Archive for the ‘character’ Category

Capitalism and Bad Behaviour

Contrary to what you have heard, there is nothing immoral about capitalism.

A couple of weeks back, the New York Times published a truly scandalous opinion piece by essayist William Deresiewicz with the provocative title, Capitalists and Other Psychopaths. The views expressed in the piece are not just false, but dangerous.

The central claim of Deresiewicz’s essay is that “capitalism is predicated on bad behavior.” This claim is entirely untrue. Capitalism in no way requires bad behaviour. Indeed, to function even moderately well, capitalist markets rely on a general pattern of basic goodwill and honesty of its participants. Commerce of any kind requires trust, and trust is predicated on the expectation that the other person is going to follow some basic rules of decent behaviour. The niceties of the rules that ought to govern business are up for debate, the basic need for some sort of rules is not. Capitalism, in other words, presumes ethics.

Deresiewicz is right of course that bad behaviour does go on within capitalist systems. That’s not exactly a news flash. Nor is it unique to capitalism. There’s no evidence that either feudalism or communism magically turns humans into selfless and cooperative purveyors of peace, love and understanding.

The beauty of a free market, as Adam Smith taught us, is that it can generate benefits even even among mean-spirited. The taxi driver who took me to the airport this morning doesn’t have to like me, and he doesn’t have to be a particularly lovely human being. All that’s necessary, in order for me to get to the airport, is that he wants to make a living. But in no way does capitalism require that people be vicious or even indifferent to each other’s fates. As Nobel laureate Ronald Coase put it, “The great advantage of the market is that it is able to use the strength of self-interest to offset the weakness and partiality of benevolence.” We are limited in our sympathies for others. The good news is that, in the marketplace, our commitment to our own welfare, and the welfare of those we hold dear, inspires a great deal of creative and industrious activity that has as its very useful side-effect the provision of benefits to others.

Deresiewicz’s essay also takes a particularly gratuitous pot-shot at business school education. “I always found the notion of a business school amusing,” he writes. “What kinds of courses do they offer? Robbing Widows and Orphans? Grinding the Faces of the Poor?” This may be a joke, but it’s a baffling one. Is business management really so trivial a task that it couldn’t possibly require any advanced training? (The old-guard communists thought so, and look where it got them.) Say what you will about business schools, there’s little doubt that the better ones, at least, teach a serious and difficult curriculum. Deresiewicz’s slam here is also terribly and unnecessarily insulting to millions of business school graduates who work diligently and honestly to produce a bewildering array of goods and services. Yes yes, we all know about Ken Lay and Bernie Madoff. Those men deserve, and have already received, ample criticism. But why impugn the honesty and integrity of every single executive, mid-level manager and accountant along the way?

The key to understanding Deresiewicz’s error is to see that he thinks ethics should be exactly the same in all situations. Not just present, but the same. The virtues of the marketplace, he suggests, should be the same as those of the Christian bible. The norms we apply to commercial exchange, he suggests, should also be (or include?) those of civic life. But does anyone really believe that? If a company rips you off should you really “turn the other cheek,” in good Christian fashion? Should Apple and Dell really debate the qualities of their competing products and then have us all vote for the one winning product that we will then all buy? To expect the same behaviour in the market as in a townhall meeting makes about as much sense as to expect people to behave on a football field the same way they do in a church pew.

It goes without saying that Deresiewicz is not alone in his misunderstanding of the fundamentals of capitalism. But his misunderstanding is especially fundamental, and especially corrosive. The really troubling thing about Deresiewicz critique is that it suggests that there’s nothing about capitalism worth saving. If capitalism is intrinsically unethical — if it has the immorality baked right in — then why try to fix it? Why try to make things work better? We all might as well just settle in and enjoy our smug cynicism. Because like a lot of really trenchant critics, Deresiewicz offers us no alternative.

Why the Wal-Mart Bribery Scandal Doesn’t Really Matter

The recent allegations of bribery at Walmart de Mexico are, if true, a damning indictment of a significant handful of senior executives. But they tell us little about the company as a whole, and even less about capitalism.

One of the most pervasive, and least endearing, characteristics of human beings is our tendency to project instances of failure on the part of one or a few individuals onto entire groups or institutions, and to use such individual failures as evidence confirming deep, dark suspicions to which we are already committed. The nationalist and racist versions of this pattern are too familiar to need description. But this tendency plays a role in our evaluation of various corporations, too.

