Things Are Not Always As They Seem, September, 2010

September 2010 / Issue 5


Annual Online Ethics Training:

10/4/10 - 11/2/10

Seasonal and Temporary Training:

NOW - 12/31/10

For more information, please visit our Web site:


2010 Ethics Training

All employees are expected to complete annual ethics training to comply with the law. Please watch for communications to your University email account, visit our Web site, and read the neon yellow flyers posted in your unit for additional details.

Attention Unit Contacts:

Please remember to monitor employee training completion status regularly throughout the online training window to ensure 100% compliance.

University Ethics Office:
Ethics Help Line: 866-758-2146

Human Resources Bldg., Rm. 20
One University Plaza, HRB 20 Springfield, IL 62703-5407

Things are Not Always as They Seem

An elderly woman orders coffee at the drive-through and then spills it in her lap. The woman is severely burned as a result of the spill. She sues for $2.7 million.

Based on the details you just read, who do you think was at fault? Do you feel the woman deserved compensation for her injuries?

If you believe the woman who spilled the coffee was to blame, you are not alone. And if the case sounds familiar, you may recall that the defendant named in the lawsuit was McDonald's*. As the case gained notoriety, many were eager to place blame on the woman for spilling the hot coffee and then suing McDonald's for an excessive amount. However, as the case played out in courts, several interesting facts were revealed:

image of spilt coffee

  1. The woman received third degree burns requiring extensive medical treatment, including skin grafts and a week's stay in the hospital.
  2. The woman originally sought to settle her claim for $20,000 to cover medical bills. It was only when McDonald's offered her $800 to settle her case that she decided to sue.
  3. McDonald's knowingly sold its coffee at a temperature surpassing the average temperature of coffee made in the home by 40-50 degrees and had settled more than 700 claims related to scalding coffee burns in the prior decade.

If you have now decided the elderly woman was the victim, you are in agreement with the jury and many others, who felt McDonald's was at fault. This case brings to light the concept of "knowing the whole story."

Now reflect on a similar situation in a University setting and see how another matter may not really be as it appears on the surface...

Stella has worked in your unit for 10 years. Recently, you noticed she has been leaving work one hour early on a consistent basis. Though it is not daily, she leaves early at least three days per week. You are frustrated because it appears your supervisor is aware of her absence and is "turning a blind eye." Last week, you mentioned something to your supervisor, but were told you should not concern yourself with the matter. Unsure of the appropriateness of this behavior, you recalled the instruction received during annual ethics training and decided to make a report on the University Ethics Office help line.

While reviewing your concern, the Ethics Office became aware of the following:

  1. Stella completed and received approval for FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act) leave, allowing her to leave work early on the days members of her family require care or transportation to the doctor.
  2. Stella also has an approved flexible work arrangement, allowing her to begin her workday earlier to ensure her job responsibilities are fulfilled.
  3. Stella has been charging benefit time to account for her early departure when she is unable to fulfill her work time requirements through her flexible work arrangement.

Ethics Office protections of confidentiality are afforded to all parties involved.  Results of reviews are confidential and are not released.

Had you been privy to this information, you would have likely understood the situation. However, as an employee, there are times when information that is not pertinent to your position should not be shared with you and must be treated in a confidential manner.

While it is important to report any activity you suspect may be inappropriate, it is equally important to keep in mind things are not always as they seem. As was noted with the McDonald's case and the FMLA scenario, there is often more to a situation than what appears on the surface. Facts revealed through the review conducted by the University Ethics Office will either clarify the situation, as in Stella's case, or will lead to further review and consideration by the University Ethics Office and management.


* Liebeck v McDonald's Restaurants (N.M. Dist. Ct. Aug. 18, 1994) (unpublished decision).