Archive for the ‘excuses’ Category
It’s easy to villainize a company like Walmart for being unwilling to sign an agreement seeking to improve safety for workers in Bangladesh. What’s harder is to assess the company’s actual motives, and its obligations.
Headlines recently blared that Walmart has refused to sign the new “Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh”, despite the fact that 24 other companies (including Europe’s two largest clothing retailers, as well as American brand Tommy Hilfiger and Canada’s Loblaw) had signed.
Other news sources avoided the Walmart-centric hysteria and pointed out that lots of retail chains have in fact opted not to sign. For its part, Walmart says says it plans to undertake its own plan to verify and improve conditions at its suppliers’ factories in Bangladesh. Supporters of the accord, however, are skeptical about the effectiveness of company’s proposed independent effort.
From the point of view of ethical responsibilities, could a well-intentioned company conscientiously decline to sign the pact?
It’s worth looking at a few reasons why a company might choose not to sign a pact designed to improve, and even save, lives. Walmart presumably believes that its own effort will be sufficient, and perhaps even superior. The company’s famous efficiency and notorious influence over suppliers lend some credibility to such a notion. Other companies have worried that signing the pact would bring new legal liabilities, which of course is precisely the point of a legally-binding document. (Gap, for instance, has said that it will sign only if language regarding arbitration is removed, a stance that effectively amounts to refusal.)
There may also be worries about governance: the accord provides for the appointment of a steering committee “with equal representation chosen by the trade union signatories and company signatories” — equal, but to be chaired by a seventh member selected by the International Labour Organization (ILO). Perhaps some worry that the ILO-appointed chair won’t really be neutral, giving unions an effective majority.
Other companies — including ones like Walmart, which is famous for its efficiency — may worry about the extra administrative burden implied by weaving this accord’s regulatory apparatus into its own systems of supply-chain oversight.
Another worry might be the fact that the accord applies only to Bangladesh, and makes that country the subject of a separate set of procedures. The accord also commits signatories to expenditures specifically on safety in Bangladesh, when from a particular company’s point of view Bangladesh might not be a priority. In the wake of the April factory collapse, it’s worth pointing out that there are other places in the world with unsafe factories and crummy working conditions. It’s not unreasonable for at least some companies to focus their efforts on places where conditions are equally bad, and that host even more of their suppliers.
None of this goes any distance toward excusing inaction. None of it condones apathy. The point is simply that while failure to sign a particular accord makes great headlines, we need to look carefully at reasons, as well as at a company’s full range of obligations, if we are to make sense of such a decision.
There’s a famous philosophical thought experiment known as “the Trolley Problem.” It goes roughly like this. Imagine one day you see a trolley — the famous San Francisco variety, or something more like a Toronto streetcar — hurtling along its track. The driver is incapacitated, and the trolley is bearing down on 5 people, mysteriously unconscious on the track. You happen to be standing next to a switch, which can divert the trolley onto a different track. But lying on this other track is another unconscious person.
So assuming (as the philosophy professor insists you must) that you don’t have time to haul any of the various unconscious persons off the tracks, your choice is effectively this: should you divert the trolley, thereby killing one person, or do nothing, and allow 5 people to die?
The puzzle is intended to get you to think about what’s more important: promoting good outcomes (fewer deaths instead of more) or sticking to cherished principles (like the principle that you should not cause the death of an innocent person). It makes for a fun and often fruitful classroom discussion.
But as a model of real-life ethical decision-making, the trolley problem is pretty bad. Seldom does life present you with two cut-and-dried options, neatly packaged by your philosophy professor. As Caroline Whitbeck points out, real life isn’t a multiple-choice test. In real life — in business, for example — ethical problem solving is more like a design problem: you need to design the options, before you get to choose among them.
But the trolley problem can still serve as a useful starting point for talking about business ethics. The key is to ask the right questions. Here are a handful of questions designed to make the trolley problem relevant to business ethics. Each, of course, requires a bit of mental translation. We are not, after all, primarily interested in actual trolleys.
1) Does your business need a policy for situations like this? Is your business one in which trolley-problem-like dilemmas come up often? Are employees often faced with situations that require them to trade off outcomes against principles? If so, do existing policies tell them how to deal with such dilemmas appropriately?