This is precisely the risk with regard to the recent Wal-Mart bribery scandal.

Many critics of Wal-Mart, or of the corporate world more generally, are, I suspect, secretly or not so secretly pleased at the revelation that executives at the highest levels of the company are (allegedly) implicated in this scandal. It supports, after all, a thesis that critics believed all along. It proves, doesn’t it, that the company is rotten to the core. And perhaps it even proves, or at least adds substantial weight to the thesis, that capitalism itself is inherently evil. After all, we now see credible allegations that the most senior executives at one of the world’s biggest companies — that very paragon of ruthless efficiency and expansionary capitalistic zeal — were engaged in a practice so thoroughly discredited that it is illegal even in places where, unfortunately, it is still common.

It’s a tempting conclusion, but also a very bad mistake.

First, it’s a mistake because the (alleged) behaviour of Eduardo Castro-Wright (president of Walmart de Mexico during the events in question), Mike Duke (CEO of Walmart Stores, Inc.), and other top executives tells you nothing about the other 2.2 million people who work there. It tells you nothing about the character of the people who stock the shelves and work the cash registers. And it certainly tells you nothing about the sincerity of the people hard at work to implement the company’s ambitious sustainability and CSR goals. Nor do the recent revelations help with the big question about Walmart’s overall impact. Some people hate Walmart; others literally think the company deserves a Nobel Peace Prize. The corrupt actions of a handful of executives tell us nothing about whether the company is, on net, a force for good or evil. Walmart serves as a go-between, joining poor factory workers in Asia with (mostly) poor consumers in North America. It improves lives at both ends, while notoriously squeezing the middle-man. Whether that is on balance a good thing has nothing to do with who bribed whom to do what.

Nor do the recent accusations tell us anything, factually or ethically, about capitalism itself. Bribery isn’t a feature of capitalism; rather, it is anti-capitalistic, the very opposite of proper, competitive, capitalist behaviour. The accusations, if true, don’t prove that capitalism is inherently corrupt, but merely that a handful of executives at one particular company were corrupt.

Not to be clear: none of this is exculpatory, nor is it intended to trivialize the very significant impact that this scandal might have on Walmart, its employees, and its suppliers. None of what I’ve said above excuses the reprehensible behaviour that seems to have gone on at the world’s biggest retailer. That behaviour violated fundamental moral principles. It violated the law. It violated the company’s own standards of ethics. It violated the fundamentals of capitalism. But we must not confuse the actions of individuals, even highly-placed individuals, with the virtues or vices of entire organizations or of the market itself.

Social Class and Unethical Behaviour

Hating the rich comes pretty naturally to a lot of people. And so it’s not surprising that a widely-reported study apparently demonstrating that the rich are less ethical resulted in a combination of glee and eye-rolling proclamations that “we already knew that.”

There’s plenty to say about the study — lots of people (mostly in the comments accompanying various reports on the study) have pointed to what they say are methodological weaknesses related to sample size, how participants were chosen, what kinds of tests are taken as proxies for a lack of ethics, etc.

But if we take as given the conclusion that the rich do behave less ethically (by certain measures) this raises the question of what causes such behaviour on the part of the rich. To their credit, the study’s authors at least gesture at subtlety: “This finding is likely to be a multiply determined effect involving both structural and psychological factors.” But the authors do spend an awful lot of time discussing what they clearly take to be the key causal factor, namely greed. “Greed,” the authors write, “is a robust determinant of unethical behaviour.”

But the role that greed plays is in fact very far from obvious. The citations given by the authors are not entirely compelling, and as I’ve pointed out before, there’s considerable evidence (found primarily in the literature on criminology) that greed is not a key explanatory factor in much wrongdoing. Wrongdoing is more generally explained by the capacity for rationalization, for telling oneself compelling stories about why one’s own behaviour isn’t wrong after all.

It’s also worth pointing out the more general problem with establishing causal relationships. Note that the title of the study says only that “Higher social class predicts increased unethical behaviour” [emphasis added]. But the headline writers for various news outlets are not so careful: Wired, for example, tells us that “Wealth Could Make People Unethical” [emphasis added]. And the distinction is important. Owning an ashtray may predict increased tendency toward lung cancer, but we’re pretty sure that ashtrays don’t cause lung cancer. So is being rich making people unethical, or is being unethical a route to getting rich, or are both the result of some third factor, like ambition?

