Waste, Fraud, and Abuse

Thanks For Letting Us Know

Vernon Blake, an engineer at the Alabama Department of Transportation, was upset that it was an office joke that his boss spent most of his workday playing computer games. Since he was the department's network administrator, Blake installed "spyware" software on his boss's computer to get evidence; 70 percent of the 414 resulting screen shots taken over a seven-month period showed Solitaire on the boss's screen. Blake sent the evidence to managers. The result: his boss, assistant bureau chief George Dobbs, received a letter from his boss complimenting his "work ethic above reproach" but gently pointing out his game-playing was unacceptable. For his efforts, Blake was fired, ending his 21-year career. His offense? Installing software on department computers "without authority or permission." (Montgomery Advertiser)...On the bright side, with Blake gone Dobbs now has something to do.

 © 2004 This is True, reprinted with permission from the author.


It turns out that Vernon Blake has a web site: http://www.aldotwaste.com

It’s fascinating.  I’m not sure if his firing was justified or not (he presents a good case that his actions in installing the monitoring program wasn’t in violation of department policy), but Valorie and I had a long discussion about the slap on the wrist that the manager received.  She feels that it was outrageously lenient; my take is that the letter was a fairly measured reprimand, if the supervisor was really was effective in his job.  On the other hand, there is a clear indication that his game playing was causing morale issues, and compromising the supervisor’s ability to manage his organization.

But what SHOULD the reaction of an employee in an IT department be when he discovers that a supervisor in a division is spending time playing games instead of doing his job?  Is it appropriate to install spyware on his computer to document the abuse before blowing the whistle?  The courts have held that it’s ok for a manager (or corporation) to install spyware on employees’ computers, but what about the other way around?

Edit: Removed extraneous break.


Comments (17)

  1. Anonymous says:

    IMHO I would have found other way to deal with it… installing spy stuff is just recless and follish. he was asking to get canned.

    even if he was right he was wrong in that situation.

  2. Anonymous says:

    He was not "any" employee, he was the ‘network administrator’, and enforcing appropriate comptuer use was his job. He was just doing his job.

    I’d say if he was just "any" employee nosing around with boss’ computer because he wants to blow the whistle on the boss, he should indeed be fired.

    But network admins are entrusted with unlimited power over the network precisely becuase they are expected to keep the network running and enforce policies for everyone. Would his actions be under question if his boss was writing worms instead of playing games ? perhaps not.

  3. Anonymous says:

    it seems to me like the whole situation is a little suspicious. he also installed spyware on his wife’s machine. i think he just came out with the "well, he was goofing off!!" argument to cover his ass when he got caught.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I don’t really care who he was.. I don’t like the idea of anyone scanning my machine….

    If I get my work done who cares what else I do. Big Brother may want to watch but I don’t have to like it

  5. Anonymous says:

    Yeah, this guy was way out of line.. it’s been my experience that these things (especially in these times) take care of themselves..

    With layoffs running rampant, most companies are left with the 20% (of the "20% of the people do 80% of the work").. so either A) The lazy will get cut at some point or B) the guy really is getting stuff done, but has a minor problem with games.. in which case, it’s his superiors’ fault for not correcting it..

    Point is, if you are in that situation – and that manager’s manager is doing anything? Keep your head down and do your job, because it’s sort of common sense that if you stir up that much crap – you’re going to get canned.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Installing spyware isn’t acceptable for anybody to do regardless of whether there is an employer-employee relationship. If you can’t trust your employees to make appropriate use of the resources they have available, maybe they shouldn’t be working for you in the first place. That’s not even going into all kinds of motivation problems spyware leads to when you feel treated as a potential criminal at all times.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Uh…we’re talking civil servants here. His boss’s boss probably had a higher solitaire score.

  8. Anonymous says:

    What irks me most about this situation is that apparently there’s something inherently wrong in a manager playing Solitaire all day. If he gets all his work done in ten minutes and spends the remaining 7:50h playing Solitaire, then that’s not a problem–that’s called efficiency. As a result, maybe that manager needs to get additional responsibilities to better utilize the time he’s paid for.

    On the other hand, if does crappy work and gets by with it, the problem isn’t the manager but his superiors who obviously must set their expectations rather low.

  9. Anonymous says:

    correction: …if *he* does…

  10. Anonymous says:

    sebmol: That’s actually was the crux of Valorie and my discussion – if he’s actually doing his job effectively, he doesn’t need to be spending his time doing nothing but work (I write this blog, for example).

    However, he is supposed to be a leader of his direct reports. And THEY don’t respect him because of all the time he spends playing solitaire. THAT is a problem because it is clearly hurting his effectiveness as a manager. And that’s exactly what the reprimand was discussing.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Once upon a time, things that mattered "officially" were things like (1) whether the person gets their work done properly and (2) whether the person doesn’t interfere with anyone else. Of course the rat race has always rewarded people who violate idea (2) and very often idea (1) has been irrelevant, but these realities were not usually admitted to officially. Is (2) true in this case, well no one said that the manager was abusing a shared network or machine, and is (1) true in this case, well a letter seems to imply that it is. Maybe morale was bad because everyone else was jealous of the manager’s ability to get his work done. Where have we seen this before?

    As for whether the spyware was appropriate or not, it seems that the network administrator was doing his job. Maybe no official purpose should have been served because maybe the manager was getting his job done after all, but the network administrator was doing his job too.