2) Is there anything you can do to prevent situations like this from happening in the first place? One of the key characteristics of the trolley problem is that it’s a lose-lose situation: either you kill an innocent person, or you allow several people to die. It’s worth asking (especially if such problems are common; see #1 above) whether there’s something you can do to avoid such situations so that you don’t have to deal with them at all.
3) What kind of corporate culture have you fostered, and how will that culture push people one way or the other in such situations? The trolley problem is a true dilemma, and reasonable people can disagree about it. But what about situations in which you can throw a switch and kill 5 people (metaphorically, at least) in order to save one? And what if that one isn’t a person, but is your company’s bottom line? Will your company’s culture encourage employees to put short-term profit ahead of all other considerations
4) Will people in your organization recognize situations akin to the trolley problem as being ethical problems in the first place? Or will they make the decision on purely technical grounds? Will they see past the fact that flipping switches is, you know, their job? Or past the fact that hey, the trolley has to run on time, and we always flip this switch that way at this time of day?
5) Finally, if the decision were being made by a team, or members of a hierarchy, rather than by an individual, would members feel empowered to speak their mind if they felt the team, or their boss, was making a bad decision?
Philosophical puzzles like the trolley problem become famous for a reason. They get at something deep. And they can provide fruitful fodder for discussion as part of corporate ethics training. The core of a great discussion is there: you’ve just got to know the right questions to ask.
I spoke recently to a corporate audience on the topic of Ethics for Leaders. One of the sub-topics I touched on was the fact that leaders need not only to make good ethical decisions, but also to help others make good ethical decisions. As a practical example, we looked at techniques a leader might use to help someone else understand what is ethically problematic about bribery. Sure, someone in a leadership position might have the authority simply to give orders; but in many cases it will be much more effective to explain the values and principles that underlie a particular prohibition.
One of the attendees at this session pushed back in a useful way. “I get the ethical argument against bribery, and I agree. But I’ve talked to Sales Managers overseas who say it’s just not realistic to avoid everything that could be construed as a bribe. How do I deal with that, beyond simply pointing to the FCPA?”
This is a tough challenge, one that needs to be taken seriously. Whether it’s bribery or nepotistic hiring practices, local practices that violate the rules of business “back home” can seem hard to avoid. Business is a competitive game, and it sometimes really is the case that scrupulously following the written rules puts a company at a significant — maybe even definitive — disadvantage.
It’s far too easy to play Monday Morning Quarterback and to speak in idealistic terms about integrity in business. But ethics isn’t about being a saint; it’s about finding a way to do your best to find suitable limits on profit-seeking behaviours when those behaviours put other people’s legitimate interests and rights at risk. So, if we are to avoid sounding preachy, what can we say about the Sales Manager above?
First, make sure the “when in Rome” argument isn’t just being used as a fig leaf to cover up what is really an appeal to convenience. Sometimes it may be easier to follow local custom, but that’s not quite the same as necessity.
Second, if — if! — it really is necessary, when doing business overseas, to engage in practices that wouldn’t be allowed back home, are you at least doing what you can to a) minimize the frequency of such violations and b) working, in at least some small way, to improve standards in the local business community? Bribery and other forms of corruption are truly corrosive, and economies in which they are common would be much better off without them. Are you part of the problem or part of the solution?
Third, ask whether unscrupulous (or merely ‘grey zone’) behaviour is being used to cover up poor performance. It may be that the Sales Manager who feels the need to offer bribes simply isn’t very good at his job and is looking for ways to succeed without having sufficient talent or making sufficient effort. Sometimes lack of ethics suggests lack of competency.
And finally, ask what your company can do to change incentives such that a Sales Manager isn’t so single-mindedly driven by numbers that he feels compelled to bend or break the rules. No one within an organization should ever think of themselves as having just a single objective. Yes, a Sales Manager is in charge of Sales. But he also has responsibilities that include risk management (including avoiding bringing the company into shame or into court) and managing morale within the sales team. People will behave according to how you reward them, and so reward mechanisms ought to be as balanced as you would like their performance to be.
The challenges posed by doing business in the global marketplace are never easy. Only by avoiding both naïveté and cynicism can you hope to do good while still doing well.
