Get answers to your most pressing business ethics-related questions.
Expanding on our mission to curate and distill ethics research for the business community, Ethical Systems has launched a new initiative soliciting questions to submit to one of our esteemed collaborators.
Selected questions and answers will be featured here and in the subsequent month’s newsletter. Use the form below to submit your questions and explore our schedule of experts and previous Q&A’s below.
|Collaborator||Title, Research and Work||Selected Questions
April / May 2018
Q1) I think of myself as an introvert but my new position is much more client facing than my previous position. What can I do to make sure that my disposition is not seen as a hindrance in closing deals and keeping our customers loyal?
It is also important to remember that preference is not competence. Although extroverted behaviors may not come as naturally for you, this does not mean that you are not capable of them. Rather, extroverted behaviors, such as lots of client interaction or public speaking, are likely to require more intention, mindfulness, deliberate skill-building, and take more of your energy. And you may need some additional downtime or alone time to recover from a boatload of “front facing” and client interaction.
The philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “Every individual nature has its own beauty.” How might you leverage your more natural gifts in this client-facing position? For example, most introverts are excellent listeners, and clients value greatly being heard and understood. When clients experience us as understanding their needs, they are likely to “buy” rather than to feel “sold.” As the saying goes, we all like to buy but don’t want to be sold. Leverage your natural strengths for being more reflective and attuned to clients. Be authentic in using your unique gifts and skills.
Likewise, remember you are a complex human being with a myriad of traits and skills. For example, regarding other personality traits and emotional intelligence, how warmly do you come across? How do you manage stress and worry? Are you usually resilient and optimistic? What about your traits of perseverance and diligence in delivering in a timely way to your clients? Be sure to leverage your full suite of strengths in your new role.
Lastly, ask your clients and your manager for feedback on your performance in your role and how you can better meet their needs. Asking for and accepting feedback, no matter what behavioral competency is sought, is a fundamental way to manage performance, especially when taking on a new role and new responsibilities. Asking for feedback also shows openness and innate confidence, which is helpful to building trust with clients and with your new boss.
Q2) By most accounts the CEO and founder of our company is kind, professional and well-intentioned. At each company meeting, a great deal of time is devoted to extolling our company values. Recently we raised an obscene amount of money (even though we were told this wouldn’t be necessary for a while) from a Middle Eastern country’s sovereign fund. Since practically every headline and deed from that country contradicts my values do I just quit? I would almost prefer to sandbag my performance there to do harm to the country’s “investment” although it would hurt my co-workers. I feel it rises to an act of complicity to continue working w/ this hypocritical group. How do I reconcile my ideals and the values of the company here?
A2) Your question raises more questions for me than answers so I will begin with those. First, you use the language “by most accounts” when referring to the CEO’s behaviors and values—are there differing accounts of the CEO’s behavior that lead you to question the perceptions of the CEO? Have you had direct experiences with the CEO that contradict a reputation as “kind, professional and well-intentioned”?
I am concerned as well about your use of the term “extolling” in describing the discussion of company values in meetings. It is, of course, different to reinforce the importance of company values or to ensure decisions are in alignment with company values than it is to use meetings simply to pat the company on the back or to brag about company values. It is critical that values not be simply a “plaque on the wall.” Your description here implies this may be the case. Are the company’s values reflected in company actions most of the time?
On that note, I wonder whether this recent fundraising opportunity from a Middle Eastern country’s sovereign fund is part of a pattern of questionable fundraising decisions or is an isolated event (regardless of the amount of money involved). One “bad” investor does not necessarily a “bad” company make. People make mistakes and so do companies. What rationale was given by the senior management or board for accepting this money? What will the money be used for? Are there expectations that the investor has for the money’s use?
Are there ways to express your concerns about this type of fundraising or investment going forward? Is it possible to have an impact on the longer-term direction of fundraising activities—to help ensure the ethics of future fundraising decisions? Whether you believe overall that the CEO’s, the company’s board, and senior management’s decisions are in line with company’s values may affect whether you stay and work to be part of the solution or you leave the company.
Staying to “sandbag” your performance and thereby hurt your co-workers, the company and potentially the country’s “investment” seems a more clearly morally wrong choice. It is an indirect and destructive way to express your values and beliefs rather than a constructive and empowered one. I would also be concerned about the impact of such a choice on your psyche going forward—behaving in hostile and cynical ways can affect how we view ourselves and others, making us more cynical and mistrustful. While you don’t know that it would damage the country’s investment, as you say it would likely harm people whom you care about. Even from the most self-interested perspective, deliberately performing poorly could hurt your future job prospects and reputation. It takes a long time to build a solid reputation, but it is easy to destroy one.