What’s the practical upshot of all this? That, too, depends on the direction of causation. If being rich makes less ethical, then you have a reason — perhaps not a compelling one — to worry about the effect that your own increasing wealth might have on your morals. And, given what I said above about the role of rationalization, you ought to watch yourself for signs that you’re telling yourself those comforting little stories that make you feel better about behaviour that you know, deep down, is unethical.

If, on the other hand, being less ethical is a route to riches — well, that points in a couple of different directions. For individuals, the dangerous and cynical conclusion is that you need to learn to bend the rules to get ahead. But from a systems point of view, the implication is quite different: how do we design institutions so that ethical, socially-constructive behaviour is rewarded, and that socially-destructive but individually-profitable behaviour is not?

The third possibility — that some third factor, like ambition is the crucial causal factor — has implications also. This possibility raises the question of social tradeoffs. What if a certain amount of anti-social behaviour is the quid pro quo of entrepreneurship and creativity? Is the amount of social good done by ambitious people sufficient to make us tolerate a certain amount of unethical behaviour? History is full of accounts of crummy human beings with the vaulting ambition to produce great works of art, literature, and science. Steve Jobs was, by all accounts, a difficult guy to say the least, and had a habit of treating people very, very badly throughout his career. But then, he also gave the world a lot of ‘insanely great,’ innovative products.

Of course, whether such trade-offs are worthwhile is a world-class philosophical problem, the answer to which is far from clear. But what’s much more clear is that individuals can’t rightly help themselves to the relevant justifications. We can’t excuse our own bad behaviour by pointing to our productivity. We are all far, far too likely to overestimate our own social contributions, and to underestimate our own foibles and peccadilloes. And that, it seems to me, is the root of a much more likely explanation of patterns of unethical behaviour than is the simplistic assumption — an assumption that all too often simply reaffirms a cynical worldview — that it all really boils down to greed.

Must the Captain Go Down With His Ship?

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.

Greed, Capitalism, and the Occupy Movement

What’s wrong with greed, anyway? No, don’t worry, this isn’t going to be one of those ill-conceived “greed is what makes capitalism work” diatribes. After all — with apologies to Gordon Gekko — that’s nonsense. Greed isn’t what makes capitalism work. Self-interest and ambition, maybe. But not greed.

Greed, after all, is the unseemly and excessive love of money, a desire for more than your share. And that is neither necessary nor sufficient for the operation of our economic system. None the less, there are many who believe that greed is not just an enemy, but the enemy.

Canadian pundit Rex Murphy recently argued that if greed is the enemy, then the Occupy movement should forget Wall Street, and instead Occupy Hollywood. After all, he argued, if you’re looking for greed, the best examples aren’t bankers, but rather the actors and producers and miscellaneous talentless celebrities who gleefully rake in millions in La La Land for doing next to nothing.

It’s hard to know what to make of Murphy’s argument. The simplest interpretation is that it’s a grenade lobbed over the wall of the culture war. Stop bothering the hard-working bankers, you Occupiers! Go pester the makers of low-brow entertainment.

More likely is that Murphy is doing something one step cleverer than that. By taking aim at celebrities, he’s telling “the 99%” to rue the wealth of the monsters they themselves have created. Kim Kardashian, after all, is astonishingly wealthy only because an astonishing number of people have paid to see her hijinks. But — and this, I think, must be Murphy’s unstated punchline — the same generally goes for the wealthy on Wall Street. They got wealthy because a whole lot of people each found a little bit of use for their services. And a whole lot, multiplied by a little bit, can be billions of dollars. True, some on Wall Street have multiplied their earnings through corrupt means. But the basic mechanism of wealth aggregation is the same, whether on Wall Street or in the Hollywood Hills.

OK, back to greed. Where Murphy goes astray is in his focus on that particular vice. Vast wealth is a feature of the stories of both Hollywood and Wall Street, but the role of greed in generating such wealth is very much in question. After all, being handed a million dollars doesn’t make you greedy. Even asking for a million dollars doesn’t make you greedy, when the pile on the table is much larger than that and when everyone in a similar situation is asking for a similar amount.

