Ethics @ Work: No good deed unpunished

Israelis deserve the continued service of Uri Bar-Lev.

September 4, 2008 22:38
Ethics @ Work: No good deed unpunished

Business ethics 88. (photo credit: )


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Commander Uri Bar-Lev is the head of the Israel Police Southern District, which includes Beersheba and Sderot. He is considered one of the most successful commanders in the organization, perhaps the most successful. Crime in his district has declined markedly during his tenure; his public appearances have inspired a very popular image among citizens, and he has been credited with greatly raising the spirit of the residents of Sderot. As a result of his results, image and good relations with his staff, morale among his officers is reported to be among the highest in the force. On August 25, the police announced a routine round of new appointments. According to news reports, Bar-Lev had requested to be appointed head of the Tel Aviv District, his request was refused and, as a result, he decided to leave the force. So far, unexceptional; it is not unusual or objectionable for public servants at high levels to decide that it is "now or never" for a desired promotion and to find a new career if they don't reach their dream position. The new appointments received the generally routine approval of Public Security Minister Avi Dichter. However, the following day Bar-Lev's supporters told a different story: They claimed that Insp.-Gen. Dudi Cohen had asked Bar-Lev to take a couple of years off active duty to pursue studies; afterwards he would again be appointed to a senior position. The background was evidently a problematic working relationship between Bar-Lev and Cohen. When Bar-Lev refused this suggestion, Cohen told him to leave the police. This already sounds pretty bad. One of the most successful officers in the force, by every measure, is suddenly asked to take an extended break from fighting crime, simply because he is not friendly enough with the inspector general. When he refuses, the inspector general decides to force his hand by inventing a story. The relationship with Dichter is also problematic; either Cohen misled Dichter into considering the appointments routine, or Dichter shirked his public responsibility to exercise oversight on appointments. At this stage, Cohen could have presented a justifiable reason for terminating Bar-Lev if he had one; or he could have found some face-saving way to retract his cowardly decision. Instead, he decided to exploit his own mistake to give him new "leverage." He claimed that Bar-Lev really was being terminated for insubordination. Bar-Lev was ordered to stop fighting crime; he refused to stop fighting crime; therefore, he is a bad officer and has no place on the force. In my opinion, there is a not-so-subtle distinction to be made. It is reasonable to terminate someone for not accepting an order to his job or to do it in a particular way. It is something else entirely to fire someone because he opposes an order that he stop doing his job. I think it is proper and praiseworthy for an officer to demand the opportunity to do what he does best. While this may technically be considered insubordination, it is a stupid reason to get rid of an officer. Cohen is asking us to view his grave mistake in asking Bar-Lev to take a leave of absence as strengthening his position instead of weakening it. The predicable next stage is that Cohen's arbitrary conduct will cause a big stir in the police force. He has sent a clear message that promotion is dependent only on having a good relationship with your superiors; reducing crime in your district by over 50 percent counts for nothing. A lot of officers, senior and junior, are uneasy with this situation. Given the kind of behavior just described, it's not surprising that the police force is held in generally low regard in Israel, and the average cop, who is probably anxious for the chance to his job well, can hardly be satisfied with this situation. So officers start to talk to reporters and complain about Cohen's destructive conduct. Cohen now sees this threat as new evidence of Bar-Lev's guilt. His original crime was not getting along with Dudi, but now he has two new counts: one count of insubordination for insisting on fighting crime instead of going for a study leave (note that Bar-Lev already has two degrees), and a second rap of causing bitterness within the force by refusing to be a silent victim of Cohen's mismanagement. Cohen told senior officers: "It is unacceptable that officers should advance a personal agenda, opposed to the position of the organization and its head." But as I explained above, Bar-Lev's agenda is not solely personal; it is also public. It seems to be acknowledged that Cohen and Bar-Lev don't have a good working relationship. As the Movement for Quality Government points out, this is a valid reason for firing someone in the private sector, but not in the public sector. Bar-Lev doesn't work for Cohen; he and Cohen both work for the people of Israel. Just as Bar-Lev has to learn to get along with Cohen because he is a subordinate, Cohen has to learn to get along with Bar-Lev because he is doing a good job fighting crime on behalf of the citizen. It is also fair to note that I have seen no claims that Cohen is motivated by personal gain. But that is small consolation. The reason that gain-seeking must be shunned is precisely because it leads to bad decisions and bad morale; bad leadership without personal gain is just as destructive as personal gain without bad management. Reacting to the poor working relationship by asking Bar-Lev to take a leave of absence was a cowardly decision on Cohen's part, though a partly understandable one. Responding to Bar-Lev's refusal by sacking him was disgraceful. From then on we reach new and unacceptable lows of public administration. Making a sham announcement about Bar-Lev's plan is hardly the example we expect from the person charged with maintaining law and order in the country. Relating to Bar-Lev's desire to continue fighting crime as a "personal agenda" was pretty audacious. Blaming him for the bitterness expressed in the police force over Cohen's arbitrary leadership reached levels of brazenness that are impressive even by Israeli standards. I agree with the Movement for Quality Government that Cohen should restore Bar-Lev to active duty; barring that, Dichter should fire Cohen for his destructive and misleading conduct; barring this, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert should fire Dichter for upholding cronyism over crime-fighting in a police force that can ill afford such standards. Asher Meir is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology.

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