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Background: I am in charge of a code which I've written for the office (at the direction of my manager). Our office just merged with another office a few states away. The plan is to eventually have them be able to use the software. As it states my software cannot meet this requirement reliably. So now I'm scheming up a solution.

The Problem: One such solution is to use a online server which will allow reliable access anywhere. The issue arises because this service costs money. Its fairly trivial ($5/month), but I am 100% sure that it would not be approved (business is not booming in any sense of the phrase). I would just sign up for it myself and just not mention that I'm paying for it personally when I distribute it, but I have a sense that this is wrong.

My question:
Is my gut feeling justified, or can I (appropriately/ethically) use my personal money for company benefit?

Sub-questions:

  • If I do get it, should I mention that I'm paying out of my own pocket?

  • Would it be unethical to deliberately hide that I'm paying out of pocket?

  • If I do this without manager approval, could it conceivably get me punished?

Important Clarification:

The issue isn't necessarily that $5/month is too much money for an international engineering firm to afford. We could afford if my manager wanted to spend it. The issue is that he doesn't, partially because he isn't very fond of my program (for a variety of reasons). This is part of the reason I feel pressured into just making sure it works regardless. But, based off the wonderful accepted answer, acting independently from management and taking control of a company resource is a poor decision

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As a corollary, sometimes the purchasing process at companies is soooo slow and abusively-complex that it really makes it tempting to purchase inexpensive things with your own money so you can get work done without a hassle. –  teego1967 Jul 11 at 18:32
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If you're company is in such a bad shape that it can't afford $5/month... then how does it still exist ? And why are you still there ? –  Radu Murzea Jul 12 at 7:31
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I'm confused about why you are trying to host it outside if you don't think the company would pay for it? If you're being proactive, maybe an alternative is to ask your manager if sharing the software is worth $5/mo to the company. Show him you have a plan on how to solve this problem. If he/she says no, well, then you can avoid wasting your time and money because it's not important to the business. –  Brandon Jul 12 at 12:49
    
@RaduMurzea See the edit –  wnnmaw Jul 12 at 21:46
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If your manager isn't willing to fund the additional expense because he does not like the program but has directed you to work on the project it sounds like you have not even asked your manager for the company to fund the expense –  Ramhound Jul 17 at 11:18

4 Answers 4

up vote 46 down vote accepted

There is nothing unethical about spending your own money for things that benefit the company. I have no problem, for example, buying the occasional cable or adapter that makes work easier without bothering to ask for reimbursement. But it does not seem like a wise decision in this case.

First off, if the company wants to use a piece of software at the other office and there are additional resources needed to make that happen, the company ought to pay for those resources. Maybe the company would choose to buy access to an online server. Maybe the company would choose an alternate solution (including not giving the new office access to the software). Merging offices has costs-- surely the company is incurring more than $5/month in costs from merging the offices.

Spending your own money on subscription services is particularly problematic. Down the line, what happens if you decide you want to move on or are let go? Are you going to continue to pay to host the software indefinitely? If not, then you're in the rather unfortunate position of saying "I quit. And, by the way, this piece of software will stop working at the end of the month unless you pay a fee." Even if this was properly the company's responsibility to pay from the beginning, it is hard for this not to come across as blackmail particularly if the company was unaware you were paying the fee. Those sorts of impressions, even if they aren't accurate, can really damage your reputation.

Then there are the ongoing operational issues. You'd have company information and resources that are on some server the company has no idea about. The company would be dependent on whatever service level agreement the hosting company provided but they'd have no idea that there was even a relationship with the hosting company. This sort of thing would raise alarm bells for any sort of security audit, if someone in IT decided to analyze network traffic and found company information flowing out to unknown hosts, etc. Explaining that the software is unavailable because the hosting company your company had no idea they were using is down would probably not go over well. Nor would explaining to the auditor that you've got information flowing out to a service that you, not the company own.

