July 2015

What should a manager reasonably be expected to control? That’s a question Sepp Blatter, the embattled former FIFA president, tried to answer in the wake of several members of his organization being indicted for bribery and money laundering by the FBI.

So what did Blatter say shortly after the charges were filed and calls for his resignation were becoming increasingly louder? “I can’t monitor everyone all the time,” he said.

His response was widely panned in the media and by soccer fans around the world, but mostly because they didn’t believe him, that he didn’t know all this corruption was taking place under his watch. But his response, nonetheless, highlights a common problem managers face all the time — is it possible for a manager to be truly and realistically responsible for everything his or her subordinates do, whether on or off the job? Managers are groomed, taught, trained to take responsibility when something goes wrong, to own up to the problem, and Blatter clearly was having no part of that — his response came across as cowardly, not exactly one of those “the buck stops here” moments. Yet people make mistakes and bad decisions and managers can suffer the fallout from those, even if there were nothing that could have been done to prevent it.

Whether or not a manager loses his or her job as a result of the subordinate’s mistake can depend on how egregious it is or how the manager’s boss views what could have been done to prevent it. Most supervisors, however, understand that things happen and are willing to give the manager a pass. But the Blatter resignation calls into light another and even more important “boss” who ultimately has the final say and defines what the manager is responsible for — the fans, the residents, the readers, and the customers. If they believe a manager did everything that he or she could have done to prevent the problem, then he or she is OK: own up to it and endeavor to ensure it never happens again. But if they believe the manager should have known and could have stopped it, the buck stops right there, with the manager, whether they like it not — something Blatter forgot or at least took awhile to figure out.

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