On Wednesday, The United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) released a small mountain’s worth of evidence against champion cyclist Lance Armstrong. Not surprisingly, comparisons to corruption in the world of business were not far behind. On Twitter, a number of wags referred to Armstrong as the “Bernie Madoff of cycling,” or variants on that.
The comparison with Madoff is unsurprising. In both cases, you have wrongdoing of impressive scope. In both cases, the wrongdoing was truly brazen, going on right under the noses of regulators. In both cases, you can’t escape the feeling that someone should have been able to figure it all out sooner. And in both cases, you see the eventual fall of a man who was a hero to many.
But the comparison is also off-target in important ways.
For one thing, the USADA’s account of things suggest that Armstrong was not just a cheat, but a ringleader. While others may have been complicit in Madoff’s scheme, there’s no suggestion that he engaged in organized, cynical bullying to push others into wrongdoing the way Armstrong apparently did. Armstrong is accused of having used his position of leadership to coerce others into cheating too.
The bigger difference, though, has to do with differences in the nature of the competitive contexts in which Armstrong and Madoff were each embroiled. Madoff was a stockbroker and investment advisor. It is a job in which an honest person can find success. For all the talk of Wall Street being a place where crooks thrive, there’s no indication that an investment advisor has to be a crook just to survive or to do his or her job effectively. And even if it were the case that cooking the books was somehow normal, something “everyone was doing,” that fact would do absolutely nothing to justify Madoff’s ponzi scheme. It’s not something that, in any sense, Madoff had to do.
Armstrong, on the other hand, was a cyclist competing at elite levels, during an era in which, by all accounts, doping was absolutely rampant. And in such a setting, it does at least arguably matter that “everybody does it.” It is an unfortunate fact that in the world Armstrong competed in, for every individual cyclist doping was a necessary evil, a way of keeping the playing field level. Any cyclist not engaging in doping was effectively relegating himself to the back of the pack. That’s not an excuse, but it’s an accurate description of the facts of the case.
So doping was, in a sense, non-optional for the elite cyclist trying to do his job properly, because after all his job is to try to win. And during the era in question, doping was apparently “allowed” under the unwritten rules of the cycling game. It was embedded in the social norms of the relevant group. It was, in other words, a collective problem. Regrettable, to be sure, but the sort of problem that is devilishly hard to solve, and against which individual integrity is absolutely impotent to solve it.
In this sense, doping is much more like bribery than like a ponzi scheme. Where bribery is rampant, it may literally be true that a company cannot compete without engaging in that kind of corrupt behaviour. But bribery, like doping, is an arms race that no one can be sure of winning. And the damage it does is significant. Like doping, it exposes competitors to all sorts of dangers. And when such behaviour is exposed — as in the case of Walmart Mexico earlier this year — the result is not just scandal, but a loss of confidence in the integrity of the game itself.
This is the third in a series of postings on the bribery scandal at Wal-Mart de Mexico and its parent company, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.
I’ve already dealt with why bribery is so seriously problematic in general. But let’s look here at why this particular instance of bribery (or pattern of bribery, really) by this particular company is especially problematic.
It goes without saying that the bribery that allegedly took place at Wal-Mart de Mexico is a wonderful example of lousy “tone at the top.” Eduardo Castro-Wright, who was CEO of Wal-Mart de Mexico during the bulk of the wrongdoing, is centrally implicated, as are senior people at Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., including CEO Mike Duke. How on earth can they now hope to exercise any ethical leadership? Clearly, they can’t, and that’s why in my opinion they both need to resign or be fired.
But the bad example set by this set of behaviours goes well beyond the walls of Wal-Mart itself.
Wal-Mart is an industry leader, taken by many as an example of how business ought to be done. The signal sent here is particularly corrosive with regard to doing business in Mexico. Mexico clearly has its problems with corruption. But there’s a self-fulfilling prophesy in this regard. If companies see Mexico as a place where bribery is necessary, they’re sometimes going to offer bribes to public officials who, in turn, will come to expect bribes. And if Wal-Mart, of all companies, says it can’t compete effectively in the Mexican market without engaging in that sort of thing — well, the lesson for merely-mortal companies is clear. If Wal-Mart can’t thrive there by playing by the rules, who can?
