When a "Favor" Gets Shady

Last Updated Oct 10, 2007 12:22 PM EDT

I'm a salesman for a software company. Last month, I was in need of a big end-of-the-month sale to meet a quota that would earn me a large bonus, so I called one of my regular customers and made my pitch. This customer happens to be a friend -- we actually used to work together as salesmen at another company -- and, sensing the position I was in, he told me he didn't need the product but would do me a "favor." I was overjoyed when he made the purchase I needed, but I may have misunderstood his "favor." A few weeks later, he returned the products, after my sales quota deadline had passed.
I'm still assured of the bonus -- my company considers returns to be the fault of the product, not the salesman -- but I feel uneasy knowing that, as a former salesman, he knew how to skirt the system to help an old friend. I'm concerned about the whole sale, and I wonder whether I should make this dilemma known to my bosses, possibly forfeiting my bonus. Where's the line?
Whether you were in on it or not, your friend has pulled you into a dark corner. You've got to find a way to walk out of that corner with your head held high. Sunshine is the best disinfectant; you need to lay this one out for your bosses to see.

Your goal here is not to hold on to your bonus; it is to hold on to your reputation. When presenting the scenario to your bosses, you must tell the entire story. And while you want to make it clear that you were not in cahoots with your friend, make it doubly clear that you are willing to accept the consequences of his actions, even if that means losing his account and forfeiting your bonus.

The lingering question is whether you should talk to your friend about his actions. I'd hold off on that. Your first order of business it to speak with your bosses. Put the decision in their hands and let them choose whether or not they want to take action with his company. If they're a good customer, your company won't want to lose them. But let your bosses decide how they want to go about maintaining their relationship with your friend's company even if they don't want to work with your friend again. Once the formal business decisions have been made, then you can think about how to resolve your personal relationship with him.

What will your bosses decide? Well, that's tricky. It's all in the eye of the beholder. There's going to be reason to doubt the veracity of your story. Who's to say you weren't in cahoots and now feel a crisis of conscience about the whole deal? I will assume you're telling me the truth; your bosses may not be so sure. If there's doubt, prepare to lose your bonus and the account.

Then again, your honesty should be commended. If your bosses believe you, this could benefit you. You'll come off as a guy who's willing to make a financial sacrifice to do the right thing. This is rare; it will be appreciated. You may even be allowed to keep your bonus.

It's a funny predicament you've been thrown into, and all based on someone doing you a "favor." There's still a chance that he actually meant to purchase the products as his "favor" and later changed his mind, but I'm getting the same feeling you're getting. I think he was using the system to beat the man and help the little guy.

It's amazing how often a favor can backfire. How many times have you heard someone say, "I thought he was doing me a favor," or "Don't do me any favors." With few exceptions, the problems arise when people do you a favor you didn't ask for.

This is a favor you didn't ask for, and you shouldn't have to suffer the consequences. Tell all and keep your name clear. That will be the biggest bonus that can come of this scenario.

Have a workplace-ethics dilemma? Ask it here, or email wherestheline@gmail.com

  • William Baker

    William Baker is a freelance writer living in Cambridge, MA. His work has appeared in Popular Science, the Boston Globe Magazine, the New York Daily News, Boston Magazine, The Weekly Dig and a bunch of other places (including Field & Stream, though he doesn't hunt and can't really fish). He is a regular contributor to the Boston Globe, where he writes the weekly column, "Meeting the Minds." He holds a master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and is at work on his first book.