Ideally, you may find a way to express constructively your vigorous disagreement with this decision and your wish to ensure the company not make similar choices in the future. You can look for opportunities to contribute where possible to better fundraising choices in the future and better alignment with company values. Alternatively, you choose to leave the company responsibly and respectfully, while communicating why you are making this choice and your disappointment that this must be your decision.
As a final note, respectfully, there is a hint of “moral superiority” that comes across in the way you asked your question. While we must take strong moral stands at times, I would argue that our decisions need to be “grounded” in humility. Humility comes from the root word “humus” from the Latin meaning “of the earth.” A humble mindset can help inform our moral choices and reminds us that we are all human.
Q3) Lately I have been worried about alignment, specifically that of my team. As the group director, my creative ideas have been dismissed without explanation. It seems like my team is undermining my vision for future product spinoffs. Essentially, I feel like a mutiny is imminent. Can you help me identify ways to strike a better balance and gain more authority?
A3) When a team is high performing with proper alignment among team members and with the organizational mission, vision, and strategy, there is a minimal focus on ego, status, and or personality-style differences. Your question raises some issues regarding how your team is functioning. The first question is how your team handles conflict. Conflict about ideas (including creative ones) is usually healthy for teams while personal disagreements, especially mean-spirited attacks, are not. Vigorous and even heated debate of ideas is positive if at times uncomfortable. It concerns me that you are experiencing the problem as “your ideas” versus “the team’s” ideas. What happens when you ask for clarification when you feel that your ideas are dismissed? If the team can debate ideas and convince you on merit that a different direction makes sense, then the team’s approach may simply be better than yours. Such an outcome may indicate that you have succeeded in creating a team that can hash out possibilities to choose the best idea. A strong capacity for conflict around ideas is an essential quality of high-performing teams.
If on the other hand, there are personal issues at play, these need to be aired out. What is essential to becoming a high performing team is to build trust within the team. And for trust to exist, teams must develop what Amy Edmondson called “psychological safety.” When psychological safety is present on a team, team members can safely put forth ideas, knowing that their ideas will be taken seriously and that they won’t get thrown under the bus. For whatever reasons, it does not seem that you feel psychologically safe on your own team. As the group director, you can be a role model for openness and vulnerability by adopting an attitude of curiosity about why the team is so often going in a different direction than you are. Ask your team for direct feedback. However, you must sincerely want this input or individuals on the team may not have the courage to give it to you.
You may wish to revisit some of the basics of how to build trust on the team, to explore how the team wants ideally to handle conflict, and how decisions should get made. For instance, regarding decision making, is it a majority rule, do you the leader make the ultimate decision with the input from the team, or does the team seek consensus? As Pat Lencioni, who wrote “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” said, to get “buy-in” from everyone on the team about a decision, everyone needs to “weigh in.” Ideas need to be thoroughly debated so everyone’s view is genuinely considered and the best idea wins.
There are indeed teams that operate from a “command and control” approach, but these teams do not harness the full creative power of the group. While the team may decide to go an alternate route than with your “creative idea,” you should not feel that your ideas are summarily “dismissed,” nor should any member of the team experience this. I recommend that you get greater clarity on how you would like the team to handle decision-making, that you revisit issues of trust and psychological safety, and that you explore ideal ways to manage conflict. A combination of team building and team coaching may be worth considering.
February / March 2018
Q1) I am planning on leaving my job in the next month or so, but I am due to receive a bonus in about a month. I know that I will receive it even though I have only worked at the company for the past few months. How soon after I receive the bonus is it ok to quit?
A1) Well, as is the case with most things…it depends. Mostly on why you are leaving after being there for such a short time. Any company that guarantees a bonus to someone so new can’t be all bad. But since you will have presumably earned it during the months you worked, the real ethical focus should be on “how” you leave. It’s important not to use your exit to “make a statement.” Too many disgruntled workers leave angry the minute a bonus check clears, leaving employers in a lurch or leaving a vacuum of work capacity for others to fill.
If you have flexibility on your timing, work with your boss to make the transition as non-disruptive to the organization as possible. In a world that grows smaller by the day, people you think you may never see again can wind up as future clients, or bosses years down the line. Always work to leave any organization on the best terms possible. Unless there has been mutual dissatisfaction, it’s likely your employer will be quite surprised at your early exit. If you are leaving for a better opportunity, don’t be surprised if you get some blowback. It takes time and money to fill jobs, and leaving after only a few months warrants a good reason.
You also need to recognize your personal reputational risks. At some point, you’re going to have to explain the short stint on your resume. If future employers view you as a “job hopper” then you will be scrutinized cautiously for future opportunities. If you are leaving because the job/environment/boss are not as they were represented to you, then you should be honest about that so the company can learn from it.
