The Communication Situation: You will be playing the role of a Utilities Engineer who works for the North Carolina Utilities Commission. The situation that you encounter is described in The Bluewater Resort Case: Background. It will take you about 10-15 minutes to read this case. I recommend that you read it, and then review it before you complete this time limited final assignment.
The communication situation involves writing persuasively to one of the other four people in order to resolve a potentially embarrassing, and libelous, situation. You will need to consider the ethics of your behavior, as well as the other stakeholders’ actions in the case. Be sure to read the Operating Procedures for the Codes of Conduct for the Utilities Commission Public Staff. Note: This case is based on a real-life situation that a Civil Engineering graduate from NC State University encountered early in his career with the Utilities Commission.
The Assignment: You will write a one page memo or business letter to one of the four stakeholders in The Bluewater Resort Case. See Assignment below. You will have 60 minutes to write and submit Assignment 6. You can complete this assignment at any time, but the cut-off date to submit is listed on the online schedule. You can read the assignment and the related materials at any time, and multiple times, before you sit down to write and submit the assignment. You are on your honor as according to NC State’s Code of Student Conduct to adhere to the 60 minute time limit.
This is an open book, open note assignment. In the real world, this is the type of “on-the-fly” writing you will do, and this assignment involves using many of the persuasive writing techniques that you have read about this semester. Remember, as with any professional negotiation, you want to always seek a WIN-WIN solution to any problem.
Evaluation Criteria for Assignment
ASSIGNMENT – IMPROMPTU WRITING
Exceeds or Meets
Does not meet
FORMAT – Use an appropriate format for your audience. Create coherence through good transitions, and professionalism through correctness.
READER’S NEEDS – Use wording, tone, and organization to build upon each other to engage the reader’s interest and agreement. Focus on your reader’s needs to motivate him/her to feel comfortable with the information that you are providing. Do not create confusion, or worse, reader’s questions that will need further communication to resolve.
PERSUASIVE METHODS – Use various methods (e.g., direct/indirect opening, evidence) to persuade your reader. Write an informative communication that convinces your reader to accept your advice (e.g., Henderson’s future dealings with the State, or Mims’ assurance that you are doing a good job). Do not make an accusation of lobbying because you cannot prove that it happened. Create a WIN-WIN situation to maintain a good working relationship with the reader.
Bluewater Resort Case – Background
by Jamie S. Larsen
It’s the first warm spring morning after a long, icy winter and as you walk from the parking lot to the Bath Building in downtown Raleigh where you work, you take a deep breath. You feel like it’s going to be a good day and best of all, it’s a Friday, April 30th.
Even the sight of your manager, Ms. Martha Mims, the Director of the Public Staff Water Division for the North Carolina Utilities Commission, doesn’t dampen your spirits. In the elevator, as you stand next to Ms. Mims, you even manage a smile to her. Actually, she’s not a bad manager but she is a stickler for details. She had once made an engineer redo an entire expense account because he had made a deduction for the cost of premium gas. Mims only allowed deductions for regular gas prices.
Suddenly, Ms. Mims turns to you and says, “Good morning. I got a call from the Chief Clerk at the Commission’s office late yesterday and ten more application for water and sewer rate increases were filed one hour before closing time. Looks like you and the other two Utilities engineers are going to be busy.”
The elevator doors open and, typically, Ms. Mims is way ahead of you before you can even think of anything to say. Your bright, cheery morning has a cloud in its sky.
As you walk to your office, you remember last spring and realize that April 30th is the day that most companies send out their financial reports. This usually signals a rush of applications for rate increases because company owners realize that their prior year’s profits weren’t as high as they had expected. Utility rates that private companies charge their customers are regulated by the State in order to prevent unfair price gouging.
The Public Staff’s Utilities Engineers are required to respond within 30 days to all applications. Your job as a Utilities Engineer is to conduct an on-site investigation of the water and sewer facilities with a Staff Accountant and make a recommendation if a rate increase is justified, and, if so, what the rate increase should be based on the accountant’s and your findings.
Although you juggle several applications in varying stages at one time, you are not too worried. You mumble to yourself, a habit you acquired as a student at NC State University, “I just hope I don’t get a case in the mountains. I’m sick of the cold.”
Later that morning, the secretary stops by and says, “I know I don’t usually deliver the mail but all of these letters came and Ms. Mims said to give them to you. Your mailbox is already full so here they are.”
You say, “Thanks,” as a pile of letters cascades upon your already crowded desk.
Sorting through them you notice something suspicious. They all have the same zip code, 27959. You know this is a coastal code near Nags Head, a popular resort area. Your morning darkens a little more as you realize the letter, 16 in all, must be customer complaint letters.
