The apostrophe that ruined a client’s reputation: A lesson in leadership and ethics.

Incorrect apostrophe
Spot what is wrong with this sentence

Kevin sat at his computer, looking at his list of tasks for the day. He was a month into his new job, still on probation, but he was doing well so far. He thought he’d start with an interesting task, creating a campaign website for a client that was due to go out nationally in a few weeks.

Kevin spent around half a day creating the pages for the site, meticulously styling them to fit the client’s brief exactly. He was just double checking his work, ready to tell the project lead that the work was done, when he noticed something was wrong.

He checked again, spent some time searching Google just to make sure his suspicions were correct. He was sure what he was seeing wasn’t right. That apostrophe just wasn’t supposed to be there. He looked again, “Featuring Australia’s best theme park’s”, the offending text shouted at him.

“Hey Ben”, Kevin interrupted my train of thought, but being a calm manager I was OK with it.

“Does this look right to you?”

The wheels of my office chair whirred softly as I sped over the three metres of carpet that divided us, to see what was on his screen.

“What? There shouldn’t be an apostrophe after ‘park’!”, I said, being quite the stickler for punctuation. I was disturbed at what I had seen.

“You should tell the project lead to take that out”, I suggested, knowing that it wasn’t really my business.

Kevin typed into his instant messaging application, the innocent question to the project lead:

“Hey, I’ve done the site – just with some of the copy, does the apostrophe after ‘park’ look right to you? It looks strange, I don’t think it’s correct.”

The answer materialised after a few seconds:

“Yeah that’s correct, that’s what the client provided us.”

Having thought this saga would all be resolved by now, I was incredulous.

“What? They can’t go live with that, it will make the client look stupid.”

How do you influence a decision when it is none of your business?

This situation seems quite innocuous, but it raises an interesting dilemma. What should Kevin do? What should I do to influence a decision that works?

The complicating factors include:

  1. Kevin is on probation. He raised the issue, but was told it wasn’t one. He knows it is, but he doesn’t want to rock the boat as he doesn’t know the project lead very well.
  2. I have nothing to do with the project and I’m not Kevin’s line manager. If I raise the issue with the project lead directly, it will look like Kevin has tattled to me, even though the project lead said it was all OK. I didn’t want to confront the project lead about it, because then Kevin might look bad. I feel I should say something, but I need to be careful because Kevin is uncomfortable.
  3. Ultimately, there is an issue – and it is really our responsibility to fix it so the client doesn’t look stupid.

Potential solutions to influence a decision to solve the apostrophe dilemma

To influence a decision in solving this problem, there were a few alternatives:

  1. Kevin could just correct it himself and send it back. The problem is, he’s already raised it and has been told it’s not a problem. Perhaps if he hadn’t said anything and had just fixed it, it could have been avoided altogether?
  2. I could contact the project lead saying that it should be fixed. Then Kevin looks like he has tattled, and I’m poking my nose into somebody else’s project. This would make Kevin uncomfortable.
  3. We get Kevin’s line manager to “review Kevin’s work” and say to the project lead that he noticed during the review that the apostrophe was wrong, so it has been fixed.
  4. We drop a message to the testing team, saying that when they test it, they should raise an issue about the incorrect punctuation.
  5. Do nothing and hope that it gets fixed by somebody else. But will we be able to sleep at night with that apostrophe out there?

I voted for Option 3.

This, in my opinion, is the best way to approach this issue, because:

  • Kevin’s line manager has direct responsibility for reviewing his work and providing feedback.
  • The review of his work is part of the normal routine and isn’t a result of Kevin tattling on anybody.
  • Kevin’s line manager can shield him from any repercussions because Kevin isn’t suggesting the change, his line manager is.

So what happened to the apostrophe, you ask?

It was removed, the client didn’t look silly, everybody lived happily ever after, and Kevin slept like a baby that night.

Kevin was fired shortly afterwards for looking at inappropriate content using the company internet.

Just kidding.

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