Oswald Letter

Christie bridge scandal raises questions for managers

Bridgeby Dan Oswald

If you haven’t been living under a rock, you’ve undoubtedly heard about what is now being called “Bridgegate.” (I, for one, am tired of “gate” getting added to every controversy and scandal, but I’ll leave that rant for another day.) It seems that one of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s top aides, Bridget Anne Kelly, sent an e-mail to a Christie appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Kelly’s e-mail said, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” The response from David Wildstein, the Port Authority employee, was a short “Got it.”

The result was that on September 9, 2013, the first day of school in New Jersey, two of three lanes on the George Washington Bridge, which connects Fort Lee, New Jersey, to New York City, were closed. Of course, traffic became backed up, and long delays resulted for commuters heading into the city.

Port Authority officials claim the lanes were closed as part of a “traffic study,” but the real reason for the e-mail between Kelly and Wildstein was political payback. It seems that Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat, didn’t support Governor Christie, who is a Republican, in his 2013 reelection bid.

So now comes the tough part. What did the governor know about the plan to cause problems for the mayor of Fort Lee? Did he order this political revenge? Christie claims he had no idea any of this was happening on his behalf. Here’s what he said in a statement after this story became public:

What I’ve seen today for the first time is unacceptable. I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge.

One thing is clear: This type of behavior is unacceptable, and I will not tolerate it because the people of New Jersey deserve better. This behavior is not representative of me or my administration in any way, and people will be held responsible for their actions.

Not surprisingly, in today’s world of bipartisanship and our scandal-hungry media, that didn’t put an end to the drama. The governor ended up holding a two-hour press conference to reiterate that he had nothing to do with the lane closures and wasn’t aware this political retribution was taking place. Christie also announced that he had fired Kelly, saying, “I terminated her because she lied to me. There’s no justification for ever lying to a governor or a person with authority in this government.” Two Port Authority employees and a longtime Christie political adviser have also lost their jobs.

That’s just the rehash! Obviously there’s a lot going on in New Jersey. But this entire situation raises some interesting questions for all of us as managers—and be careful how you answer them because your answers could come back to haunt you.

Did Governor Christie know about the plan of retribution against the Fort Lee mayor? We can only speculate about Christie’s knowledge. There’s no proof that he was aware of the plan, and he claims he wasn’t. Innocent until proven guilty.

Should the governor have known about the plan? Ah, here’s where it gets interesting. Do you know about everything the people who work for you do? Do you know about every plan hatched by coworkers in the department you manage? Do you see the contents of every e-mail sent by someone on your team? I’d argue that many things happen in every organization that the boss doesn’t know about. They have to or the organization couldn’t move forward. If the boss signs off on every decision, we would claim he was micromanaging. I don’t think we know right now that Christie knew about the plan, and we can’t condemn him for not knowing.

Did Kelly believe she was doing something the governor would approve of? My guess—and it’s only that—is that she did. Most employees, if they value their jobs, take actions they believe the boss would approve of. Of course, we can all think of things people do that aren’t good for their careers, such as embezzlement and office romance. But those are done for selfish reasons that benefit the individual. Kelly didn’t personally stand to benefit from her actions—unless she was rewarded by her boss for what she did. She must have assumed that she was acting in a way that was consistent with her boss’s wishes or that he would approve of. That doesn’t reflect well on the boss.

Is Governor Christie responsible for Kelly’s actions? I’d argue he’s not. No manager can control what each person under his direction does at any given minute. And based on what can be proven, when he learned of Kelly’s actions, the governor fired her. If he truly wasn’t aware of what she had done, then he acted appropriately as soon as he learned of her deed. He’s not responsible for her actions if this was an isolated incident. However, what we can hold Christie accountable for is the culture that his leadership created. If Kelly’s actions were the exception, then we can chalk this up to an individual making a bad decision. If, however, the culture at the state house was one that tolerated or even encouraged this type of action, then the governor should also be held accountable because it was his leadership that ultimately caused this to happen. My guess is that if this was indeed the culture the governor fostered, it will come out. It always does.

As a manager, you can’t always be held responsible for what the people who work for you do. People are going to make mistakes, and they’re going to do things you don’t agree with. But when that happens, if you use those opportunities to teach and guide them, you’re doing your job. And if the mistake is significant enough or repeated enough, then firing someone might be the best or only recourse. Others will learn what is right and what will be accepted by your decision to terminate someone. But don’t ever underestimate how your words and actions influence those who work for you. They look to you for leadership, and if you’re doing or saying the wrong things, don’t be surprised if they do, too.