Q2) I stand to take over my uncle’s company in the next 3 years- possibly sooner given recent medical conditions. I have my MBA and I know a good deal of the people on the board (family and friends mostly) but I have a lot of ideas about how to take the company in a new direction. My questions are: Can I start promoting my strategic change now and, if not, should I even think about trying to shift the company when I come on board?
A2) In my book Rising to Power, these are precisely the transitions we discuss. You should be very cautious in signaling major change before you’ve taken the helm. Your first priority should be to build/re-define your relationships with the Board, and get used to being in “that chair.” If you really do have 3 years before you take over, use that as a VERY luxurious preparation time. Test small aspects of your ideas to see how receptive people are to your thinking, how effective you are at painting a picture of change, and how adaptable the organization is to transition. Most leaders, especially in family-owned businesses changing generational hands, are very naïve about what’s required to take the reins, especially if your Uncle was also the founder. Every organization requires change. Anything you desire to do must be grounded in solid strategy undergirded by good data.
You can use the next 3 years, or however long you have, to start exploring strategic alternatives, growth opportunities, getting deep understanding of the competitive landscape, and testing your thinking with future direct reports. This is the chance to win the confidence of others, let them see your thoughtfulness and openness to others’ ideas. If you look like a cowboy coming in to “whip things into shape,” you’ll lose the organization before you get near the job.
If those who are your peers today will one day be your direct reports, those are important relationships to keep strong. If it’s “known” that you’re the heir apparent, be very judicious in how you talk about it. If your Uncle hasn’t disclosed you’re his successor, even more important to be cautious and avoid signaling your rise to the throne. Take as much advantage as you can, given your Uncle’s health, of the opportunity to learn from him, glean his insights, and thinking. Doesn’t mean you have to apply all that you hear, but you can benefit from his wisdom.
One of the biggest causes of family business failure in second and third generation transitions is the degree to which new regimes depart to far from the founding “DNA” of the original entrepreneur, and in the process of creating change, destroy the “secret sauce” that made the organization great. The flip side is also true – new regimes try too hard to replicate past success, and miss market timing and disruptions demanding adaptation (though that’s one you don’t sound to be at risk for).
The most important thing you need to prepare for is the requirement to orchestrate any transformational change with intentionality, and data. You don’t want to wreak havoc in your first year once you have the role.
Q3) I work at an organization that is growing really quickly. I was employee 4 and we now have 35 people on staff. My CEO wants me to help mentor new employees and I am happy to do so but a little worried. How do I make sure I communicate our values- and my values if they will be on my team- effectively? Or, is this a job for HR?
A3) Managing the scaling of a startup that is growing rapidly is an art. What’s important is that there is a cohesive and shared approach for onboarding new talent, and “transmitting” the DNA of the organization to new entrants. If there is no coherent organization design for the current 35 people, much less the future arrivals, to step into, then it will feel like mayhem, and anything you say about the culture will feel contradictory to their experience. So it’s important for all of the leaders reporting to the CEO to have worked out a common approach (messaging, methods, ideology) for how to onboard, and how you intend to scale.
Standardization is often a dirty word at this stage, but so critical to ensure you are scaling, not just growing. Too often, organization’s your size confuse the two, adding hidden costs at the same rate as revenues. There is no replacement for the work of leadership – shaping future talent of the organization, and preparing them to be successful in your fast-growth environment. Never relegate that to HR. But if you’re doing it differently than your peers are doing it, then you’ll end up with an organization that looks like someone who had way too much nip and tuck cosmetic surgery – where people feel like they work for a confused, multiple-personality organization.
If you’ve never “mentored” people in an onboarding situation, there are plenty of great resources out there you can important, and use to shape your company’s common approach. Don’t “make it up as you go.” You are building the foundation on which your 100th, 200th, 500th employee will eventually step onto. It’s worth building it strong, and pliably so that you can continue enjoying the privilege and responsibility of fast growth.
December 2017 / January 2018
Q1) I have recently seen several instances where people are punished professionally when they post their opinions on social media. Some of them have been about political issues, but not all. Shouldn’t we as employees be able to preserve in the workplace our right to free expression? It seems to me unfair to fire someone for talking politics.
A1) There have been some prominent recent examples of employees being fired as a result of their social media postings, or even from others’ postings about the employee’s off-the-job speech or conduct. For example, a Virginia company recently fired a woman after a picture of her making an obscene gesture at the President’s motorcade went viral.
Many companies have social media policies that regulate an employee’s on and off-the-job conduct. The New York Times, for example, to preserve its journalistic reputation, prohibits journalists from expressing political views online. Other company’s policies are less focused on principles of neutrality or independence, and are designed simply to prevent behavior embarrassing or commercially harmful to them. Businesses, after all, want to avoid potential loss of business by employing or retaining staff that might offend current or potential customers. These days, it is often easy to find out where most people work.
