Collecting for Kids at the Office

Whether it's the boss or a peer who is pitching in on their children's fund-raiser, this issue poses numerous problems for everyone involved

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Dear Ethics Guy: Do you think it's ethical for people at work to do fund-raising on behalf of their kids? Every week, it seems, someone in my office is hawking candy for a son who's in the marching band or asking for donations for a daughter's walkathon.

It's especially troubling to me that our boss does this too, and of course no one can say no to him, even though he says that we're not obligated to buy anything from him. (He'll add, as if to pull on our heartstrings, "But my son is in the lead for top seller at his school, and if he wins, it will look good on his college applications.") I'm afraid that if I complain about this practice, it won't look good on my application for a raise!

The desire to help one's children is a noble and praiseworthy one. However, there are better and worse ways to offer help. Selling cookies, candy, and the like, or asking for donations on behalf of our children, raises several significant ethical concerns, which I will address.

Let's start with your boss. Even if he prefaces his sales pitch with the qualification that you aren't obligated to buy anything from him, you and most of the other people he manages won't be able to resist doing so. After all, he's the gatekeeper, not just financially, but also with respect to your present and future work.

You might fear, quite reasonably, that consistently turning down his offers could result in a negative evaluation of your job performance. It wouldn't be rational or fair for him to hold your refusals against you, but if everyone acted rationally and did what they ought to, there would be no need for this column.

In sum, your boss shouldn't be hawking his kid's wares, in part because it's difficult for his employees to refuse his requests, and thus his actions border on the coercive.

Office Pariah

But it's not just your boss whose behavior is problematic. Suppose that one of your co-workers—let's call him Stanley—isn't in a financial position to buy candy or contribute to a walkathon. Stanley's refusal to contribute, whether in response to a peer, a subordinate, or the boss, might be seen as selfish or contemptuous, and others might judge him harshly and perhaps even treat him differently as a result. After all, what kind of person won't pony up a few bucks for a worthy cause, especially when it's on behalf of a child?

It would be hard for Stanley to explain his reluctance to participate, and besides, why should he have to? You're there to do a job, not to raise money for your kids, which brings me to the last point, and this may be the most important one of all.

By doing your children's work for them, you're depriving them of the valuable experience of becoming self-sufficient. You're also sending them the wrong message, namely that it's important to be No. 1, no matter what it takes.

Isn't that message one of the reasons our society is in the shape it's in now? It's this belief that gave rise to the Enron, WorldCom, Adelphia, and Tyco scandals (to name but a few), and it's the worst possible lesson to teach one's children. For a child to have a true sense of accomplishment, he or she has to find the wherewithal to do it on their own. Of course, sometimes help is called for (e.g., a difficult homework assignment). But not with a fundraising project.

Responsibility to Refuse

Some who object to this line of reasoning will say, "It's the school's fault for giving our children so much work that they have to rely on their parents to help them with fund-raising." Even if it is the case that schools are overburdening students either with too much schoolwork or with the requirement to raise money for extracurricular activities, or both, the proper response for parents is to lobby for change at the school, not to buy into an unjust situation by taking on the fund-raising activities themselves.

The reasons behind the impulse to burden children with so many obligations are worth exploring but are more appropriately suited for a psychologist or sociologist. In any case, parents not only have a right not to participate in their children's fund-raising efforts. They have an ethical responsibility not to do so.

Bottom line: To avoid making employees feel unduly pressured to participate and to allow one's child to develop as an autonomous person, a prudent company—one that's committed to maintaining the highest ethical standards—would discourage or prohibit all employees, at every level, from engaging in fund-raising activities at work on behalf of their children.

Have a professional ethical dilemma? Need help figuring out the right thing to do on the job? Ask the Ethics Guy! Write to Dr. Bruce Weinstein at Bruce@TheEthicsGuy.com, and your question may be answered in his weekly column on BusinessWeek.com.