When a developer or utility company requests an increase for water or sewer rates that they charge their customers, they must first file an application with the Utilities Commission’s Chief Clerk. The Consumer Services division then sends out notices to all the applicant’s customers notifying them of the proposed rate increase. The customers then have the opportunity to question the rate increase request or, as usually happens, complain. It is one of your responsibilities to respond to each customer complaint letter – a time consuming job that you really don’t like all that much. Frankly, it’s a no-win task because the customers think it is your job to represent their interests, when, in fact, it is your job to ensure that all approved water and sewer rate increases are based on real expenses and a reasonable profit return to the developer or utility company. Unfortunately, most customers consider not rate increase a reasonable return.
Just as you are about to begin opening the letters, Ms. Mims sticks her head in the door. She always makes you jumpy because she seems to fly from place to place. She even talks quickly making it difficult for you to ask questions.
She says, “Hi again. Oh, I see you got the letters. I told the secretary to give them to you. Here’s the application. Looks like a good time of the year to go to the beach.”
“Uh… Uh….” You are going to ask if the letters are from the customers of the applicant but then you decide not to ask the obvious.
Ms. Mims interrupts your stuttering, “By the way, a new staff accountant has joined the division, Kyle Stanton. Nice fellow, young. You will be working with him on this case. Let me know if there are any problems.”
With that, she disappears leaving you with the last flicker of light on this now totally gray day. Even the promise of a trip to the beach can’t overcome a stack of customer complaint letters and a new staff accountant who probably doesn’t know what he is doing. “Fine,” you mumble to yourself, “I’ll end up having to do his job as well as mine.”
One Week Later
Kyle is actually a nice guy and the drive to the beach goes quickly. When the applicant, Eric Henderson, made the suggestion during your initial phone contact that you and Kyle make the on-site visit over a weekend that had been fine with you. Henderson had sounded like an easy going character on the phone, but a character none the less. Apparently, a weekend visit suited his schedule better because he owned two other businesses that he ran during the week. You got the impression that he was quite the wheeler-dealer.
Henderson had also suggested that you and Kyle stay in two of the unrented condominiums at the resort. You told him on the phone that you and Kyle were each given an $85.00 per diem for lodging and anything over that had to come out of your own pockets. Henderson had said that wasn’t a problem and it was better to get some money rather than no money for the rooms. You figured that staying at the resort would make your job easier and quicker, which would ultimately save the Utilities Commission money, so you had agreed.
But when you step into the plush condo, you know that its rent is much more than $85.00 a night. The hot tub and sauna are tip offs but the billiards table and 42″ plasma TV cinch it. You debate about what to do, but since you had covered the issue of lodging expenses with Henderson on the phone, you decide not to worry, but to just enjoy.
When you and Kyle arrive at Henderson’s rental office at the agreed upon time, he is nowhere to be found. An elderly lady, Pearl, offers you both coffee but when you ask for invoices and financial statements instead, she looks blankly at you. She says that she and her husband are Henderson’s partners in owning the resort but that he handles all the details.
Finally, after waiting 45 minutes watching Pearl knit, Henderson rushes into the office. He apologizes and explains that he got delayed installing a burglar alarm system. You wonder if he is a genius or just crazy.
He provides invoices and financial records and, fortunately, Kyle seems capable and able to tackle them without your guidance. You leave and proceed to inspect the water and sewer systems, meters, and pumps and to survey the development. You are very impressed with the neatness of the development and also its lavishness. The Olympic sized swimming pool with a fountain in the middle is very impressive.
When you get back late in the day to Kyle, he seems flustered and frustrated. After calming, him down, you learn that the financial records are incomplete. Worse, Henderson has left and will be out of town until Monday. There’s nothing you both can do but stay through Sunday. Making the three hour drive back to Raleigh and then three hours again on Monday would be just as costly in terms of time and money as staying an extra night so you and Kyle enjoy a day of seafood and sun.
Henderson arrives late in the morning and it takes all afternoon to just get the necessary papers together. It isn’t because Henderson is uncooperative but his phone keeps ringing. You realize that he’s got a lot of irons in the fire. By the time Kyle gets the records in order, it’s 7:00 p.m. Henderson suggests that you and Kyle stay the night and have dinner with him. Kyle says no because he wants to go through the records one more time to make sure that he has everything that he will need but you figure, ‘What the heck.’
You and Henderson drive to the Land Ends restaurant. One look at the linen covered tables and silver place setting and you know that this place will cost more than the $15.00 you had allotted for dinner from your meal per diem, but you decide to pay the difference out of your pocket because you deserve it. It’s been a long day.
