The ethics of management: honesty

Two readers have asked me to elaborate on the earlier post in which I touched on the issue of ethics in management.

Ethics in management is a subset of ‘business ethics’ or ‘corporate ethics’ in general.  As someone with a great deal of experience in bio-ethics, I have to admit that business ethics never struck me as particularly complicated.  Whatever challenges business may face, they pale alongside the complexity of issues such as human cloning, xenotransplantation, or ectogenesis, to name a few.

I assume (let’s call it an educated guess) that ‘business ethics’ is just a matter of applying regular ethics in a business context – the kind of problems that could be resolved merely by not ceasing to act like a good person during your day-job.  So let’s start small and see if we can devise some applications for ethics in the realm of business.

Honesty

In a previous role with a corporate not-for-profit aged-care provider, the manager once emailed our team of eight to organise a meeting with the director of our department.  The email included the time and date, noting in advance that two of our colleagues would be busy and unable to make it, with ‘apologies’ suitably noted. It was unusual for our director to want to see us, so I emailed the manager to ask what the meeting was about. “Just a catch up” she replied.

On the day of the meeting the director and an HR manager arrived at the office where I worked with two of my colleagues.  The HR manager’s presence was slightly ominous, as was the non-appearance of our own manager, or any of our other colleagues.  As it turned out, the email setting up a ‘team meeting’ was a ploy to ensure the three of us could be made redundant without any fuss, awkwardness, or opportunity for difficult questions.

To identify this as an ethical lapse would sound naive in a business context.  No one would be losing any sleep over the fact that our manager told us a blatant lie.  Anyone we might complain to would see the complaint as merely a reflection of our bitterness over having being made redundant, and would interpret the ethical critique as a churlish attempt to throw mud at our former manager.

So perhaps the need for ‘business ethics’ is real after all – not because business throws up unique ethical challenges, but because people acting under the auspices of professional authority need a specific reminder that ethics still applies.

In a business context the fact that our manager so obviously lied to us would not be viewed as an ethical failure, but simply as how she chose to deal with this particular management scenario.  She could potentially be criticised for her management style, but even then the lie would be viewed merely as a tactical failure, not a moral one.

If we were friends or relatives instead of subordinates, the lie would take center-stage.  No one would critique her ‘friend management style’ as though there are a number of techniques and tactics for controlling and manipulating one’s friends; they would immediately recognise that the moral issue of honesty was the point of concern.

The Ideal

Why is it wrong for a manager to lie to her subordinates?  We could spend all day looking at a number of contentious ethical theories, but let us confine ourselves to the understanding that honesty is a virtue.  As a virtue, honesty is the habitual inclination toward the truth.  An honest person prefers truth over lies and acts in accord with that preference.  Lying is a breach of that virtue, and an unrepentant lie suggests a dishonest character. Naturally, a dishonest person cultivates distrust in those around her.  Looking back through the two years we worked with that manager, it is now unclear if anything she ever said to us was worthy of trust.

In this sense, a dishonest person is bad for subordinates and colleagues who cannot trust her, and bad for superiors who cannot rely on her.  Distrust and unreliability are bad for morale and undermine the culture of the organisation.

But more importantly, dishonesty is bad for the individual herself.  Dishonesty means routinely putting other motives ahead of the truth. It is a sign of a disordered soul that does not value the truth and can no longer preserve a sense of reverence or even obligation to the truth.  It also signifies a lack of respect for others, a callousness towards colleagues, subordinates, and superiors that ultimately implies a deeply egoistic individual.  Whatever her deepest motives, a manager who lies is simply a person who lies; and a person who lies has a disordered soul.

An organisation that encourages its employees to lie – either tacitly or overtly – is itself disordered.  But the reality is that any ‘organisation’ is, in ethical terms, no more than the sum of its parts.  That means a director who encourages a manager to lie, or a colleague who turns a blind eye to it, are increasingly complicit in the dishonesty at play.  It is not possible to hide behind the organisation any more than it is a viable excuse to be a passive bystander to some kind of group violence.  We cannot look at others being lied to or otherwise deceived by a colleague, say “glad it’s not me!”, and then move on with ‘business as usual’.

Ultimately we too are culpable for making ourselves accomplices to such deeds.  A dishonest manager wreaks havoc on her own character; colleagues who excuse or rationalise such behaviour as ‘just business’ damage themselves in the process.  At the end of the day, we have to ask ourselves who and what we wish to align ourselves with: powerful people who have forged careers with scant regard for the truth and respect for others?  Or do we prefer truth and respect over money and influence?

What price do you put on your own good character?  And do you truly recognise the price you are already paying for your dishonesty?  These are hard questions, and they are meant to be.  Ethics is not about basic rules or protocols, but about the substance of your own life – what kind of person you are, and what kind of person you are becoming.  The problem with business ethics in general is that when money is involved we lose our normal sense of priorities.  We act as though the organisation shields us from culpability. But this sense of being ‘shielded’ is already a kind of damage to your psyche.  It’s an unsubstantiated dissociation from one’s own moral sense.  It is what allows dishonest people to thrive, and honest people to let them.  Can you imagine what would happen if every employee of an organisation took personal moral responsibility for their actions?

More to come…

 

 

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