Think also about Wal-Mart’s supply chain, and the example this behaviour sets for the thousands of companies that supply Wal-Mart, directly or at one or more steps removed, with the goods it sells. Wal-Mart is notoriously tough on its suppliers, insisting on lower and lower prices and higher and higher levels of efficiency. But naturally — naturally! — Wal-Mart wants its suppliers to do all that within the limits of the law, right? Or at least that has to be the company’s official policy. But now, what are suppliers to think? With the revelation of Wal-Mart’s own lawless behaviour, the message to suppliers — thousands and thousands of them — is that getting the job done matters more, and that the ends justify the means.
OK, but won’t the fact that the Wal-Mart executives involved got caught also serve as an example? Well, perhaps. But that depends in part on what action is taken by law enforcement agencies and by the company’s own Board. I strongly suspect that decision-makers at a lot of companies will continue to fall prey to the cognitive illusion that so often facilitates wrongdoing of all kinds: “I’m too smart to get caught.”
So Wal-Mart has provided a clear example in terms of the benefits of bribery, and only a weak one in terms of the costs. Wal-Mart’s shareholders lost $10 billion this past Monday, in the wake of these revelations. But I fear the real impact of the scandal will be much bigger, and broader.
In the wake of the Sandusky sex-abuse scandal the question has arisen whether Penn State University’s Board of Trustees should tender its collective resignation. And now, following the death of Coach Joe Paterno on Sunday, the question has taken on additional emotional resonance. The university’s Faculty Senate is scheduled to discuss a motion to strike an independent committee to investigate the Board’s role in the whole affair, and indeed has seen at least one motion calling for the entire Board’s resignation.
So, should the members of the Board be asked to resign? And if not, should they do so of their own volition?
To answer these questions, here are some questions that need to be considered:
Fist, did indeed the Board fail in its fiduciary (‘trust-based’) duties? It’s worth noting that the Board has been under fire from two different directions, here. Some think the Board failed in not staying sufficiently ‘on top of’ the Sandusky situation, and in resting satisfied with whatever dribbles of information the university administration saw fit to feed them. (The only detailed account I’ve read so far paints the Board in a rather sympathetic light, in this regard.)
Others think the Board failed in firing — in their eyes, scapegoating — the beloved Paterno. Both sides think the Board screwed up, but for very different reasons. Of course, both can be right at the same time. Perhaps the Board has just generally done a bad job, first by letting the situation get out of hand and then second by botching the task of responding to it. Rather than cancelling each other out, maybe these two sets of complaints just compound each other.
Next, we need to ask, if the Board failed, was it a failure of people or a failure of structure? A board, after all, is both an institutional structure and a set of people occupying that structure.
If it was a failure of structure (and, as governance expert Richard Leblanc wrote back in November, there are serious problems with how Penn State’s board is configured) then there’s little reason to think that a change of personnel on the Board is either necessary or sufficient to fix the problem. And if instead it was a failure of people, then getting rid of them all is a blunt, but perhaps effective, way to solve the problem — providing, of course, that the new people brought in to replace them are better.
Of course, the problem is that it’s difficult to distinguish between a failure of people and a failure of structure, in a case like this. Perhaps people better-suited to the job would have risen above the confines of a poorly-structured board, or lobbied to have its structure revised. Human behaviour and institutional structure shape each other.
And finally, regardless of the above questions about the sources of failure, it might be the case that the removal or resignation of the Board is necessary in order to restore public confidence. That is, even if the individuals currently on the Board are not in any way to blame, the fact that key stakeholders have lost faith in the Board might be sufficient grounds for calling for the entire Board to go. Without the confidence of key stakeholders, any Board is going to find it hard to do its job.
But then, while the current Board certainly faces challenges, so would an entirely new Board. The loss of continuity that would result from a 100% change in membership could seriously impair the Board’s functioning, and make it even more reliant on — and susceptible to control by — university administrators. There’s a good reason why well-governed boards have careful plans in place to make sure that new blood is brought in regularly, rather than en masse. In the end, it seems to me that the best prescription is this. The Board of Trustess at Penn State needs to see substantial structural change. It also needs enough new blood to restore confidence, while retaining enough of the old guard to ensure continuity. Beyond that, the Board is just going to have to do its best to muddle through whatever challenges lie ahead, with whatever strengths and limits it possesses, just like any other board.
