The Aftermath

The grants that Brent worked with were projected to be able to help an estimated number of homeowners. When a home repair went over budget, such as this one did, there was accordingly less money to repair another home. Brent was not formally reprimanded for his actions. Inspectors can make unintentional mistakes. Projects had sometimes gone over the limit before. Nevertheless, Brent’s superiors told him they knew he was trying to help this homeowner out and he should not do that. They realized it was hard to deny people, but it’s them or you. If you help more people like this, you will end up needing help.


Brent committed an informal act of omission when he cut $7,000 in repairs to make Eliza’s house eligible. If Eliza had just accepted the first $30,000 in repairs, no one would have been the wiser. The managers involved could not know the extent to which each individual was playing politics. Brent might have learned how the system worked and provided Eliza with instructions about politically pursuing the matter. Alternatively, Eliza could have accepted Brent’s help and then decided on her own to seek more via lobbying her councilperson. In the latter scenario, Brent would have felt betrayed, while in the former, he would not. From Brent’s superiors’ viewpoint, regardless of the details, the same irksome result was produced.

Conflicting Norms

The possibility of an employee becoming too close to a customer was not developed in the service culture literature (du Gay & Salaman, 1992). Brent and a councilperson had compassion for Eliza. While the end of pleasing a customer was covered by the official culture, the means used violated the limitations imposed by statute. Neither Brent nor the councilperson thought the uniformities created by the statute were meaningful standards of fairness. Inspectors were meant to empathize and please customers up to the budget limit, and then be able to switch off their emotions and coldly turn down all larger requests. In this real-world situation, this expectation proved to be unrealistic. The councilperson could have left the situation alone. Politicians, though, like to please constituents. An act of omission occurred when the statutory $30,000 repair limit was ignored.

Now $7,000 less was left to repair another home. Brent’s superiors answered to elected officials, so they felt compelled to submit. They found this type of politicking irritating, so Brent was threatened not to do it again or he would be the one needing help. Brent’s informal “help,” and the councilperson’s request, were dealt with via an informal supervisory act of commission.

On one hand, it was arbitrary for some distant legislators to assume these bureaucratic guidelines would yield the best results in every situation. On the other hand, the interests of another homeowner who would have less funding available were ignored. Given limited budget dollars, the interests of all the relevant customers could not be satisfied. In this case, there were very different interpretations regarding who should play active and passive roles (Czarniawska, 1997). The parties did not have a common vision of what the public interest was in this situation. Trade-offs existed and reasonable people could disagree on what was “best.”

During the Human Relations era (i.e., 1930s—1960s), a few common frictions between different parts of the management hierarchy were documented. For instance, some salespeople listened to customer demands and commitments were then made to provide special conditions. These promises made things much more difficult for the organization’s production and service departments (Gardner Sc Moore, 1964). Administrators in these branches preferred more uniform and less costly practices. Ultimately, one would expect the leadership to do what was more profitable. Only rough quantitative estimates can be made, because an unknown number of customers may later ask for similar special treatment. The same cannot be said in the public sector, where there are no profits. In venues like this Housing Department, all the funds and services must be rationed via either political processes or civil service expertise.

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