No, greed isn’t the problem. Greed isn’t what makes capitalism work, but nor is it typically the culprit when capitalism goes astray. The real problem isn’t greed, but rather institutional structures that reward antisocial behaviour. Which structures? Well, that depends on which particular antisocial behaviour you’re talking about. And that’s precisely where the Occupy movement faces its greatest challenge. You can’t plausibly take aim at a hundred different social ills and presume to find the cause of them all in the single word “greed.”

Conflict of Interest: the SEC Doesn’t Get It

There are a few ways to interpret how the Securities and Exchange Commission handled a blatant conflict of interest on the part of one of its own lawyers, and none of them is particularly flattering.

If you don’t already know the story, see this Wall St. Journal editorial: The SEC’s Ethics: Washington’s double standard on conflicts of interest

…this week’s remarkable report from SEC Inspector General David Kotz disclosing how the SEC’s former top lawyer, David Becker, directly handled matters relating to the Madoff fraud case despite his mother’s $2 million investment with the firm, to which he and his brothers were heirs….

Despite a clear conflict, Mr. Becker didn’t recuse himself. He did (properly) report the conflict to his superior, Mary Schapiro, but she didn’t take the appropriate action in response.

How do we explain this failure? One possibility is that leadership of the Commission is clueless about what conflict of interest is. That seems unlikely; watching for conflict of interest at regulated companies is an important part of the Commission’s mandate.

Alternatively, it could be that this is a case of actual corruption (something not intrinsic to the notion of conflict of interest). That is, it’s possible that Becker was intentionally acting in a genuinely self-serving way, and that Schapiro was facilitating his attempt to do so. But there’s no evidence of that as far as I can see, and making that assumption is neither charitable nor consistent with our best understanding of what motivates wrongdoing. Self-serving rationalizations are much more commonly the mechanism behind wrongdoing than is actual pursuit of personal gain. So I’m willing to assume that Becker and Schapiro genuinely thought there was no real problem, that Becker was technically in a conflict, but that that conflict wouldn’t actually affect his ability to make the right decisions.

More likely, it seems to me, is that Becker and Schapiro, while understanding what conflict of interest is, how it is defined, etc., don’t really get the moral significance of the concept. They don’t see that conflict of interest isn’t about some personal interest actually having an influence on the integrity of the decision-maker. They don’t see that avoiding conflict of interest is about avoiding the shadow of doubt, a shadow that reduces people’s trust in the organization as a whole.

This sort of misunderstanding is alarmingly common in institutions that treat ethics as an administrative function. They focus on the rules, and on the processes and procedures that need to be built in order to enforce the rules. But too often, then forget why the rules are there in the first place.
Notice / Correction: The first version of this blog entry had a serious, repeat typo, wrongly implying that Mr Kotz, rather than Mr. Becker, was the one in the conflict. I’ve fixed that sloppy error above. My apologies for any confusion.

Highest Standards Aren’t Always Best in Ethics

No one wants low ethical standards, but it’s also a mistake to aim at the highest possible standards — at least it can be, depending on what you mean by “highest.”

See, for example, this useful piece on defence contractors, by Noah Shachtman for Wired: Pentagon Probe Will Review Every Darpa Contract

Since Regina Dugan became the director of Darpa [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency], the Pentagon’s top research division has signed millions of dollars’ worth of contracts with her family firm, which in turn owes her at least a quarter-million dollars. It’s an arrangement that has raised eyebrows in the research community, and has now drawn the attention of the Defense Department’s internal auditors and investigators…

The story usefully points out that aiming for the highest possible standards of integrity can also cause trouble:

[A former director’s] bright ethical guidelines had unintended consequences. If a company allowed an employee to take a sabbatical to join Darpa, the firm was essentially blocking itself from millions of dollars in agency research projects.

The result, of course, is that under the old rules the agency risked cutting off useful sources of expertise. That’s not to say that the old rules were worse. It’s just to point out that there’s a legitimate trade-off here.

There’s a very general lesson to be drawn from this. When thinking about ethics, the goal isn’t always to be squeaky-clean. The goal is to find standards that are high enough to merit the trust of relevant stakeholders, and to do so without sacrificing other, possibly-equally important, values.