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Personally, I would create an account for the online service under your work email address, get a prepaid Visa card from 7-11 and load it with a trivial amount of money ($25) to pay for the online service initially as a "Proof of concept." If they accept it, they can update the payment info to their own. If they don't, and/or you stop working there and cannot access that account, just don't put any more money on that prepaid card. Whatever you do, don't put your personal checking or credit card on the account. –  Wesley Long Jul 11 at 18:46
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Also, will your homebrew server pass company security requirements? If not, putting anything company-confidential on it could be a career-limiting action. I know you're looking for a quick fix, but this is an area with pitfalls large enough that I really think you're better off doing it officially. –  keshlam Jul 11 at 19:48
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+1 especially for mentioning the security aspects. –  Jenny D Jul 12 at 8:38
    
I think "what happens if you decide you want to move on or are let go" actually adds up to a conclusion that it is not merely unwise but indeed unethical to spend your own resources on a subscription, certainly that you don't tell them about very clearly and in writing. So while your first sentence is true ("it's not unethical to spend"), it comes with the caveat that some such expenditures are unethical in context. –  Steve Jessop Jul 12 at 12:27

If you're working for a tiny startup or family business where nothing is formalized, sure. In those environments, any ad hoc solution is usually welcome. However, since you say that you have a manager and you're merging with another office, it sounds like your company has grown far beyond that. A completely different set of considerations apply.

Surely, the money ($5 per month) is not the problem? If your company cannot afford to spend $5 per month on an important business process, you're probably wasting your time working at the wrong place.

So, for whatever reason, you believe that your request would be denied. Yet, you made that statement using the conditional mood, not indicative past tense, suggesting that you haven't actually asked and been rejected. Why haven't you asked? Is communication in your organization dysfunctional in some way? Are you afraid of the management (or the IT Department) finding out that a skunkworks solution exists? Either way, I find that troubling.

If I were a sane manager in charge of the business, my primary concern would not be the $5 per month expense. Rather, relying on an employee to provide a poorly understood business process is a risk factor. There's no continuity plan, should you need to take a vacation. The code lives on a server that is not controlled by the company — especially if only you hold the master password.

In summary, acting unilaterally to solve a problem without company approval is not beneficial to the company. I also suspect that you may be either skirting some policies or that communication/management at your company may be dysfunctional. You expect your proposal to be rejected, and I don't think that the reason for the rejection is the cost. If they say "no" now, and you go ahead with the scheme anyway, expect an inquisition when they find out later. If you haven't said no, because you are doing this secretly, that's equally controversial. You have nothing to gain personally by being a "hero" and "solving" the problem your way, against company procedures or against your manager's instructions. If anything, it could likely be a career-limiting move.

Your proposed arrangement sounds fishy to me. Don't do it.

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"Surely, the money ($5 per month) is not the problem?" Perversely, sometimes it is exactly the problem. I was hired to work on a website for my company - as an employee, not a contractor. The project officially has no financial budget: we have to use in-house resources for everything and no money can be spent on it. Now I need 2-3 stock photos for the site, for a total cost of under 15 Euros, 1-time. Everybody agrees that the expense is needed and the price is fair - but there is no way getting that amount approved. Now I am going to spent 15 hours of worktime shooting pictures instead. –  rumtscho Jul 12 at 12:33
    
The moral of my story: extending an existing budget by $5 per month is not so hard. Increasing a budget from zero to non-zero can be impossible for bureaucratic reasons, even when the amount is trivial there is a very obvious positive ROI. And this doesn't necessarily mean it's the "wrong place" to work at. Rules do have exceptions where they don't work, this doesn't mean that we'd be better off without them. –  rumtscho Jul 12 at 12:46
    
@rumtscho But it's not up to you as an individual to solve problems that the company created for itself. Furthermore, buying stock photos out of pocket doesn't set up an ongoing dependency the way hosting a service on a private server would. –  200_success Jul 12 at 12:51

Your proposal would make your company reliant on another company, with which it has no contractual relationship. That alone is an unacceptable situation and your company wouldn't even know it was in it!

I'm sure your employer wouldn't object to the gift of $5 per month; the issue is that you'd be secretly putting the company into a situation it cannot control.

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You are paying for a server for this software to run on. If something happened to you (fired, died, sued for all you've got, etc), the company would either need to (1) transfer that account to their name and start paying or (2) perform a migration or come up with an alternative. ...Therefore, if you don't tell them that this setup relies on your own private account and money, then you are exposing them to risk without allowing them to plan for it.

Also, you said the person isn't very fond of the solution. Therefore, you spending money on the server out of pocket is a practice that gets really tricky. Now, you're using personal wealth to tip the balances of decision making in your favor. ...That's called bribery.

It's probably best not to do it. At the very least though, to get around the two above points, make sure you make it perfectly clear what you are doing.

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