That a business has a good commercial reason for its policy does not mean the policy itself is good however. In our increasingly polarized culture, many employees feel compelled to express their views, and these feelings can be easily voiced to thousands or more with a single click. In our hyper-partisan and hyper-connected environment, it is important that businesses make their social media policy known to its employees, so the employees can make informed choices about their behavior and whether to remain with their employer.
Social media or “outside behavior” policies should be crafted with care, however. Businesses that value and benefit from the exchange of ideas by diverse people with a diversity of viewpoints could suffer by a policy that discourages the expression of views on particular topics, in or outside of work. Respectful dialogue should be promoted, but even or especially in business, good listening and the good insights that might flow from that will be thwarted if the speech is not permitted in the first place, or if the business culture becomes a reflection of a single viewpoint.
By the way, the First Amendment only prevents government restraint on speech and does not prohibit private employers from firing an employee because of their speech or conduct.
Q2) Over the past two decades, we have seen a flurry of new laws in the U.S. designed to reduce unethical behavior in the workplace — including the Dodd-Frank Act, and Sarbanes-Oxley. Which elements do you think have been most effective? Which laws do you wish we could import from Europe or other markets to help guide more ethical conduct?
A2) Sarbanes-Oxley’s (SOX) requirement that corporate executives of publicly traded companies to personally certify the accuracy of financial statements upon threat of criminal sanction has been effective in improving the accuracy of financial statements and reducing the number of required restatements. SOX’s requirement for a Code of Conduct has also been surprisingly effective in the long run. Although initially many companies merely adopted a generic Code in a check-the-box effort, more and more companies now attempt to integrate the principles of their ethics codes into daily corporate life. And although not required, many private companies have chosen to comply with the good ideas in SOX for governance and internal control structures.
As it relates to ethical conduct generally though, I think the US Federal Sentencing Guidelines (FSG) has been the biggest driver in reducing unethical behavior. Its requirement to promote an “organizational culture that encourages ethical conduct” brought the concept of ethical culture to the forefront for many public and private US businesses. Since ethical conduct flows naturally from ethical culture, businesses that work to achieve and maintain an ethical culture should benefit from fewer scandals and loss.
Although the US has long had an anti-bribery law in the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), other countries have enacted newer laws with provisions that should be considered. Although lawful under the FCPA, many countries, for example, wisely prohibit the “grease” or facilitation payments made to “speed things along” that are permitted under the US law. The UK anti-bribery regime includes corporate liability for failing to prevent a bribe from occurring, which has obviously stimulated efforts by UK corporate leaders to implement a strong anticorruption program. France’s new anticorruption law similarly requires large businesses to design and implement programs to detect and prevent corruption.
As a pragmatic matter, multinational US firms with a significant presence in these countries have had to respond to these provisions regardless. Many other US businesses have programs of this nature too, either to comport with the FSGs, with the Federal Acquisition Regulations if they are government contractors, or hopefully, as a best practice.
Q3) My father in law is pretty high up at his company. It’s not a family business, but now that I am “part of the family” he wants to bring me on to the leadership team. I have a great track record of success in my current role, which is likely part of why he is interested in working with me as well. I like my current job but it is an enticing offer. If I decide to join him, how do I make it known at the new company it is because of my resume and not my relationship with him?
A3) As you probably know from your own experience, employees are far more interested in what you do than in what you say. Sadly, there is probably little you can say that will be convincing, and those who know you are related to a senior official may think that your relationship is at least one reason why you were hired. I would think that!
Nevertheless, I do have a few pragmatic suggestions. First, be sure you have a publicly available resume, perhaps on LinkedIn or another widely used platform, where your new colleagues might look that will highlight your credentials and successes. And once you are at your new job, demonstrate your competence. Listen well to those around you, offer suggestions from your experience, and work hard. By performing well, people around you will see that you are qualified, even if they still believe you were hired in part because of your connections.
I would avoid name-dropping your father-in-law in conversations though. And having private lunches with him would be a bad idea.
Q1) I work in accounting in a company that I think values honesty and integrity. However, I have a colleague who regularly admits that he bends the rules in his personal life (such as his taxes), although he has never said he does anything bad on the job. How do I draw the line between the personal and the professional? I worry that his unscrupulousness, if it does bleed into our accounting practices, could torpedo our company’s efforts (and reputation). In general, should we think about ethics differently in our professional vs. personal lives?
A1) There are two main issues here. First, is the behavior an ethical violation worth termination, and second, if it is, should you tell your boss? Whistleblowing is complex, risky, and often unrewarded. Max Bazerman (Ask an Expert, May 2017) provides some thoughts in his column that may help you consider the whistleblowing aspect of this scenario. In the meantime, let’s determine how to view the accountant’s behavior in the first place….Nobody is perfect, but I do think there are grounds for concern in this case. Some of that rule-breaking sounds serious, illegal, and especially ironic for an accountant.