Consider this graphic, which illustrates the challenge of choosing experts to make decisions. On one hand, we want people with real expertise. On the other hand, we want to avoid conflict of interest. That is, we want maximum expertise and minimal risk of bias. So the upper-left quadrant of this graphic is the sweet spot:

conflict of interest: bias and expertise

Note that what we’re looking for here is not the “highest possible” standard of integrity (i.e., the standard that implies the lowest possible risk of bias among decision-makers), but a system that makes the optimal tradeoff between risk of bias, on one hand, and relevant expertise, on the other. The point here is not that we’re trading off ethics and expediency. The point is that we’re trading off competing, ethically-significant values.

The point in thinking about ethics is not to aim at the highest standards, but at the best standards. We do enormous damage both to the functioning of organizations and to people’s willingness to talk openly about ethics when we talk about “high standards” in a way that comes off as unthinkingly pious.

Yes, there is such a thing as business ethics

Marketing guru (blogger, author, etc.) Seth Godin posted a provocative blog entry called, “No such thing as business ethics”, in which he worries that the focus on “business ethics and corporate social responsibility” is distracting us from questions of personal responsibility:

It comes down to this: only people can have ethics. Ethics, as in, doing the right thing for the community even though it might not benefit you or your company financially….

Now I could quibble with Godin’s definition of ethics, which is actually a particular controversial view about what ethics requires, rather than a definition. But instead I’m going to take issue with Godin’s claim that all that matters in business is personal ethics, rather than organizational ethics. Godin writes:

I worry that we absolve ourselves of responsibility when we talk about business ethics and corporate social responsibility. Corporations are collections of people, and we ought to insist that those people (that would be us) do the right thing. Business is too powerful for us to leave our humanity at the door of the office. It’s not business, it’s personal.

Godin’s claim that “it’s not business, it’s personal” is problematic in two ways. First, it wrongly implies that business ethics somehow misses out on the whole personal integrity thing. That’s entirely false. Both the academic literature on business ethics and the “ethics and values” programs set up by individual companies put a lot of emphasis on individuals adopting the right values and making good decisions. Secondly, contrary to what Godin implies, individual ethics clearly is not enough. For one thing, people embedded in organizations have obligations that are role-specific. Just as lawyers and doctors have special duties that go along with their roles — they have to follow not just their own consciences, but also highly specific professional codes — so do people in the world of business. And for another thing, organizations can be set up badly such that all kinds of “good” individual decisions can still lead to problematic outcomes. The ethics of the organization, per se, matters a lot.

Interestingly, Godin tells us that he learned about all this from his dad. Unfortunately, while the homely lessons we learned at our parents’ knees tend to give us a good start in life, complex institutional settings tend to bring more complex duties, and hence require more complex principles.

Want to Avoid Scandal at the Top? Hire a Woman!

There’s an antiquated quip / greeting-card slogan / bumper sticker that says, “Sometimes the best man for the job is a woman.” I say “antiquated” because in 2011, we all know that very often — let’s say half the time — the best person for the job is a woman. That’s far beyond “sometimes.” But there’s one job-related talent that seems to make women especially qualified for positions of senior leadership, and that is their apparent ability to avoid bringing themselves, and their organizations, into disrepute by involving themselves scandals.

See this story by Sheryl Gay Stolberg, for the NY Times: When it Comes to Scandal, Girls Won’t Be Boys

Female politicians rarely get caught up in sex scandals. Women in elective office have not, for instance, blubbered about Argentine soul mates (see: Sanford, Mark); been captured on federal wiretaps arranging to meet high-priced call girls (Spitzer, Eliot); resigned in disgrace after their parents paid $96,000 to a paramour’s spouse (Ensign, John) or, as in the case of Mr. Weiner, blasted lewd self-portraits into cyberspace….

Now, Stolberg’s piece is about male vs female political leadership. But the same point can be made in the corporate world. What do the names Skilling, Madoff, Boesky, and Hurd all have in common? Well in addition to referring to persons implicated in major scandals, they all have the title “Mr” in front of them. Indeed, it’s relatively hard to name a female CEO or other senior executive who was culpable in a headline-making scandal. Martha Stewart’s name comes to mind, but her insider trading had nothing to do with her executive position. (And sure, Oprah Winfrey, CEO of Harpo Productions, gave Jenny McCarthy her own TV show, but that’s a different kind of scandal.)

