this new person. But even if no one’s job is immediately in jeopardy, it may have implications for who gets hired over the next year, who gets overtime, whose job is expanded in interesting ways, and so on. So other employees do have reason to be concerned.

4) The fact that senior management sees a need to hide what’s really going on seems to be where the ethical problem lies. If this is a good “hire” why not be transparent about it?

5) At a certain level, this is as much a question of “wise management” as it is of ethics. If the current plan is bad for morale, then wise senior managers should realize that, and think this through more carefully.

In all, I would suggest the need to keep the deal secret is a major red flag and represents a significant lapse in leadership. Yes, their motives in accepting the deal—hiring this woman in return for a big donation—are reasonable enough and perhaps the ends here do justify the means. The mere fact that her hire wouldn’t go through the usual processes isn’t itself damning, provided that the net value to the organization is positive, and as long as no one’s rights are violated.

Wise organizational leaders should work hard to make sure that when compromises are being made they are at very least compromises they are able to defend, and about which they are willing to be transparent.

Chris MacDonald is Director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Education & Research Program at the Ted Rogers School of Management