If I were forced to make a choice, I’d prefer that my surgeon cheat on taxes rather than my accountant. My Yale colleague agreed and smartly remarked, “But would you hire an accountant who cheats on his/her golf score?” Not so sure. Not if there were other accountants to hire instead. Another concern is that your co-worker seems to be bragging about these violations (or at least not sufficiently embarrassed about them). The fact that you know about these violations is a red flag on its own and signals that violations might be rampant. I mean, how differently would you feel if you discovered this behavior on your own instead? You said he “regularly admits” these violations. Yikes.
You may find it helpful to engage in some perspective-taking here. If you were him, how would you expect this to be handled? Would he appreciate a friendly nudge/warning shot to help him correct his behavior? Does he deserve that warning?
If you were his boss, what do you think should happen? Consider this perspective as well: if you were hiring an accountant, would this behavior not be grounds for withholding the job? Perhaps his behavior seems “difficult” to assess only because he is already in the door and because the pain of whistleblowing motivates you to view this as more permissible than it really is.
The fact that it is bothering you enough for you to submit this question to an ethics forum also hints at how to view the behavior: Yikes!
You ask: Should we think about ethics differently in our professional vs. personal lives?
I do not think that you can separate ethics in your personal vs. professional life. Integrity does not have an on/off switch. I often tell a story of a student who raised her hand on day one of my business ethics class at Carnegie Mellon. She asked if “business ethics” was an oxymoron, like “jumbo shrimp.” She insisted that she was ethical in her personal life but not in her “dog-eat-dog” workplace. Specifically, she wondered if ethics had no place in business, insisting that she had to compete all waking hours just to “stay afloat.” I retorted that if all she does is work and sleep, and if she is not ethical at work, then she was literally only ethical in her dreams. My point was that work is often the place where we have the most societal impact; if you can’t bring your ethical values to work, where can you bring them?
This all points back to integrity. As another Yale colleague of mine suggested, “Somebody who misreports taxes is clearly lacking in relevant virtues for accounting or at least doesn’t practice those virtues in some roles. People love the word ‘integrity,’ but they don’t use it in its true sense, which is being an integrated, not split, person.” I agree. Cheating on one’s taxes is a red flag, and bragging about doing so is another red flag. Does this make him a bad person? Perhaps not. My point is that this behavior seems especially inconsistent with what it means to be “a good accountant.” Good accountants do not do that.
Q2) I work in marketing for a mid-size company (about 3,000 employees). I often feel like I am misleading customers in my work. I don’t say anything false in our ads or media pieces, but I know our products, for example, are not as good as our competitors. I feel conflicted. I want to help the company succeed, and I know this is the norm in marketing, but how do I balance my internal thoughts on this?
A2) The answer is finding positivity in your work while maintaining your integrity.
To start, let’s consider the first positive and most simple solution. Perhaps the flaws of your products are fairly reflected in their price. Why are people are buying your products? Hopefully your products are good on some dimension, or else no one would buy them.
That said, you still need to keep your integrity at the end of the day. You have one life to live. If you frequently possess this feeling of being “conflicted,” or if feel like you are living separate lives at work and at home, perhaps you have already done enough looking at the bright side of the job.
Again, the fact that you are posing this question in a forum such as this one is revealing. It suggests that this job is eating you up inside and splitting you apart. What would you tell your son or daughter to do if he or she grew up to face the same situation? I think I know what you would say, and I think you do too…
Q1. Is it unethical to ask several vendors for quotes then go back to one or two of them to see if they can beat the lowest price? If so, why? My peers believe that it is just a negotiating tactic or good business sense to get the lowest price.
A1. I worry that, as an ethics researcher, it’s never good practice to claim to be a moral arbiter. I can help people ask questions that help them arrive at their own understanding of morally complex situations, but it can be displacement of responsibility to ask someone in a position of authority or expertise to give a definitive judgment about whether an action is right or wrong.
Q2. I believe that my work should be aligned with my values. But my boss is a fan of cutting corners- especially on keeping details about every business expense and maintaining current records. This makes me really nervous because I love my job and dont want to see the company suffer. How can I shift the culture to be more acceptable and oriented towards my personal standards?
A2. The sad truth is that, ultimately, we are the only person over whose actions we have complete control (and even that is debatable). But the optimistic truth is that, to paraphrase Ghandi, when we are the change we want to see in the world, the world changes in that direction. Positive change is hard, especially in contexts where others act differently. By and large, people act in the way that they believe others around them are acting (rather than in the way they believe they ought to act, if they were acting as their best self). But people also follow others who set positive examples, so long as there is at least one person who is willing to go first.