Two days ago, I asked — in the wake of the Costa Concordia disaster — whether the captain is duty-bound to “go down with his ship.” The question, I said, bears not just on the obligations of sea captains, but on individuals in positions of responsibility at organizations of all kinds. It also has implications for how organizations enculture individuals so that they see following through on promises as more than just a contractual obligation.
But today I’ll make explicit the analogy that is likely on the minds of most readers of this blog: never mind sea captains…what about CEOs? Does the CEO of a “sinking” company have a duty to “go down with the ship?”
First, it’s worth pointing out that sea captains don’t literally have to go down with the ship: closer to the truth is that they’re supposed to be the last ones off, or as close to last as is possible and permits them to do their duty to preserve the lives of crew and passengers. Similarly, bankruptcy for the company doesn’t literally have to imply bankruptcy for the CEO. In some cases, surely, bankruptcy isn’t the CEO’s fault, and there’s no reason to think that justice demands that a blameless CEO walk away penniless. But they should stick around to see the job done, even if that implies some financial risk to themselves.
Second, it seems to me that, as in the case of sea captains, the answer here has to depend a lot on the details of the situation. Sometimes staying aboard will genuinely help, and sometimes it won’t. Also, a CEO’s ill health might be a decent excuse, in some cases. And indeed, some corporate “captains” aren’t even wanted on a sinking ship: in 2008, for example, the US government forced Robert B. Willumstad to resign as CEO of the faltering AIG, and replaced him with Edward M Liddy. The idea that the captain should stick around to help only makes sense where the captain’s services continue to be seen as having value.
Third, there are several different ways in which a CEO can “abandon ship,” and they might not all be equally ethically bad. Abandoning ship could mean selling shares that are about to tank, or it might mean resigning prior to bankruptcy. Or it might mean resigning prior to an inevitable criminal investigation: several rats are known to have abandoned Enron’s sinking ship — Jeff Skilling, for example. Worst of all, perhaps, are “take the money and run” situations. Arranging a bonus for yourself just prior to declaring bankruptcy is the moral equivalent of looting the ship’s safe (or perhaps scuttling all the lifeboats) prior to prematurely abandoning ship.
As always, we need to be careful when engaging in moral reasoning by analogy. A company is not a boat, and bankruptcy is not the same as sinking. But what’s certainly true is that in both cases, the ethical requirements of leadership don’t end at the first sign of trouble.
Italian cruise-ship Captain Francesco Schettino is in jail, following an incident that left 6 dead and (at present) 29 missing. Among the accusations levied against is that he fled the foundering vessel before it was empty. (According to maritime law, a captain doesn’t literally have to “go down with the ship,” but he or she is supposed to be the last one off after ensuring the safety of others.)
Legal requirements aside, is there an ethical obligation for a captain to risk life and limb to stay on board until the last passenger and crewmembers are off? The answer is pretty clearly “yes.” Like many jobs, the job of captaining a ship comes with a range of risks and benefits. As long as the risks were understood when the job was taken on, you’re obligated to follow through.
There’s a more general point to be made here about the nature of ethics, and about ethics education and training.
Ethics often requires of us actions that we’d rather not carry out. You should tell the truth, even when it would be more convenient not to. You should keep your promises, even when breaking them would be more profitable. This is necessarily the case: if ethics only ever required you to do things you already wanted to do, there’d be no need for ethical rules (or at least no need to think of them as rules in the prescriptive sense).
But there’s at least a superficial tension, here, with the idea that ethics should be useful. After all, if having and following an ethical code doesn’t benefit us in some way, why bother? Sure, it’s easy enough to say “The right thing to do is the right thing to do,” but a system of ethics needs some justification in terms of human well-being or it’s just not going to be very credible, not to mention stable. Indeed, some ethical systems are subject to serious criticism precisely because their implications for human well-being are negative. Yes yes, I understand that your code of honour requires you to kill the man who killed your brother, but don’t you see how crazy this all is?
So there’s got to be some connection between ethics and benefit. And it’s not enough to point to social benefit. After all, pointing out that the community benefits from me taking ethics seriously merely pushes the question of justification to a second level: why should I care about the good of the community, especially if doing so requires significant self-sacrifice?
None of this should engender skepticism or cynicism. It just means we need to think carefully about who benefits, and how, from a system of ethics.