Of course, we have to be careful with letting anecdotes stand in for stats, here. The first and most obvious reason why my male CEOs are involved in more scandals is because there are more CEOs. According to the Globe and Mail, “Only 17 per cent of corporate officers and 13 per cent of directors at Canada’s top 500 private and public sector companies are female.” According to Catalyst (a nonprofit aimed at expanding business opportunities for women), only 30 of The Financial Post 500 companies are headed by women. In the US, the numbers seem even lower: as of 2009, there were just 13 female CEOs in the Fortune 500.

Still, it does seem that males are liable to be involved in scandals out of proportion to their statistical dominance in the C-suite. Male CEOs seem more likely to behave badly than female ones. Does this have anything to do with the documented correlation between testosterone and financial risk-taking? Hard to say. But it wouldn’t be that surprising if a tendency toward risky behaviour in one domain were correlated with a tendency toward risky behaviour in another.

So should boards of directors actually discriminate against men, given the male tendency to become embroiled in scandals? No. For one thing, the fact that “more” male CEOs than female CEOs seem to get into hot water has to be put into context: very few CEOs of either sex get themselves into the kind of trouble that makes headlines. So to say that men are more likely to get into trouble is like saying that the risk of getting hit by lightning is higher than the risk of shark attack: both risks are in fact tiny. And besides, we probably don’t want to advocate discrimination against individuals based on their membership in a group that merely has a statistical tendency towards a particular weakness. But then again, such a statistically-driven hiring bias might well be better than the entirely baseless bias that results in their being so few female CEOs in the first place.

Should Boards Monitor CEO Morality?

A Board of Directors is responsible for overseeing the management and direction of a company, and that task includes monitoring the full range of risks to which a company might be subject. But what if the company’s CEO is one of those risks? What should a board do when a CEO’s off-the-job behaviour raises concerns? The IMF’s Dominique Strauss-Kahn is a case in point. Long before his recent arrest, Strauss-Kahn’s behaviour towards women raised eyebrows. Should it also have spurred the IMF’s Board to act?

See this story, by Janet McFarland, in the Globe and Mail: When and how to confront a wayward leader

Most corporate directors find it hard enough to confront a respected CEO about work-related poor performance, but it is even harder to tip-toe into the minefield of rumours about problems in an executive’s personal life.

(I’ve blogged before about whether ‘private’ vice is a business issue. I’ve also written about whether a CEO’s divorce is a purely personal matter or not.)

McFarland quotes me in her story, but let me give a slightly fuller version of my comments here.

To start, it’s worth making a distinction. There are personal vices that are strictly personal (including most of what goes on between consenting adults behind closed doors.) And there are personal vices that are very likely to impinge upon the workplace or on performance at work. A tendency to engage in sexual harassment is an obvious example, as is heavy drug use.) But, when you’re a CEO of a name-brand organization, that distinction tends to break down. High profile means that personal vices can turn public very quickly, and affect the organization.

Also, bad behaviour on the part of those in the public eye can easily lead to blackmail, which can result in misuse of position and other kinds of bad decision-making. This is another example of why great power brings great responsibility.

On the other hand, there are lines boards should be hesitant to cross, on principled grounds. A CEO’s sexual orientation, for example, should be off-limits. This is obviously less of an issue in 2011 than it would have been in 1951, but even today a gay CEO might be seen as a risk factor (especially for an organization with a conservative customer base) but boards should take a principled stand against taking an interest in their CEO’s sexuality. The board has fiduciary duties to protect the company, but even fiduciary duties have their limits.

The last point I want to make here is that, when faced with a CEO’s bad behaviour, a Board faces more than a yes-or-no question. The ethical question here is not just a matter of whether to confront the CEO, but how to do it. A Board in such a situation needs to formulate a plan — a method of proceeding, including answers to questions like:

  • Will the Chair of the Board approach the CEO solo, or should an ad hoc committee do it?
  • Should they raise the issue explicitly, or obliquely?
  • Should they give the CEO an ultimatum, or ask his or her suggestions for how things might improve?
  • Given various anticipated responses by the CEO, how will the Board/Chair plan to react in turn?
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