Regardless of what others are doing, you can keep current records and record every business expense for yourself. It will set a standard and provide a model that others will follow. Modeling is one of the most compelling sources of social influence inside any organization. Ultimately, you can create your own center of gravity, culturally speaking, with the power to shift the culture towards your personal standards.
Q3. The current US administration is influencing norms across the country, I believe, in a manner detrimental to ethics and trust. I fear it may influence companies to think, or act, more brazenly. Is there anything I can do as a person to help my company and slow this wider change?
A3. You are not alone in this belief. The actual Ghandi quote I referred to in my response to the last question is this: “We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. We need not wait to see what others do.” For me, this quote speaks to the dangers and opportunities the current U.S. administration provides. Danger, because the [negative, racist, exclusionary, and potentially violent] tendencies in the world are reflected by others. But there is opportunity as well, because as we change ourselves, the world also changes. I do believe that every one of our actions matter. The respect and kindness with which we treat those whom we encounter matters. Enough people acting respectfully and kindly and honorably does change the world. That may sound fluffy, but think about how consumers responded to the morally problematic actions of Uber, its CEO, and members of its board: their collective efforts this year deeply affected the leadership and strategic direction of that company.
July / August 2017
Q1. Is it okay to pay two different people different amounts for doing identical work?
A1. I’ll take “okay” to mean both moral and wise.
Is it moral to pay people differently for the same work? The answer, to the extent there is one, depends heavily on circumstance, social norms and intent. It is pretty standard practice to pay people less for the same work if they live in Vietnam rather than Chicago, if they live in Peoria rather than Silicon Valley, or if they have only a year of seniority rather than a decade. People justify these differences by living standards, costs of housing and reward for loyal service, and I doubt you’d face many accusations of immorality these days. But it’s hard to find any timeless principle here. Long ago it was viewed as moral to pay men more than women because “they have to support a family”. That argument is rarely viewed as good moral justification in developed countries these days, and arguments based on location and seniority may soon be viewed the same way we now view most pay differences driven by gender, race, ethnicity, appearance, or personal relationships: as morally questionable.
Is it wise to pay people differently for the same work? Here it helps to distinguish between moral philosophy and moral sentiment. Moral philosophy seeks to identify broad rules for what is and is not morally justified. Moral sentiment simply describes what angers people. Given that you are asking, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that people get very angry when they are paid less for the same job. This reaction seems to be broadly shared with our animal brethren; take a look at this video of a Capuchin monkey who gets a boring cucumber for a simple task, and then sees her neighbor get a tasty grape for the exact same task. Her retaliation and demotivation are pretty typical of what you can expect from a human in the same situation.
Q2. As a financial advisor, how can I balance the expectations of my firm to recommend their funds versus the needs of my clients? Sometimes they are divergent but I know I have a duty to the company to push their products.
A2. I find it helpful to distinguish investment vehicles according to their profile and their quality. Vehicles vary in when they pay off, how liquid they are, how risky they are overall, and which risks they hedge. Do they move with or against the stock market, gold prices, or real estate? Vehicles that meet the same profile just described can still vary in quality due to different commissions or expected returns. It is hard to be ethical when selling someone a vehicle that has a poor profile for the client, or that has lower quality than another vehicle with the same profile. At a minimum, you would have to disclose those facts and your conflict of interest. Even these disclosures have limited value—research shows that they are often ignored, and that sellers often view their disclosure as license to push their own interest even harder. After all, they were upfront about it!
Conflicts of interest pop up everywhere; your goal should be to make sure yours isn’t too extreme. I once went door to door trying to sell overpriced vacuum cleaners. I found I couldn’t in good conscience persuade families to buy a vacuum cleaner that didn’t suit their needs (poor profile) and that was worse than competitors offering similar products (poor quality). I quit, but I wasn’t a very good salesman anyway. That might be a much harder choice for you, especially if you are making a lot of money. But it might still be the moral one. It is far easier to be moral if your company sells a wide range of profiles of high quality. If you can’t, you have a moral quandary, and you will need to share far more detail with a trusted advisor than you have given me.
Q3. My boss thinks mistakes at work are a result of poor character or morals. Her statements in several meetings support this. But often her directions are confusing and now morale is low. How do my colleagues and I shift the culture without her input or help my boss understand that she is contributing to a bad work atmosphere?