After a huge meal of steak and shrimp, baked potato loaded with everything, Caesar salad and chocolate cheesecake, the bill arrives. You start to take out your wallet, but Henderson stops you, “Whoa, your money’s no good here. It’s on me.”
Feeling a little embarrassed because you don’t want to insult Henderson’s generosity, you say, “Thanks, but I really can’t. We, at the Public Staff, have to go by strict guidelines and it’s absolutely against the state’s policy to accept anything from an applicant.”
Henderson laughs, “Oh come on, it’s just a meal.”
You say seriously, “Well, to you it’s just a meal but to someone else it might look like a gift to buy a favor from me. I just can’t let you pay for my meal.”
Henderson holds up his hands as if to surrender, “OK, OK, have it your way. Just trying to be friendly.”
As you pay you half of the check, you wonder how someone as business savvy as Henderson would not recognize the consequences of lobbying. But you realize that he probably has not read the Public Staff’s Operating Procedures manual since this is his first time dealing with the Utilities Commission’s application process. The manual’s Code of Conduct section explicitly defines lobbying practices and the Commission’s position on them.
The Next Morning
When you and Kyle arrive at the office on Tuesday morning to pay for your rooms, Pearl is there. You ask for the receipt. Pearl begins to rummage in her top desk drawer when you can see contains everything but the kitchen sink. After waiting what seems an eternity, she looks up and says, “Oh dear, now I remember. Eric left it on his desk.”
As she slowly gets up and at a snail’s pace goes into Henderson’s office, Kyle mutters to you, “I’d like to get back to Raleigh before next year.”
You nod in agreement but put on a patient smile. Pearl finally returns waving a piece of paper. “Here it is. Sorry to make you wait. My memory isn’t what it used to be. Um… Eric wrote complimentary on this. I guess you don’t owe anything.”
Smiling, she hands you the bill. Sure enough, in big red letter, COMPLIMENTARY, is scrawled across the bill. But something else catches your eye even more than the red ink. $1,600.00.
Shocked, you ask, “What’s this? $1,600.00? Mr. Henderson, Eric, said the rooms would be $85.00 a night each.”
Pearl, as confused as you, says, “$85.00? Why our cheapest condominium rents for no less than $100.00 a night. You were staying in the Boardwalk condo and your friend in the Park Place condo, which both rent for $200.00 a night. Eric loves Monopoly and he named all the condos after properties on the board. He even developed 28 units because that’s how many spaces are on a Monopoly board.”
Sitting down, she continues her monologue while you stand in stunned silence, “Of course, that doesn’t include the chance and community chest spaces or the free parking and got to jail, and well all the other spaces you can’t buy. Do you like to play Monopoly?”
Trying to hide your impatience and rising panic, you answer, “No, I mean, yes. Wait. There’s been some mistake.”
Kyle, who you now notice has sunk into a chair and is on the verge of hyperventilating, says, “That’s $920.00 of our own money. And that means I owe $460.00. I don’t have $460.00. I just bought a townhouse. My mortgage is…”
You interrupt his ranting by saying, “Get a grip man. There’s been a misunderstanding.”
Turning to Pearl, you say again, “There’s been a misunderstanding. Please call Mr. Henderson and let’s get this settled.”
As Pearl dials numerous numbers where Henderson might be, you look again at the bill. Like Kyle, you don’t have $460.00 extra lying around. You start figuring how many macaroni and cheese dinners you will have to eat to make up this unexpected expense.
Finally, Pearl reaches Henderson. She explains the situation and begins nodding as Henderson obviously gives her instructions.
Hanging up, she says, “Eric says to give you a receipt for $680.00, that’s $340.00 each. But you don’t need to pay anything. Your rooms are complimentary after all.”
Groaning, you say, “We can’t accept complimentary anything, much less pocket Public Staff’s money.”
Kyle is still muttering, “$460.00.”
You close your eyes and analyze the situation. Legally, you know that you have behaved correctly up to this point. You had communicated orally to Henderson what your per diem was, and you had not accepted a free meal from an applicant. Do you need to pay $1,600.00 for the four nights stay?
Decision made, you open your eyes and say to Pearl, “Mr. Henderson and I had agreed before we came that the rooms would be $85.00 a night each. Please write a receipt for $680.00 and we will pay it in full.”
