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Melanchthon: When the defence of "I acted within the rules according to advice" is not enough

Melanchthon prefers to remain anonymous (and is NOT an MP).

How bad a defence is “I acted within the rules and according to the advice I had received as to what was appropriate”?

Suppose that you worked for a company in which expenses on business trips were capped at £100 per meal.  The understanding was that it didn’t matter what you had to eat or drink, provided that the total claimed was not more than £100.  Sometimes new employees weren’t sure whether this included claiming for wine and so they asked the accounts department for clarification.  The advice always came back that it was fine to claim for wine, provided only that the total claim did not exceed £100.

These had been the rules and the understanding of them for as long as almost anyone remembered.  Virtually no-one in the company had even been around when these rules were first established.  Of course, some people didn’t like wine and so didn’t claim.  A few were so extravagant with their food that they used up the entire £100 on food and paid for their own wine.  But many claimed for their wine.

Suppose that you had been one of those that routinely claimed for wine, having sought clarification on the point shortly after you joined the company.  One day, a new Chief Executive takes over.  He gets you into his office and says: “I’ve been going through some old expenses claims and I see you’ve claimed for wine with your dinner.  What made you think that was okay?”  My guess is that you’d reply something like: “Well, the rules said I could claim up to £100 for my dinner costs, I checked with accounts whether this included wine, the advice was that it did, and lots of us claim for our wine.”  Suppose that the Chief Executive responded: “It’s all very well saying that it’s ‘within the letter of the rules’ and ‘I was advised that this was okay’ and ‘lots of people do it’.  What I want to know is what made you think it was right?  What made you believe that such a claim was within the spirit of the rules?”

My guess is that you would be somewhat mystified, and inclined to say something like “I don’t understand.  What do you mean by ‘the spirit of the rules’ if not what was advised (and cheerfully paid) by the accounts department, what has always been understood to be the rule, and what is the standard norm of behaviour amongst the employees?”  But now suppose that the Chief Executive said: “I’m sorry that you don’t get it.  But the shareholders have asked me to crack down upon people who fiddle their expenses, and they don’t feel that claims for wine are appropriate use of of their money.  Do you deny that they are entitled to take a view over how their money is spent?”

You might now, feeling slightly panicky, say something like: ”Well, obviously I understand now that this isn’t what the shareholders want the rule to be and I shan’t claim for my wine in future.  If it’s a problem, and the shareholders would like me to, I’d be happy to pay back the wine claims I’ve made in the past.”  The Chief Executive states, heavily: “I’m afraid matters have gone beyond that.  Certainly you ought to pay the money back, but the reality is that you’re going to have to go – along with everyone else that has been fiddling.  I suggest you do the decent thing, send the shareholders a letter admitting that it was wrong of you to fiddle your expenses in this way, and tender your resignation.”

I suspect that at this point your patience would have run out, and you would be inclined to say: “Now just a minute!  It’s one thing for you to tell me that the rules are changing and wine claims won’t be permitted in future.  It’s quite another for you to slur my character – stating that I’ve ‘fiddled my expenses’ or otherwise behaved unethically when I’ve done no such thing – I acted entirely in accordance with the letter and spirit of the dinner allowance rules, according to the advice I had been given and according to the norms of the company.  You can’t fire me for that, and you certainly can’t slur my character in doing so!”

Unfortunately, in some walks of life there is little or no employment protection.  So in such a case the Chief Executive might say: “No-one is interested in your opinion or your whining excuses.  No-one wants to hear about how you ‘acted in accordance with the rules’ or ‘did as you were advised was appropriate’.  Raising such matters will only infuriate the shareholders and make them disinclined to pay your pension or other severance payments.  You may also have friends and relatives in the company – if you don’t behave yourself and depart quietly we may have to investigate them more closely and at the very least forbid them from speaking to you after your departure.”

Obviously this case involves a monstrous and oppressive injustice against the employee involved.  So it couldn’t possibly happen in Britain...


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