A3. Here’s the easy part: your boss is wrong. While some people are more competent or moral than others, circumstances have far more influence in who makes mistakes and acts immorally. Take a look at the famous Milgram experiment, where subjects were asked to shock people to test whether such negative feedback would help them learn. Even though it was all a ruse (no one was actually being shocked), these studies provide clear evidence that people are heavily influenced by their setting, not their character. The “fraud triangle” pushes this insight a little further: people behave badly when they are pressured to do so, can find opportunities to get away with it, and operate in a culture that makes it easy to rationalize bad behavior. Psychologists would probably say that your boss is suffering from the ‘fundamental attribution bias’, attributing bad behavior to people’s natures rather than their circumstances.
Here’s the hard part: you need to help your boss improve your circumstances without inducing too much resistance. This becomes a matter of diplomacy. I strongly recommend the book Difficult Conversations, as well as the simple advice to focus on what changes will help, rather than on who is to blame for past problems.
Q4. I am about to take over my family business after heading sales for the past 8 years and we have used the same accountant forever. Lately, his work has been subpar and my Uncle mentioned that the books show we are losing money despite growing demand for our products. How do I, as the incoming CEO, make sure our accountant is doing right by us and acting ethically?
A4. Before getting into ethics, let’s talk accounting. It is very common for companies to experience growing demand and losses! That will happen when you are underpricing your products, when you are struggling to find efficiencies at high volume, or any number of other reasons. Before presuming that your accountant is incompetent, inattentive or unethical, ask your own people why you are losing money despite growing demand. Your production folks might well respond “we are paying a bundle in overtime to meet demand”, or “we are paying a bundle to rework quality issues, because we can’t keep up.” Your salesforce might well respond that sales are easy because all of your competitors have raised their prices and you haven’t. Your human resources manager might well respond that you are paying a lot more for training, turnover, or travel. None of these are failings of your accountant, unless you count on them to identify the causes of poor performance (rather than the usual outside accountant’s job of simply making sure they are reporting results accurately). But if everyone is mystified, there might be something inappropriate going on among your employees or your accountant.
If your employees give you good direction on where to look, ask your accountant to look there. If they are mystified, I’d still recommend you do that, unless you have good reason to think that your accountant is misbehaving or simply “subpar”.
Whether or not that exercise leaves you unsatisfied with your accountant, I don’t see any moral issues here. You don’t owe a moral duty to retain your accountant. It sounds like your accountant is being less attentive than before (and embezzlement is always an outside possibility), but your real problem is probably that your growing business needs someone who does more than make sure records are kept accurately. You need someone who will tell you which parts of the business are going well or poorly, and where you should make changes. That’s a lot more expensive than just getting the records right, and you might need to pay your current accountant more, or find someone else who will take on this additional work. I have a free eBook I use with my Executive MBA students that provides a lot of advice on these matters: What Counts and What Gets Counted. Take a look.
Q1. I am in sales for a large firm and I read that one potential client in my territory has recently been cited for an FCPA violation. But, they want to place a huge order with me and I am the only rep in the
A1. This is a challenging situation. On one hand, it would be great to have this new client for financial reasons. On the other hand, it may go against a core principle. When I am in these types of situations I try to not engage in what psychologists call motivated moral reasoning. Motivated moral reasoning means that when wrestling with an ethical dilemma, we often come to the moral conclusion that is in line with our own self-interest. So, whenever you feel like a particular moral conclusion also benefits you personally, it is useful to reach out to neutral others for feedback.
In terms of your specific situation, I would ask myself several questions. First, is the FCPA violation for something substantive? Is it common for large firms to have some violations or is this an outlier? If it is a large violation then you may consider avoiding a relationship with this client. Second, could there be reputational costs from being aligned with this firm? If this firm has a history of unethical actions what might be the spillover effect on your business? There is research on stigma-by-association suggesting their bad actions can rub off on you and/or your firm. Or, perhaps there is not much of a reputational cost. It is important to consider whether this firms’ actions may damage perceptions of your company’s core values. Third, are you setting a precedent? We know research on the slippery slope of ethical decision making tells us that a small unethical decision can lead to more costly unethical decisions in the future. Only you know the specifics of this firm, their violation and your business but by asking yourself these questions and avoiding certain moral biases you should be able to make the best possible decision for the long term.
Q2. I was CCed on an email containing salary information of my colleagues. I saw that one of my teammates is making more than I am but they have less responsibility than I do. Can I use this info to my advantage and renegotiate my compensation?
A2. Sometimes ignorance is bliss. It is tough when you find out a coworker is better compensated than you (and with less responsibility nonetheless). Your reaction is consistent with what we would expect
The first thing to figure out is your BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement). Let’s assume you go to your boss and say this compensation is unfair and the conversation does not go well. Do you have a better option (e.g., a more lucrative job offer)? If you do not have a solid BATNA
Finally, think more holistically about your compensation. Most people focus on salary. Salary is one piece of the puzzle but also consider things like bonuses, flexible work schedules, benefits, opportunities for learning, a better title, an office, vacation time, etc. If you broach the conversation with management, think more broadly about compensation—there is more than just salary.
