Should you fix or cheat a broken system?

Each Tuesday I take the top voted question from readers and answer it.  With 146 votes, this week’s winner was from James:

When a system is broken at work, should you work to fix the system, game the system, or avoid the system?

It depends! Do you like your job? Do you like your community? If yes, you should naturally work to fix. If you don’t, you should quit your job or move before you start quitting your ethics (I’ve written previously on Why We Accept Bad Systems and you might want to peak at that post before reading on). Here are three answers to your three options:

  • Work to fix the system. If you haven’t quit working to fix the system makes the most sense. But is the system in question your responsibility? If yes, I’d ask how the system got broken in the first place as you’ll want to know that before you go about trying to fix it (See What To Do When Things Go Wrong). If it’s not your responsibility, it’s still your job to notify whoever is in charge that there’s a problem that’s in their interest to solve and to help if you can. If the broken system prevented me from doing my job well, I’d petition my boss to help get it fixed and/or work on fixing it myself. If I can’t petition my boss, what other sources of influence are there?
  • Game the system. Game is a funny word. It could mean anything from bending the letter of the law to deliver on the spirit of the law, which I’d approve of, to blatant theft and cheating, which I wouldn’t. A good question is who benefits from manipulating the system: the customer? Your coworkers and the organization? Or just you? If you’re only thinking of benefiting yourself you should look for a new job where you care more about your coworkers and customers. If you don’t, your coworkers would be wise to think about how to avoid working with you, or to perhaps how to fix the system so someone like you doesn’t get rewarded for gaming the system.
  • Avoid the system. On principle I’d avoid as many systems as possible if they weren’t necessary for doing going work. But I’d do it carefully, and with the support of my boss, coworkers and community when I could. Ideally my avoidance of a system could lead to it’s revision or elimination for everyone. But If I was continually disregarding my boss, or the local rules, working behind their back, I’d be setting myself up to fail. Even if I was successful on the project at hand, when they discovered I’d gone around their authority I’d lose their trust in the future. On the contrary, if I avoided a system with their support, and delivered great results, progress become possible. But always remember avoiding a system is a kind of gaming the system from the point of view of whoever’s job it is to run the system (perhaps a peer of your boss). Ignoring a rule someone cares about must be done with the knowledge that at some point you will be found out: the question is, what will you be able to say then about what you were doing and why?


14 Responses to “Should you fix or cheat a broken system?”

  1. Phil Simon

    There’s a big term…

    Certain “systems” you simply can’t circumvent. For instance, back in my HR days, I had to use proprietary systems of record to get work done even though they were downright awful. For other “systems”, though, there were easy hacks. Using Netscape Mail 15 years ago to avoid using a clunky e-mail client wasn’t too hard to do.

    I assume that you’re talking more generally about work systems here, not “technical” ones.

    1. Scott

      Every technical system has an admin. An admin can be bribed. That’s all I’m going to say :)

  2. Nitin Khanna

    I believe in fixing the system just as much as the next guy. But here’s another way to look at it –
    There’s a lot of corruption in India. Govt bureaucrats don’t lift a finger without getting their palms greased and the common man, who just wants one file cleared just accepts the system’s failings as a natural cost of doing business. Why does no one work to fix it? Reasons –
    1. People think it’s too much effort to fix things.
    2. People think fixing it will take longer than perhaps their lifespans to fix it.
    3. People believe they just want the one file cleared, so why waste time on social change? Get your work done and move on.

    While you’re focusing on the micro environment of an office, the macro environment of govt corruption teaches us that the 3 reasons listed above are pretty valid for any scenario.

    So, ask yourself about your broken system –
    1. Is it really going to take that long to fix it? (maybe someone more knowledgeable than you has an answer for your complaint about the system)
    2. Is the effort not worth it at all? (in which case, dump the system)
    3. Is cheating the system today actually good for your work and for the company in the longer term? (probably not)

      1. Scott

        This is a full service blog – I fixed the typo (at least the one I noticed :)

    1. Scott

      Thanks for this. I was thinking mostly about small systems, but did have big ones in the back of my mind too.

      You make me think there is some point in everyone’s mind where the system is too broken to fix. And for systems like government where there is no alternative (e.g. you can’t quit your government unless you leave your country) gaming or avoiding the system are your only choices.

      The American TV show the Wire, one of my favorite shows, is all about broken systems and people trying to avoid, change, circumvent or hide from them. Each season is about a different system, and different points of view on the system (e.g. police and criminals perspectives).

      1. Phil Simon

        What? You can bribe a sysadmin but not a government official? Heresy!

      2. Nitin Khanna

        I haven’t seen The Wire but it’s on my bingelist (also known as Netflix), so perhaps I’ll discover the ways American people deal with broken systems there.

        Yes, I’m sure that at some level, everyone facing a system that they’d rather game than fix…

        1. Scott

          Well, In The Wire the conclusions offered aren’t very optimistic, but you do see different people with different levels of power and different ethics make different choices about what they try to fix and what they try to game. For that reason alone I really enjoyed the show – it felt far more like real life in that respect that most TV shows I’ve ever seen.

    2. Alexander Johannesen

      Quite topically, I used to work for an Indian company for a couple of years, and one of the wonderful ways that technology enabled Indians to “fix” the system they told me about was genius in its simplicity. I was curious why so many Indians wore their mobile phones around their necks. So ;

      Corruption in India is wide-spread and part of every day life. It is also against the law. So what to do? Well, you wear your mobile phone around your neck, of course; that way, the official don’t know if you’re recording this conversation or not. There is a whole movement of uploading videos of corruption going on, in a kind of show-and-tell shaming, if you like.

      There’s some down-sides, though. For example, recruitment to jobs such as the police force has come down, because the corruption was seen as part of the salary package. now that they might only get a normal salary, it’s not a very good deal anymore. Ouch.

      1. Scott Berkun

        Thanks for that story – fascinating. Expected levels of corruption from nation to nation is so interesting – it’s so hard to imagine moving from one country to another and all of the little things that each culture takes for granted, or assumes is true everywhere.

  3. Greg Robinson

    Nikin we have a similar situation in south africa, see extract from timeslive. Co. Za

    The cost of corruption in the last 20 years… we have lost R700 billion,” CEO Claudelle von Eck said at the launch of the Anti-Intimidation and Ethical Practices Forum in Johannesburg.

    Von Eck, who is the forum’s chairwoman, said people who tried to report corruption were often muzzled.

    “Members are being intimidated when they try and raise the issue of corruption in an organisation.”

    Von Eck said the forum aimed to educate its members about corruption, advise them how to reveal corruption, and what to do when whistle-blowers were intimidated.

    It was intended to be a professional collective voice which would make pronouncements about the state of governance in the country.

    “We cannot be silent. As professionals we should be able to say this is what the state is, this is what we need to do to rectify things.”

    The forum consists of an executive committee, agencies who can take action, interested organisations, and an evaluation panel.

    “As professionals we have a responsibility, an understanding that our responsibility does not begin and end just at our desk and just at our jobs. We’ve got to carry South Africa,” she said.


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