Q. I am the head of a small consulting firm. A key project of one of our customers has just become late because of insufficient attention by its management. This may seem like it shouldn't be our business, but this customer's continued well-being depends on the successful completion of this project. If it fails, we'll lose a source of business.

We have raised this issue with the engineering manager, who is our direct contact at this company, but to no avail. He devotes very little time to this project, despite its importance. He seems far more preoccupied with his political status at the company.

If we were employees of this company, I would feel we had an obligation to bring this situation to the attention of top management. However, we are not; we are only consultants.

What is our obligation? Should we press this issue more aggressively with the engineering manager or should we approach his boss -- an even riskier move in my view. Or should we be quiet and just stick to our engineering?

A. Test your potential actions this way: Suppose that the worst actually happens, and your client runs into trouble. If it then becomes known that you were aware of its problems early on, but kept quiet, could you explain and justify your inaction to its top management?

If the answer is no, you should escalate your concerns. Do so, however, completely straightforwardly. Ask the engineering manager to arrange a meeting between you and his boss. Tell him that you have concerns about how well the latter understands your work in the context of the status of their project. Explain that this understanding is extremely important to your company's financial well-being and therefore you must make sure it's there. There is no question that this move has risks, but so will the alternative.

Q. I was recently laid off. The official reason given was the downsizing of our company. The real reason is something else.

I had worked for a top executive for several years. I moved upward with him through several of his promotions. A year ago, he was suddenly removed from his position and replaced with a manager from outside the company.

His replacement believed in sweeping clean with a broom as he immediately laid off those people who worked closely with the ex-boss. I lasted a year longer than the others, but it was rough because the new boss was indifferent to me and would not try to develop a close working relationship.

What do you think of the practice of sweeping clean? I find this practice very unfair to employees who contribute to their company. Besides, good employees aren't going to jeopardize their jobs by not being loyal to their new boss.

I am also wondering what I should tell prospective employers about the circumstances of my being laid off.

A. First, about sweeping clean after a new top person comes in ...

I think this is a bad practice for all concerned. As you point out, it's not fair to the employees being "swept" away. Beyond that, I think the new manager hurts himself or herself and the company with such a move.

One of the more difficult aspects of taking over another person's position is to develop a feel for the organization -- its practices, people, peculiarities, traditions -- quickly. The new person may be a crackerjack manager, but it will take time and a knowledge of the local scene before his or her skills can reach full effectiveness in the new environment.

The old staff can be a wonderful bridge, providing an institutional memory for the new boss. New bosses who don't use this bridge damage their own chances of success.

As to what you should tell prospective employers -- the truth. Unfortunately, this practice is widespread enough that you won't have any problems convincing other managers that this indeed happened to you.

A reader responds: "About a month ago, you responded to a person who worked under a very difficult and abusive boss. Your advice was to push back and not take abuse.

"I worked in a similar situation. My supervisor never gave compliments. Whenever she spoke highly of anyone, it was of herself. She constantly talked and laughed with her favorite employees but was rude and demanding of the others. Many complaints have been lodged about her, but no action was ever taken by management, even though there was 100 percent turnover in her department over 1 1/2 years.

"Luckily, I had a different opportunity, and I took it. Before I left, I pushed back exactly as you advised. The result was that I realized that she was really a coward. I felt good inside, and I left with my pride intact.

"However, I feel sorry for those who stayed behind. In this company, pushing back -- or doing the right thing in other ways -- would often get you put on the wrong list."

Good advice, but will it really work in this day and time?

A. In what day and time was standing up for what's right easy or safe? A reader responds: "You recently responded to a question about an assistant who was often tardy in a punctual office. Your answer -- to throw the book at her -- is terrible.

"What is this place, anyway? A prison? A railroad where there is a schedule to keep? Come on, it's nearly the 21st century, not the 19th.

"We don't operate mill towns and sweatshops anymore. Today's working woman (yes, I am guessing it's a woman) is more than likely also a homemaker or a student.

"Your writer should find out why her assistant is late and work toward a possible solution, such as flex time or a change to part-time status or some other remedy. Don't hold an employee to an arbitrarily set standard, like a starting time."

I wonder if you would be this understanding if you had to wait in an office for the employees to drift in after they have attended to whatever personal difficulties they may have encountered that morning.

Somehow, I doubt it.

Our complex society can work only if each of us adopts a measure of personal discipline and keeps commitments in the face of various obstacles.

Is that easy? No. But if we require it of others who serve us, we must require it of ourselves as we serve others.

Andrew Grove is chief executive of Intel Corp. of Santa Clara, Calif., and an author and lecturer on management. Please send questions to him in care of the San Jose Mercury News, Business News Department, 750 Ridder Park Dr., San Jose, Calif. 95190.