    So why was the network administrator fired? Obviously for whistleblowing. A few years ago the FBI paid 1 million US dollars to a former FBI employee who had been fired for whistleblowing, but the former employee was not rehired and the criminals remain in charge. The New York Police Department is famous, as originally reported in newspapers and then in movies. It’s the same in private companies. Two engineers who testified in court about the space shuttle Challenger were fired for it, but were rehired into positions of zero responsibility when Reagan said that they shouldn’t have been fired for telling the truth. (This was hilarious because the only reason Reagan got the part was that Reagan’s predecessor had been fired for telling the truth.) Anyway, it’s the same all over. Multiply the US situation by 3 and you get Canada. Multiply the US situation by 10 and you get Japan. Multiply the US situation by 20 and you get Singapore. Add the death penalty for whistleblowers and you get China.

    Here’s what the network administrator should have done. Before the spyware, he was actually permitted to do his own job and to get paid for it. He should have just kept quiet and continued. But no, he decided to be as stupid and honest as I am, and he paid for it the same way.

  12. Anonymous says:

    For most people the whole issue with whether playing solitaire all day is bad depends on the quality of the work delivered by the manager. What’s interesting about that is that for some reason everyone seems to believe that it’s possible to be a good manager by spending 10 minutes a day working, as long as you’re super efficient. In my experience, especially being a manager means there’s always stuff to do, read, discuss, improve, etc. If everything’s running smooth you can always set up a new improvement cycle or work on some other efficiency efforts.

    So in short: playing solitaire as a manager cuts into the quality you’re delivering. Maybe everything’s going smooth now, but as a manager you’re supposed to move things forward, not just keep things running as they are.

    Kind of depends on the exact job description ofcourse. Perhaps he’s a temporary manager that just needs to keep the currently underway projects floating. In that case I’d suggest to at least install a bunch of other games because Solitaire gets old quickly.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Jeroen: That’s exactly where I was trying to go with this. If he is able to play Solitaire all day, there are a few possibilities as to why that is:

    (1) He plays Solitaire because he doesn’t feel like doing any work. Result: his performance sucks and his superior should have noted that it does. That should lead to change in responsibilities or eliminating the position.

    (2) He plays Solitaire because he’s done with work after spending only ten minutes being productive. Result: acceptable performance and sheer boredom on the manager’s part. One could say that he should have enough ambition to do other productive things if he has so much time to waste but that’s not a legal requirement. Or he could tell his boss that he’s got nothing to do (that’s what I would do because, let’s admit it, Solitaire isn’t all that exciting).

    Either way, I don’t think the manager is to blame here beyond a conspicuous lack of initiative. My question rather is: what is his boss doing all day? Dictating his/her secretary to move the cards in her own solitaire game?

  14. Anonymous says:

    larry: that’s why there’s a distinction between effective and efficient. I can be super-efficient and do my job in the shortest time possible (and probably do a half-ass job at it) or I can be super effective but waste millions of dollars doing that. If he gets his work done in 10 minutes, he’s super efficient. And if that’s the case and he’s ineffective at the same time, his boss should notice and make appropriate corrections. If the boss doesn’t care about performance (we were talking about a government job here, right?), then he/she’s really the one to blame.

  15. Anonymous says:

    I can’t believe what I’m reading in some of these comments! If the manager could hypothetically do his job in 10 minutes then why pay him for any more than 50 minutes per week? Why does the position even exist? More likely is that an extra position has been created to make up for his uselessness or everybody else is working overtime to pick up his slack and get the job done. Why should everyone put up with this and not mention that this bludger is getting paid not to work?

    "If I get my work done who cares what else I do"

    So if your boss came in to your office and you were kicking back playing Solitaire, you would happily continue in front of them, just making comment that all your work was done?? Unlikely.

    "…apparently there’s something inherently wrong in a manager playing Solitaire all day…" Yes!!!!! Or does he have the right to bludge for a living because he’s a manager? Not to mention the example he’s setting and the impact on morale.

    "…If he gets all his work done in ten minutes and spends the remaining 7:50h playing Solitaire, then that’s not a problem–that’s called efficiency…" Nooooooo!! And what manager do you know who can get their ‘job done’ in less time than the rest of the workers he supervises? Especially in 30% of the time.

    As for poor ol’ Vernon, he was doing his job, and if they have to make up some bull to fire him, why are they firing him?

    If this attitude is really representative of the American population, I cannot understand how Aussies got the reputation as laid back…

  16. Anonymous says:

    It seems like this problem could have been solved with less heartache by just disabling the stock Windows games organisation-wide (so as not to single out the manager). This could be done either by removing them completely or using Windows policies. Neither method is inpenetrable, but we’re not talking about a Windows security expert here, we’re talking about a manager.

    I doubt this manager would have actually gone to the IT guy and asked him to reinstall the games. There is the possibility that he’d just start playing games embedded in web pages, though, I guess. Disable ActiveX and Java? 😉

  17. Anonymous says:

    "If the manager could hypothetically do his job in 10 minutes then why pay him for any more than 50 minutes per week?"

    Well, for obvious reasons?

    Let’s assume the department did what you’re suggesting–they pay the man for exactly 50 minutes per week. Then the job wouldn’t be worth his, or anyone’s, time. Especially if it were 10 minutes per day–why would you bother even driving to work for a 10-minute paycheck?

    This is complicated by the fact that, in all likelihood, nobody knows when those 10 minutes will be required in the course of a given day. So he’s "on call" all the time. By only paying him for ten minutes per day, you’re essentially saying that his "on-call" time is worth nothing.

    And that’s to say nothing of what skill is required to perform those ten minutes of work. Or whether he may provide some kind of emergency support, etc.

    I have no problem being paid for providing value-on-demand, even if that value is not required for eight straight hours every day. It’s a very common business model, and it works very well.

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