Reversing the ethical tide, parts I and II

Reversing the ethical tide (Manila Times, September 2 & 9, 2008; slightly edited)

By Ben Teehankee

Managing For Society column, The Manila Times

PART 1

Hardly a week goes by without a scandal in high places hitting the front page of the news. Even allowing for the tendency of some papers to occasionally sensationalize, the reports do seem to show a pattern of disregard for once hallowed ethical principles in the country such as palabra de honor (word of honor) or delicadeza (propriety). Broken promises, improper cell phone calls, unseemly favors given and taken, abuse of power, undue influence, among others, have become standard operating procedures, it seems, among many leaders in government and even business.

One is tempted to conclude that ethics is a lost cause in Philippine organizations. The resulting attitude of many has ranged from defeatism (“There’s nothing we can do.”), resignation (“That’s the way things are and we just have to accept it.”), cynicism (“Human nature is basically flawed so why be bothered by it?”) and jaded pragmatism (“Just get along with it and you’ll at least get things done.”). Still others have combined with these attitudes the wish that “better leaders” will come along and bring in the return of ethics. They shake their heads woefully and think to themselves, “What a waste! If only we could have someone like …”, and fill in the blank with their favorite leadership hero.

I find that such common attitudes about unethical organizational behavior are even more dangerous than the original questionable acts themselves. In the first place, questionable acts, even by the most powerful people, cannot prosper for long without the cooperation or at least tolerance of the people around them. Burke’s oft-quoted remark about good men doing nothing comes to mind. In the second place, such attitudes discount the capacity for heroism of every member of an organization, at least within his sphere of influence. An organization’s action truly is the sum total of the actions of all its members and not just those of its leaders.

But what are we to do if we see serious misdeeds in our organizations? Do we just look the other way and simply pretend that it’s business as usual? Or do we go to the other extreme and inform the media or present ourselves to a government investigation at the risk of ruining our hard-earned careers and the future of our children? Do we risk the ire, or even deadly hatred of our colleagues? Perhaps none of this is necessary. Doing nothing perpetuates wrong doing. Publicly blowing the whistle can destroy not only one’s own career and family future but even the organization one loves.

Managers who want to influence the ethical climate in their organizations have a range of possibilities they can consider which lie in between doing nothing and public whistle-blowing. Richard Nielsen, author of the book “The Politics of Ethics”, offers more than a dozen options but I will focus on only three with examples from my research: dialoguing for change, privately whistle-blowing to a responsible manager and conscientious objection.

The key to dialogue as a medium for promoting ethics is the quality of the manager’s relationships with his colleagues and with management plus the manager’s reputation as a contributor to the organization. A human resource officer of a manufacturing company faced the challenge of improving the working conditions of the workers in the factory. She had raised the issue with the owner-manager that the workers were fatigued because they were not provided seats as they worked. The owner explained that only supervisors needed seats and, besides, giving seats to workers would just encourage laziness. The HR Officer bided her time but was deeply bothered by the issue. She considered resigning because of her inability to improve the lot of the workers.

PART 2

But the HR officer did not resign. She had to get those seats for the workers. Fortunately, the owner considered her an asset to the company and always gave her ideas a hearing. She would bring up her seat proposal every chance she got, improving her counter-arguments for the owner’s many objections. While the owner’s stubbornness frustrated her, she was always calm, friendly and respectful when making her arguments. In time, the owner relented; finally convinced that productivity gains would offset the cost of the workers’ seats. The HR officer was pleased with herself and continues to work in the same company today.

The HR officer had some advantages when she used dialogue to promote ethical change. Firstly, the owner respected her work and was, therefore, willing to listen. Secondly, she had the courage to speak her mind. Her professional principles drove her to improve a situation which was unacceptable to her. Finally, she kept the owner engaged in the situation by addressing his objections in a way that made business sense. In short, she had the ability to lead for change without alienating the decision-maker.

Sometimes, the person involved in the ethical breach may not be so easy to dialogue with because of defensiveness or even hostility. This can make the personal risk to the ethics advocate quite high. Privately blowing the whistle to a manager responsible for or who has influence over the person involved in the breach may be called for. Whistle-blowing is difficult for most people. Childhood experience has convinced us that “telling” on people isn’t done. The “sumbongero” (whistle-blower) is universally despised by children. But professional managers aren’t children. Their level of maturity should remind them that legal and moral duties related to organizations go beyond personal or group loyalties.

As business journalists and government regulators worked to unravel the questionable accounting practices at Enron engineered by CFO Andrew Fastow, vice-president Sherron Watkins wrote president Kenneth Lay anonymously: “I am incredibly nervous that we will implode in a wave of accounting scandals." The letter detailed her concerns and the dangers to the company if these were not dealt with. Watkins identified herself shortly after and met with Lay. She did not find dialogue with Fastow feasible because of the latter’s intimidating personality. Enron did not mend its ways, leading some writers to criticize Watkins for talking to Lay instead of going public. However, her approach was meant to solve the problem internally through management without causing greater damage to the company through public whistle-blowing.

Another way to advocate ethics in an organization is by conscientiously objecting to a questionable practice or policy. An example would be when a manager vocally advices his colleagues against sexually-offensive humor during meetings or some other harmful practice. Francis O’Brien, a research director at Searle & Co., objected in writing to the company’s claims about its Cooper 7 IUD product. His concerns were eventually vindicated when the company faced more than a dozen lawsuits related to the safety of Cooper 7.

The quest to promote ethics in organizations is never-ending and expecting top managers to do it by themselves is not realistic. However, the ethics advocate must weigh his approach carefully to avoid career suicide. If the latter is unavoidable, it would be best to go to an organization where the advocate can preserve his personal integrity.