Ethics & the John Doe Dilemma

Leaders need to walk the talk regarding core values when confronted with rogue employees who happen to be top performers.

YOU: Boss, can I talk to you for a minute?

BOSS: Sure, what’s on your mind?

YOU: It’s about John Doe. I’m concerned we have a problem that we need to address.

BOSS: What do you mean?

YOU: Here it is in a nutshell. Under your leadership this organization stands for certain things. We have company values that are important to us. These values are introduced to new hires during the onboarding process and thereafter we invest a lot of time and energy reinforcing those values and their importance to the way we do business here.

BOSS: I know that. So what does that have to do with John Doe?

YOU: John Doe doesn’t behave in a manner consistent with our stated company values. He has consistently operated with the mindset that whatever it takes to get results is all that matters. And, it’s my view that this sets us back given those around him are questioning how serious we are about our values if someone as high profile as John Doe can ignore them and get away with it.

BOSS: I think you’re over-reacting. Sure, John Doe beats to a different drum but in a way, don’t we all? He’s a high performer with immense skill and someone who always hits his numbers.

YOU: But that’s just it. The fact that he always hits his numbers seems to be what matters most. In other words, is the organization not going to confront him because he hits his numbers? We are creating a double-standard.

BOSS: I need examples.

YOU: At your staff meeting last week did you not hear John Doe make degrading comments toward women? Do you remember last month when he shared that he told a customer what he called a ‘white lie’ so as to gain their business? And there was the company picnic where several overheard him saying that the compliance department was getting his way of being successful and that in the end he was going to ignore them if he had to in order to win more business.

BOSS: I have problems with lots of my employees. John Doe is not perfect but neither are you. Neither are others on the team. I think you’ve got to let things go.

YOU: It’s not about me. It’s about the organization.

BOSS: So, what are you asking?

YOU: I am letting you know of an issue and would hope that you’ll take the appropriate action. Is there a reason why you wouldn’t want to do that?

BOSS: It’s complicated.


While a hypothetical illustration, no doubt you’ve seen something like this in your career. The boss looks the other way regarding a problem employee because that person is a high performer – someone that hits the numbers. This is not leadership. It destroys the credibility of the leader and in the long run backfires. Taking a stand may be the more difficult path, but it’s the only path. It’s the necessary thing to do – and the right thing to do. Otherwise, all those speeches about core values are meaningless.

Ethics are not an optional component of leadership. Ethics provide the moral compass for organizations. Once consistently embedded in the mindset of the organization – and the people within it – ethics become a part of the company culture. At that point, an organization has something special. A culture of doing the right thing can carry the organization forward for decades while others not wired that way fall by the wayside. Keeping the John Doe’s will set the company on a downward spiral that will cost it significantly more than any short-term upside brought by such an employee. Removing the John Doe’s may cause a short-term hit, but long-term the organization will gain priceless amounts of equity.

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