It also means that we need to think about how we can help individuals keep the promises that it was in their interest, initially to make. Captain Schettino found it in his interest to make certain promises (albeit perhaps implicit ones) when he signed on to be captain of the Costa Concordia, but then all of a sudden found himself in a situation where it was not in his interest to keep that promise. Threats of punishment were understandably insufficient, here. Staying out of jail is no great incentive if you’re free-but-dead.
Organizations of all kinds — including especially corporations and professional associations — need to work hard to help members think of the relevant ethical rules as something more than the terms of a contract, to help members become the sorts of people who simply would never abandon ship when they are needed most.
A few days ago, I blogged about the notion of “ethical oil”. That’s the label one advocacy group is applying to oil from Canada’s oilsands, to distinguish it from oil from Saudi Arabia, a country with a less-than-admirable human rights record. That, of course, is a gross oversimplification.
But it’s still an interesting ethical issue. I said,
In principle, we could look at this as a matter of “choose your poison.” Do you want the oil that’s associated with human rights violations, or the oil that’s associated with environmental destruction?
It’s important to point out that there are two reasons this is a false dilemma. One is that consumers don’t actually get to choose: oil isn’t labeled by country of origin. The other reason is that neither of the nations named above is perfect, from a social and human rights point of view; nor is either country perfect from the point of view of environmental protection.
But it’s a philosophical thought-experiment worth conducting. So, let’s imagine: you’re driving your car, and your tank is near empty. You’re at an intersection with two gas stations. One is the Saudi brand and the other is the oilsands brand. Which one would you choose?
(Again, I do realize this is a gross oversimplification. It’s not a real choice. It’s a thought-experiment to get you to think about the relative value of the environment and human rights. Let’s all be thankful it’s not a choice we actually have to make.)
Bribery is quite probably among the very oldest of unethical business practices, right up there with short-changing your customers and adulterating your products. Many modern economies have recognized that bribery has no place in a fair and efficient market, and have rightly taken action to prohibit what is widely acknowledged to be a pernicious practice. But not everyone is consistently appreciative of legislative efforts at curbing bribery. Take the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for example. To see why the Chamber isn’t altogether happy about the U.S. government’s anti-bribery efforts, see this story from the Washington Post’s David S. Hilzenrath: “Quandary for U.S. companies: Whom to bribe?”
American companies doing business abroad have a problem: They don’t know whom to bribe.
Federal law prohibits the bribery of some people but not others. And the business world argues that the rules of the road are not clear. One guy’s bribe, as it turns out, is another guy’s cost of doing business….
A few points:
1) In principle, at least, bribery is an ethical no-brainer. There really is no pro-bribery point of view. Some may argue that it’s a necessary evil, something that companies are forced into by practical considerations in some countries. But that’s at least nominally different from thinking that bribery is ethically OK. Bribery involves inducing someone to violate a duty of loyal service, and it diverts resources that ought to go to more legitimate ends. And besides, bribery is a zero-sum game, which means that by definition the business community as a whole cannot win.
2) The Chamber’s basic plea, here, is an entirely reasonable one: the law does need to be clear. One fundamental element of the rule of law is the notion that citizens (and, derivatively, corporations) must be able to know what the law requires of them. Ignorance is no excuse, but uncertainty may be, at least when lack of certainty is the legislator’s fault. In other words, if the citizen is ignorant of the law, shame on the citizen. But if the law is opaque, shame on the state.
3) If the law really is unclear in dangerous ways, the evidence for that is remarkably thin. The Chamber cites just one anecdote, quite possibly apocryphal, about a company that nearly got prosecuted for a trivial non-offence (paying for a bureaucrat’s taxi ride). We only have Hilzenrath’s account to work with, here, but clearly if there’s a real issue here the Chamber needs to do a better job of making the case.
4) There are just two kinds of situations in which bribery seems truly necessary, and neither of them reflects well on the businesses involved. One is when you’re operating in a context where bribery truly is endemic, and you need to engage in bribery just to keep up. The number of places where that’s true is likely exaggerated. And besides, that need is a lousy excuse, frankly, and any self-respecting businessperson should think seriously about why they want to do business at all in such places. The other situation, of course, in which bribery seems like a true business necessity is one in which you simply aren’t good enough at what you do to compete effectively without doing things you know to be wrong.