Pearl looks indecisive but seeing your determination, she complies. After paying and with receipt in hand, you lead Kyle, still dazed, to the car and head back to Raleigh. On the way, you run the weekend and its ending through your mind. When you pull into your parking space, you know what you have to do
North Carolina Utilities Commission Document # W919-2 Operating Procedures
SECTION 4.0 – CODES OF CONDUCT
Each employee of the Utilities Commission must adhere to ethical standards of conduct. These standards ensure that all employees of the Commission must maintain high ideals and rigorous expectations of their individual conduct, as well as the conduct of other employees. The codes of conduct for each job category delineate the boundaries of acceptable behavior. If any of the codes are violated, immediate disciplinary action will be taken and if multiple violations occur the employee may face dismissal.
[Missing sections list specific conduct codes for other Commission job categories.] SECTION 4.6 – PUBLIC STAFF
The Public Staff’s primary purpose is to ensure that private, and public industries operate fairly and reasonably. Each division in the Public Staff has responsibilities to interact in good faith with all related parties. Each employee of the Public Staff must therefore be aware of and rigidly adhere to the codes of conduct for his or her job category. If violation of any code of conduct occurs, the offending employee may face immediate dismissal and the Commission maintains the right to take legal action against the employee.
SECTION 4.6.1 – DIRECTOR OF A PUBLIC STAFF DIVISION
It is the Director’s responsibility to maintain high ethical standards of all employees. The Director must not overlook any infraction of the codes of conduct. If any infraction occurs and goes unsanctioned, the Director may face immediate dismissal and the possibility of punitive legal action. The following codes of conduct must be adhered to:
• The Director must ensure that all Utilities Engineers are aware of and adhere to applicable codes of conduct.
• The Director must ensure that all employees maintain high ethical standards in conducting on-site investigations and recommending fair and reasonable returns for applicants and in responding to customers.
• When notified of any attempted lobbying by an applicant or customer, the Director must meet with the Utilities Engineer and review the nature of the influence and recommend future action. If repeated incidents of lobbying occur from the same applicant or customer, then the applicant or customer may face punitive legal action.
SECTION 4.6.2 – PUBLIC STAFF UTILITIES ENGINEER
The Utilities Engineer must interact with private and public industry applicants as well as with customers. No suspicion of favoritism will be tolerated. If any infraction occurs, the Utilities Engineer may face immediate dismissal and the possibility of punitive legal action. The following codes of conduct must be adhered to:
• Lobbying, in any form, will not be tolerated. NOTE: Lobbying, by definition, occurs when persons engage in influencing a public official to gain favor for their special interests. Lobbying can take the form of gifts, trips, or any unapproved expenditure made by applicants or customers to a Public Staff Engineer.
• If an applicant or customer attempts to influence a Utilities Engineer, the Director must be notified immediately.
• If a Utilities Engineer receives any gift from an applicant or customer it must be returned with an appropriate explanation regarding the Commission’s policy on lobbying.
Assignment – Impromptu Writing
Instructions: You may choose from two options to help facilitate the completion of your review of the Bluewater Resort rate increase application. Remember, your ultimate goal is to maintain a good working relationship with all parties involved.
Option 1: Write to Eric Henderson explaining why lobbying practices are unacceptable. Indicate that a copy is being sent to your manager, but take care to not make Henderson overly worried, or worse, defensive. You cannot prove that he was lobbying (you have no receipt from the weekend’s stay, and it is your word against his), so you do not want to accuse him of this even if you believe he was intentionally trying to influence your decision. This is the first time he has had dealings with the state so you want to help him in his future interactions. Since this is an external audience, think about what the proper format would be for your written communication.
Option 2: Write to Ms. Mims. You have two purposes here. First, you explicitly need to notify her of your suspicions of potential lobbying by an applicant, and how you plan to resolve this situation. Do not accuse Henderson directly of lobbying since you cannot prove this, but be sure to point out that you are adhering to the Code of Conduct.
Second, you need to implicitly justify the long weekend, and to have her know that you are doing a good job for the Utilities Commission. You want to leave Mims assured that you have everything under control. Mims is a bottom-line type person so think about the tone you will take with her. Also, she is an internal audience so the format of your document should reflect this.
Assignment Submission: I do not want you to take over 60 minutes to complete this assignment. You are on your honor here. The 60 minutes starts when you begin to write Assignment 6. You are free to read the case or assignment over as many times as you want before the time starts.
• Write a rough outline and/or draft first. Be sure to think about what we have worked on this semester from opening paragraphs, proper letter or memo formats, and reader-centered writing. Do not go beyond the timeline of the Bluewater Resort case (i.e., do not say you have approved the rate increase, etc.).
• Do not make up anything, and use the addresses below as they apply to the option that you choose:
General Manager, Bluewater Resort
121 North Carolina Avenue
Baltic Beach, NC 27959
Director of the Public Staff, NCUC
P.O. Box 626
Raleigh, NC 27626