Mister Meanor on abandoning a troubled company and what to do if you discover you are guilty of accidentally overcharging a client.
Dear Mr Meanor
About 15 months ago I took over as chief executive of a troubled company, certain that I could change its fortunes. Sadly, business has continued to wane. I've now had a tempting offer from a healthier plc. I would love to accept the new post, but I fear the same scorn heaped upon Bill Cockburn for leaving WH Smith mid-reorganisation. What should I do?
In a Fix
Dear In a Fix
You won't want to hear this, but, unless your present employers misinformed you about the state of the company, I strongly believe you should stay.
Had you felt you'd been misled, leaving after a few months would have been understandable, albeit embarrassing. Equally, if you were leaving after three years or so, you would at least know that you gave it your best shot. The three-year mark here is important: it is when most board members' stock options kick in, and should be considered the minimum period that senior staff should stick around for.
By 'doing a Cockburn' you will no doubt have implemented a significant number of policies: you ought to have the decency to see them through.
And of course, there is your career record: people will see you as someone who, when the going gets tough, gets going elsewhere. See it through.
Yours with a strong moral compass
Dear Mister Meanor
I have a long-term contract with a customer with whom I have an excellent relationship. I have just discovered that for the past three years, I have been accidentally charging him VAT twice, meaning, in effect, that he is paying me an extra 17.5% on the price agreed in the contract. My customer has clearly not noticed this and seems very happy with both the price and service I provide. Normally I would come clean but the trouble is his payments make a significant contribution to my bottom line, and is responsible for my gross margins being 10%, rather than 5%. The excess billing is unlikely to be noticed, but if it is and/or I point the error out to him, I could be ruined. What should I do?
Dear In Despair,
Every code of conduct suggests you come clean, apologise sincerely and offer to repay every penny with interest but, in this instance, I would counsel against it. The reasons are simple. First off, it serves no one's interest to jeopardise your business through honesty. Secondly, if your margins are meant to be a mere 5%, your prices could be too low. Thirdly, everyone is happy (albeit in ignorance) and you seem very unlikely to get caught. So, while I certainly do not condone this error, I would advise you to keep your mouth firmly shut. And, when you renegotiate your other existing contracts, I suggest you ask for a little more. Your customers are clearly willing to pay it.