Q3. I work in HR for a small financial services company. I have hired several people for prominent sales and backend positions that have gone on to violate our ethics or compliance rules; one did so
A3. We know we want ethical employees but how do we know they are ethical when we hire them? Of course, employees are always on their best behavior during the interview process. I wrote about this topic in my Fast Company column a few months back. One important step is to not only focus on whether someone might be unethical but also to consider how they might contribute to the collective. Try to find employees who positively energize others and who are humble. Research tells us that they are not only more likely to do good but less likely to be unethical.
A second key is to figure out whether applicants have developed habits around making sure their behavior aligns with their values. As Aristotle told us over 2,000 years ago, ethical behavior comes from good habits and it is important to see if applicants have habits, mantras and rituals that guide their conduct. Another important reminder is that sometimes unethical decisions come from a lack of knowledge or adhering to a company norm rather than malice. In your example, this employee may have had good intentions but learned a process from a more-tenured employee. It is critical to treat these actions as learning experiences and to correct the behavior at a systemic level. If the poor behavior continues, you’ll know then that it is not a training issue but is a selection issue and it may be time to part ways.
Q4. I read your piece on fairness in Fast Company and recognized a lot of my feelings when I think things don’t go my way. But I still think my company is basically unfair when it comes to promotions and raises. What is the best way to overcome my anger when I think I am being treated unfairly?
A4. Almost all people feel the same way when we perceive unfairness. Research tells us that anger is the most common emotion in response to feeling slighted. And that feeling can build up over time such that it leads to dysfunctional behavior. For example, research demonstrates that when employees feel unfairly treated their anger often drives them to engage in counterproductive behavior that hurts the organization and their own careers. Although easier said than done, it is important to harness your anger into productive actions.
I would first confirm that the basis of your anger is steeped in fact. Do your colleagues generally agree with you about the unfairness regarding the promotion and raise process? Next, I would then find an appropriate outlet for your anger. There are benefits of getting out negative emotions via writing in a journal or talking to a friend or partner (provided it does not go from complaining to rumination). If you have decided that the process is objectively unfair and used methods to quell your anger, you could consider speaking to a trusted manager in a pragmatic rather than cathartic tone. I would focus specifically on the criteria for pay raises and promotions and what you can do to grow and develop to meet the criteria. If ultimately the process is unfair you’ll have to think deeply about whether this is where you want to stay.
Q1. I work at a mid-size manufacturing company and one of my co-workers in sales consistently promises early deliveries to our customers. I worry that my operations team cannot meet the client’s expectations. How can I make my co-worker understand that he is over-promising about our capabilities? I worry that this will lead to undue pressure on the team, with potentially bad consequences for the company.
A1. There are multiple possible explanations for your co-workers behavior. When salespeople aren’t doing what others in the organization think they should be doing, I find it useful to look at what they are being rewarded to do. So, often, organizations create systems that encourage one behavior and hope for a different behavior. So, I would look at what happens in your organization when a salesperson books a sale, with promises that will not be met. Are they rewarded for that behavior?
Perhaps the broader group should meet to discuss problems associated with meeting promises that are made to customers. I wonder whether your co-worker even understands the issues that s/he is creating? Finally, if these systemic approaches are not effective or viable, I think that the manager needs to confront this difficult conversation, preferably soon than later. Too often, humans avoid conflict, even when avoiding the conflict will only make the challenges tougher.
Q2. I can’t stand my company. They are some of the most unethical people I have ever encountered and it is only a matter of time before we are in the media for ethical lapses. If I move to a different company, will I be tainted by scandal if I leave after the story breaks?
A2. First, I think you should assess whether these ethical lapses deal with important and illegal activity. If so, I strongly suggest that you get legal advice. There are a number of not-for-profit organizations that help people who are caught in difficult ethical/legal situations. One I have used and recommend is the Government Accountability Project – www.whistleblower.org. Given the magnitude of the problems that you are describing, I think that all employees who are aware are accountable for what is happening.You ask whether you might be tainted by the scandal if it reaches the media. I would encourage you to think about whether you are partially responsible if you take no action. The answer to this question might guide you on your next steps.
Q3. I feel like my annual ethics training is a waste of time. I know how I will react and I know I am ethical. Can you tell me why I still need training? If you write me a note, can I get out of it?
A3. Based on the information that you provide, I have neither the authority nor the inclination to write you a note to get out of the training.
Thus, I encourage you to take the training, and to think about the experience more ethnographically and positively. I would encourage you to think about what form of training would be more useful. I would recommend being clear and systematic in this assessment. Perhaps get some of your fellow employees to join your assessment. Then, provide human resources a positive plan about how the company can more effectively create an ethical organization.