The moral responsibility of managers

The moral responsibility of managers (October 1, 2007)

by Ben Teehankee

Managing For Society column, The Manila Times

Following the Senate hearings on the NBN affair is an engrossing, though deeply troubling, way to witness how public officials can take or evade moral responsibility for their actions. While I cringed at the mean remarks of some Senators, the principle that public office is a public trust is starkly demonstrated when public officials have to account for themselves under the glare of a public media broadcast.

But if the hearings are to go beyond publicity for the Senators, it should lead to reforms in the legal infrastructure designed to prevent public officials from unjustly enriching themselves. So I watched the hearings curious about where all of it could lead. I wasn’t asking, “Who did what to benefit whom?” I wanted to know whether those responsible for the contracting process did everything they could to protect the deal from the taint of corruption. And if they did not, how can they be held responsible? If these questions cannot be answered, the Filipino people are doomed to watch worsening scandals on national television for a long time to come.

The moral responsibilities of managers, whether in the public or private sphere, generally include upholding the law, fulfilling the legitimate duties of their positions, observing relevant codes of ethics and otherwise abiding by generally held moral principles such as honesty and not knowingly doing harm. But holding managers accountable for moral lapses is easier said than done. The complexity of modern bureaucratic organizations tends to get in the way.

A person is usually held responsible for an immoral act if he had knowledge of it and had the ability to prevent it from happening. The trouble is that complex organizations can make it easy for senior managers to be negligent of their moral responsibilities by diffusing knowledge and control.

Bureaucracies are notorious for chopping up tasks to such small specialized pieces that subordinates rarely see the big picture. The expression “the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing” picturesquely captures this situation. Subordinates may be asked by senior managers to do small things which in themselves may seem innocent but put together with what others have been asked to do may comprise a serious offense.

Bureaucracies also allow superiors to push responsibility down to subordinates for achieving demanding goals (“I’m counting on you. Get it done.”) while looking away to feign ignorance of any wrongdoings of their underlings. This produces what has been called “plausible deniability”, or the ability of top people in a hierarchy to escape responsibility by being able to claim ignorance.

The escape hatch of plausible deniability for managers must be shut down. Even if the hands don’t know what each other are up to, there’s no reason why the head shouldn’t know. After World War II, the doctrine of command responsibility was applied to General Yamashita, Commanding General of the Japanese Imperial Army and the Military Governor in the Philippines. Yamashita was executed after being found guilty of "unlawfully disregarding and failing to discharge his duty as a commander to control the acts of members of his command by permitting them to commit war crimes." The Yamashita standard of command responsibility has made it impossible for commanders to evade responsibility for wrongdoings by pleading ignorance.

Should managers in general be held to a similarly demanding duty to prevent immoral acts from happening under their watch? I believe so. Ethics scholars recommend that managers be guided by the principles of investigation, communication, protection, prevention and precaution.

The moral responsibility of managers - Part II

By Ben Teehankee

Although the NBN contract has been cancelled, the Senate investigations are scheduled to continue. Assuming for the sake of argument that the allegation of bribery is true, I would like to know what actions were taken by responsible people after the bribe offer was made in order to protect the integrity of the NBN deal. Without prejudice to the individuals implicated and irrespective of how the legal aspects of the growing controversy get resolved, it is crucial to examine the duties of managers, especially public officials, to promote moral behavior under their supervision. Only in this way can the moral infrastructure of the country be improved.

Ethics scholars suggest that managers, with respect to dealing with moral issues under their watch, have the duties of investigation, communication, protection, prevention and precaution. While these duties apply to any manager, they are particularly vital for public officials because of the imperative to protect the public interest. Thus, it is important to know if and how these duties were met in the case of the alleged NBN bribe offer.

Investigation is the basic managerial duty not to “look the other way” by proactively getting information needed for promoting moral integrity in organizations. In this regard, how much effort was made to know the circumstances surrounding the bribe offer? Who else was offered a bribe? Who else knew about it? How could these affect the integrity of the deal?

Managers also have the duty to communicate any knowledge they have of wrong-doing to responsible persons so that proper action can be taken. This ensures that “the right hand” will always know what “the left hand” is doing. Who were told about the offer? Were important individuals kept in the loop to prevent damage to the deal?

“Don’t shoot the messenger” captures the duty of managers to protect the source of information about wrongdoing. Bosses should protect subordinates who properly inform them about breaches before they explode. Government witness protection programs are based on this principle. Similarly, whistle-blower statutes are available in some countries for this purpose. Since Neri is the whistle-blower in this case, it is only reasonable to give him due protection. The fact that this conflicts with the demands of transparency and accountability which bind him is unfortunate and I sympathize with him.

The duty of prevention mandates that managers implement safeguards and structures against moral offenses. Installing organizational ombudsmen, anonymous hot lines and incentives for whistleblowers are some steps related to this duty. What steps were taken to safeguard the NBN deal from questionable goings-on?

The precautionary duty calls on managers to avoid morally compromising situations to begin with. Were decision-makers properly shielded from undue influence? Was it prudent to have meetings with ZTE officials in a venue headed by the COMELEC chairman?

The above duties nullify the defense of “plausible deniability” for managers who occupy positions of trust. They shift the burden on managers from simply avoiding involvement in wrongdoing to actively ensuring the highest propriety and regularity under their supervision. While I do not conclude that these duties were ignored in the case of the NBN deal, the public should be assured that they were. The Senate can find out and proceed to legislate ways to compel public leaders to fulfil these duties. Such clear expectations for moral leadership at the highest levels will elevate the moral example for all who aspire to lead in this country.