Companies & Industries

Taking a Stand on Ethics


While not normally part of my columnist repertoire, the big ethical questions sometimes need to be tackled

I often hear from working people who run into tough situations on the job. How do I respond to this thing my boss said? How should I navigate this political situation? We help each other. I send words of advice, and very often the letter inspires a column in this space.

But these letters don't touch on the biggest problems facing white-collar professionals these days: how to get promoted, how to foil the backstabber in the next cube, and how to neutralize the idea-stealing clown one department away. These are tactical issues. The big one, the issue that vexes corporate people in every industry and function, is this: How do I succeed at my job without turning into that spineless character -- a pod person?

Driving home from the office, or sitting in the airport waiting for the red-eye, we wonder: Is this me? Are these meetings I'm holding, these memos I'm writing, are they the things I'm supposed to be doing? Corporate roles can introduce mind-numbing ethical issues. That layoff last month -- did we handle that right? How do I feel about the big bonus I got, in light of the fact that we just outsourced customer support and eliminated 32 jobs in New York? And so on. It's not easy.

CONSCIENCE'S REVENGE.

Sometimes you can deal with it by procrastinating: Let me get my career in order first, and then I can worry about all that philosophical stuff. You can tell yourself that for years. But one day you may be hit in the gut with the idea that you're a very small piece in someone else's chess game, and that the price you've already paid -- in your own view of yourself, and the distance you've traveled from your once-mighty ideals -- is too high. Then you may wonder why you went along, for so long, with a lot of things that never felt right to you.

When that happens, the experience can be terribly unsettling, as you look back over your career and wonder, like the old Talking Heads song says: How did I get here? You don't have to be Al "Chainsaw" Dunlap to have some disturbing entries in your business biography. That's when you wonder, is it possible to prosper in business and still hang on to your soul?

I think it is. I think it takes a major effort, and may startle the people around you. If you've been a compliant sort for most of your career, you may stun your colleagues, if not your boss, when you stand up for things you've never bothered with before. But it will be worth it. If you don't, don't blame me if one day you look at your new projection TV and your other goodies, and say, "I have nice stuff, but look who I had to become to get it."

HEEDING YOUR GUT.

A big disclaimer here -- not every employer is keen to see his managers become reflective. You may know this already if you think: I couldn't really be myself and keep this job. If that's the case, you have some tough decisions to make. But for a lot of us, the choice is not so dramatic. It isn't a choice between losing the pod-person mantle and getting fired, or continuing down the Corporate Johnny (or Sally) path and going to hell.

It's not that cut-and-dried. It may just be that speaking up, refusing to go along, will really frustrate some people around you. That's not always a bad thing.

For me, the key is to listen to your gut, and react accordingly. Our business world is ridiculously data-driven, linear, and analytical -- pathologically so. It takes a lot to say in a meeting, "You know what? I'm not comfortable with that idea," because people will respond: "Based on what? What data?" You won't have the data, not at that moment when your gut is protesting. Too bad. They'll have to wait for it.

PLAY NICE.

You'll say, "I need 48 hours to process it, but I'm not feeling good about this plan. It doesn't feel right to me." Watch their jaws drop. Two days is plenty long enough for the rationale that your gut knew instantly, to bubble up to your brain.

I wish I had listened to my gut more intently and spoken up more agressively plenty of times in my corporate career. One of those times, we were planning a layoff. We had finished the operational planning, and we were in a meeting to discuss how to communicate the reductions in staff. We got around to the part about notifying the media.

One of my peers suggested that we say we're getting rid of dead wood, that the layoff is performance-based. "Wait a minute," I said, "we'll be stabbing our employees in the back. The layoff isn't performance-based." "But it sounds better," said my colleague, "sounds like we're tightening up the ship."

NO REGRETS.

The rationale was that we could give a great employment reference to any individual employee who needed one, so the blanket statement about cleaning house shouldn't hurt anyone in particular. That sounded like a bogus argument to me. If a person gets laid off, and then his wife reads in the paper that the layoff is performance-based, that's adding insult to injury. But I kept my mouth shut, and I've regretted it a hundred times since then.

That's the cost of shutting up -- you have to live with yourself. How can you doubt that those nagging regrets cut years off your life? And deep down,you know it was cowardly. What promotion, what car allowance is worth that?

You can change the tide, slowly. You can observe that the emperor has no clothes. When you see that no one's going to say the thing that needs to be said, you can say it -- everyone is waiting for you to say it, in fact. It isn't that big a risk. It's much riskier to sit there in silence and wonder, "What am I doing with my life?" Don't you agree?

Liz Ryan writes her "Career Insight" column and answers readers' questions every week at www.businessweek.com/managing/. She is an expert on the new-millennium workplace and a former Fortune 500 HR executive.

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