vol 4 issue 10

Do unto others at work

2 June 2009
By Nick Smith
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With parliamentary corruption high on the UK's news agenda, the ethics of managerial responsibility is becoming an increasingly important topic. E&T appraises a new book on ethical behaviour for managers.

As a rule, books on business ethics - and there are plenty of them - set up abstract professional dilemmas and ask the business undergraduate to solve them. Management-related issues such as gender politics, the environment, health and safety, ethnic diversity and supplier vetting become part of a debate where there are no right or wrong answers. Traditionally, so-called 'grey dilemma'-solving in the classroom has been seen as an important stepping stone to understanding complex situations likely to occur in the career of a manager. Students will be asked to define, understand and clarify a problem, working through a 12-point checklist that is effectively a deductive logic structure that, when applied properly, will result in the best possible outcome.

But can you teach business ethics by numbers? And is this approach really the best way to teach ethical behaviour? Well, yes and no, say the authors of 'The Ethical Executive', because while such clearly delineated thinking may increase the potential for increased moral behaviour, it is unclear if learning ethics from a blackboard can have any effect on how managers later behave in the real world. After all, ever since Aristotle wrote "we are not studying in order to know what virtue is, but to become good, for otherwise there would be no profit in it", we have instinctively felt that it is not enough simply to know what the right thing is. To behave ethically you've got to do the right thing.

The reason the scandal over politicians' expenses has created such outrage is not primarily because of the feeling of having been cheated or betrayed by those in power. After all, thrusting, driven MPs should be at the very least ruthless when it comes to their own interests, so it is hardly a surprise when they cross the line into being downright avaricious, and we accept it as being part of the turf. What sticks in the public craw is the notion that the behaviour of parliamentarians is simply unfair, or more accurately unethical.

For all the management manuals we read, and for all the courses we attend, and for all the legal frameworks that define compliance that will keep us out of court, we know what is right behaviour in the workplace. We also know when we are behaving unethically, be it towards an employee, supplier, customer or colleague. The problem with management is that outside the business schools there are so many conflicting pressures and conflicts of interest that it is almost impossible to behave in a way that is beneficial to all parties involved in the outcome of a decision. We get lured into unethical behaviour against our will, and the bad news is that the authors have identified 45 different ways in which this happens.

There is also the further contradiction that we often identify the quickest route up the corporate ladder as being achieved by prioritising the need for profitability over all other concerns. In their excellent new book Robert Hoyk and Paul Hersey address the 45 traps that they consider induce us to behave unethically, that cause us to succumb to the "different internal and external stimuli that compel people to begin this movement to disaster."

Zero-sum and non-zero-sum situations

Ethics is to philosophy what the blues is to guitar playing. You can work out the required three chords in a minute only to spend the rest of your life working out their significance, subtlety and meaning. Thankfully, Hoyk and Hersey don't allow themselves to get too bogged down in complex definitions of what ethical behaviour is, preferring to state that it is "an action that engenders trust".

To clarify this they go on to say that it is behaviour that as much as possible creates what game theorists might call non-zero-sum situations instead of zero-sum situations. Already we've crossed the border into the land of jargon, but it's an important definition because in the zero-sum scenario outcomes are inversely related: in a football game, if one team wins the other team loses and the balance is zero. In a non-zero-sum outcome the fortune of one person doesn't have to result in the misfortune of the other.

When the needs of different parties overlap there is more potential for a non-zero-sum outcome. When Apollo 13 was stranded in space in 1970 there was a complete overlap in the needs of the astronauts, and the results of their actions would be uniformly bad or good for them - they'd all make it home or they'd all die in space. As the authors say, the non-zero-sum outcome can be either win-win or lose-lose. In the case of Apollo 13 astronauts Lovell, Swigert and Haise all lived to tell the tale and proved that "non-zero-sum interactions create more shared benefit and mutual trust".

In the workplace it can be difficult for the manager - especially a manager under time pressure - to make calculated decisions based on shared benefit and mutual trust. After all, the manager will have a higher tier of management to report to and one of the drivers will be the need for delivering measurable performance rather than abstract behaviour. Bogged down by performance targets, deadlines and budgets, it is easy to justify unethical behaviour with the claim that these are the real needs of the business. Equally, bonus structures can make the needs of the self come first, leading some commentators to claim that bonuses encourage self-interest over the general good of the team, and are consequently unethical.

Good samaritans

What we know for sure is that the faster a decision is made the more selfish and unethical it will be. To demonstrate this point Hoyk and Hersey cite a piece of 'good samaritan' research conducted by psychologists John Darley and Daniel Batson at Princeton University which demonstrated how time pressure interfered with ethical decision making. A group of undergraduate students were told that they were needed in a different campus building to attend a lecture on the story of the good samaritan. A third of the students were given a 'low-hurry' message, another third an 'intermediate-hurry' message and the final third a 'high-hurry message'.

As the individuals made their way across campus they followed directions that led them into an alley in which the researchers had planted a victim - an actor pretending to have been mugged.

The researchers wanted to know what effect the urgency of the task had on the volunteers' reaction. As the authors state: "Results of the experiment were very robust. In the 'low-hurry' condition 63 per cent offered help. In the intermediate condition, 45 per cent offered help. In the 'high-hurry' condition only 10 per cent offered help!" The obvious conclusion is that time pressure diminishes awareness of the needs for others, with the clear implication that if we spend longer taking decisions, we are more likely to behave ethically.

But what do we know about other traps and other situations where instead of dealing with blackboard hypotheses we are dealing with real-life events? One of the most common ways of reducing our feelings of guilt over ethical transgressions is the process of minimising, which accounts for a total of eight of the Hoyk and Hersey traps. The first is 'reduction' where linguistic distancing - using phrases such as "sort of", "at most", "no more than" - are blatant attempts to minimise. More serious and invidious is the use of benevolent-sounding words to replace words that have negative connotations. Instead of saying "untold civilian carnage" a military spokesman will talk of "collateral damage". The authors cite the Enron case to show renaming at its ugliest. In one of the transcripts two Enron employees have the following conversation:

Employee 1: It's all about how well you can weave these lies together.

Employee 2: I feel like I'm being corrupted now.

Employee 1: No, this is marketing.

Employee 2: Okay.

'Advantageous comparison' is another trap, and we all do it. It's not so bad, we say, when you consider what other people are doing ("What does it matter if I take the office stapler home, when the boss is fiddling his petrol expenses?") 'False consensus' is another way of saying "everyone else does it, so we can get away with it too". Anyone in management who seriously thinks that the behaviour of others can possibly justify your own ethical transgression is probably in the wrong job, and yet it happens all the time. Minimising, say the authors, weakens our sense of responsibility and put us in a position where we are apt to act more unethically. The authors cite the example of how during the Second World War civil servants in Germany were perfectly willing to do the clerical work for the Holocaust. "Their readiness amazed the Nazi command. The civil servants saw themselves as only doing paperwork, not exterminating Jews."

Despite its subtitle - "How to avoid the traps of the unethical workplace" - this book will not make you a more ethical manager. That's impossible, and we know that, because the desire to act fairly can only come from within. Learning how to be fair from a blackboard is little better than learning the rules to legal compliance when what is needed is a deeper understanding of the issues at stake. But you can unlock the fairness that some ethicists believe is innate. So while 'The Ethical Executive' won't make you a better person, it will at least explain why those around you are behaving in an unprincipled way, which in turn may confirm within you the notion that management is a privilege rather than a charter to treat others badly.

'The Ethical Executive', by Robert Hoyk and Paul Hersey is published by Kogan Page, £12.99
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