Personal, Organizational, and Cultural Values play in Personal and Professional Decision-Making
In today's increasingly high-powered, competitive workplaces, employees at all levels, occasionally (or even frequently) find themselves having to make difficult ethical decisions at work, such as rather or not to do the right thing ethically, or instead to do something else, less ethical but more self-protective. Often, that "something else" flies in the face of one's self-image and personal values. Such decisions, that go against what one believes in are made, often reluctantly, every day: to please a boss; to help a boss please top management; to keep one's job, to avoid being demoted, to "go with the flow," etc. There is no genuinely "good" way for either bosses or employees to handle such workplace dilemmas, except (if one is a boss) to try to avoid creating them for employees or other stakeholders, if one can, and to encourage one's professional peers to do the same.
Badaracco & Webb (1995) researched the subject of ethical dilemmas typically faced at work, in particular those that had been faced by 30 recent Harvard MBA lower management employees, whom they interviewed. Examples of ethical dilemmas those interviewees either observed, heard about, or experienced first-hand, included the following:
. . . A management trainee at a well-known consumer products company was told by his boss to make up data to support a new product introduction. When he began to object, his boss cut him off and said "Just do it." A young financial analyst had calculated that the return on a significant investment at a refinery was approximately 12%. His boss explained to him that no project could be approved without a 25% return and told him to redo his numbers and get them right. In other situations, young employees were asked or expected to overlook kickback schemes, fill out time sheets inaccurately (at consulting and accounting firms), overlook safety defects in products, ship products that clearly did not meet customer specifications, or find ways to fire employees in violation of company policies. (p. 9).
In other cases, also according to Badaracco & Webb, "young women reported that they were victims of sexual harassment, sometimes by their immediate superiors, and that they were later expected or asked to acquiesce in cover-ups of these incidents."
For the majority of the young managers surveyed, such dilemmas "proved to be "wake-up calls" -- difficult, sometimes traumatic learning experiences in both personal and professional ethics" (p. 9). Dilemmas like these are likely especially difficult for young, idealistic, or relatively inexperienced individuals like those interviewed. However, any employee, however seasoned, who generally takes pride in his or her personal ethics, but feels torn between doing what is right (and displeasing someone) or doing what is ethically wrong, in order not to "make waves," will agonize over such ethical dilemmas.
In my own case, I faced one such workplace dilemma not long ago, when I was working seasonally for a high-powered tax preparation service. Around mid-March (tax season typically ends April 15, so the season was already winding down) I was suddenly ordered to raise my tax return preparation fees for all my remaining customers, not because any of us were suddenly doing something worth more money, but just so the company could, as our district manager put it, "still make our numbers" for this tax season. At stake for me (and several other seasonal employees at my level) were our year-end bonuses of several thousand dollars apiece, and possibly our jobs for next tax season, should we wish to return. At stake for our immediate supervisor, whom we liked a great deal, and to whom we felt loyal (this fee-raising scheme was not her idea) was "needing to please 'Corporate'." At stake for 'Corporate', was the need to please Wall Street, since the company had just gone public less than a year ago.
For my own part, admittedly a rather small one in this scheme of things, I thought long and hard about the relative costs and benefits of rebelling by simply charging my own customers the same amount as always, and just trying to keep quiet about it. I also thought of just quitting. But in the end, I did not do either. The company brooks no dissent, so at stake was my job for the rest of the season, plus my likely bonus. My rationalization was that I had too many people depending on me to earn a certain amount this tax season, and I hadn't quite earned it yet. For their sake (I told myself) I could not afford to lose my job, my bonus, or my employment prospects for next year.
In truth, however, tax season would end soon, and my bonus, although potentially useful would not in fact "make or break" my family this year. Moreover, this was not even a full-time or permanent job; I could easily have walked away. Still, I took the path of least resistance and raised my fees, acquiescing at the expense of customers I mostly knew, whose returns I had prepared for years. Some, expecting to pay the old amount and feeling blindsided, simply took their business elsewhere. In the end, we all received our bonuses; Corporate made its numbers, Wall Street was happy. Corporate then threw us an expensive banquet, replete with long platitudinous speeches, and plenty of nice material rewards (mine was a TV) for us "indispensable" underlings. Meanwhile our customers (this company caters mostly to lower-income customers) had paid the price for all this celebration and happiness.
Today, I am not proud of how I handled the "fee increase" dilemma. Reflecting, now on that decision of mine several months ago, it makes me feel especially sympathetic toward the new MBA graduates interviewed by Badaracco & Webb (1995), who have their whole careers at stake.
Another kind of very common ethical dilemma in business nowadays (or, more accurately, set of dilemmas) that I have heard a great deal about, and have also watched a good friend go through (but have not experienced personally) has to do with layoffs, relocations, etc., of lower-level employees during merger and acquisition processes. A friend of mine works (now) for Hitachi Global Storage Technologies (HGST), an international hard disk drive (HDD) manufacturer, the end result of a merger between Hitachi and IBM's former HDD entity. Before the merger, she worked for IBM, and was, for many months, always in desperate fear of losing her job. Then, when she "survived" the merger and was transferred to HGST (and forced to relocate, to a very expensive new city) she had to make many difficult adjustments. Based on research I have done (Layne, 2000), neither IBM's nor Hitachi's top management did their best, ethically speaking, to prepare lower-level employees, including my friend, for either layoffs or transfers. Instead, in order to squeeze maximum productivity out of my friend and her peers while they were still at IBM, top management of IBM's HDD facility allowed rumors to circulate about layoffs that would be happening (many such layoffs did in fact happen, but in 20-20 hindsight, there also seemed to be a great deal of "disinformation" floating around), and allowed the work atmosphere to become poisoned with paranoia and fear. That was unethical, although it probably served IBM well financially; instead of being straightforward about layoffs, they kept workers on pins and needles, fearing for their jobs, but also perhaps not looking for work elsewhere as intently as they should have done, had they known for sure what the company already knew.
Moreover, nowadays, an increasing number of already large multinational enterprises seek to further advance their own corporate interests; market domination, and overall profitability through mergers and acquisitions (M& A) processes. Mergers and acquisitions are in fact, especially within today's increasingly competitive…