Talking about Ethics: Negotiating the Maze

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You do what your job requires, and you keep your mouth shut. Second, the managers that I interviewed feel that Brady had plenty of available legitimations to excuse or justify his not acting. Clearly, they feel, a great many other executives knew about the pension fund scam and did nothing; everybody, especially the top bosses, was playing the game. Why, then, worry about it? Besides, Brady had a number of ways out of the situation if he found it intolerable, including resigning.

Moreover, whatever action he took would be insignificant anyway so why bother to act at all and jeopardize himself? Even a fool should have known that the CEO was not likely to take whatever blame resulted from the whole affair.

Only those with an inexhaustible capacity for self-rationalization, fueled by boundless ambition, can escape the discomfort such compromises produce. The notion of comfort has many meanings. When applied to other persons, the idea of comfort is an intuitive measure of trustworthiness, reliability, and predictability in a polycentric world that managers often find troubling, ambiguous, and anxiety-laden. They objected in particular to those aspects of my brief written proposal that discussed the ethical dilemmas of managerial work.

Taking these cues, I rewrote and rewrote the proposal couching my problem in the bland, euphemistic language that I was rapidly learning is the lingua franca of the corporate world. But such recasting eroded whatever was distinctive about the project and some managers dismissed the study as a reinvention of the wheel. The process centered on the written proposal that I had been circulating and consisted essentially of a furthering of my linguistic education in the art of indirect rather than pointed statement and, more particularly, a reformulation of my inquiry that recast the moral issues of managerial work as issues of public relations.

When, after several rewritings, the proposal satisfied him, he approached a well-placed executive in a large textile firm that I have given the pseudonym of Weft Corporation and vouched for me. At that point, the proposal itself became meaningless since, to my knowledge, no one except the two executives who arranged access ever saw it.

Moral Maze

The personal vouching, however, was crucial. These include organizational upheavals, political rivalries, linguistic ambiguity, the supremacy of chance and tangled personal connections over any notion of intrinsic merit, the central significance of public relations, and, perhaps especially, the ceaseless moral probations for inclusion in a managerial circle. Managers keep their eyes on the organizational premiums that shape behavior, values, ethics, and worldviews in corporate bureaucracies.

I focus on those premiums… Location The CEO and his aides said that Covenant simply did not have the experience to mine these minerals efficiently, a self-evident fact from the low profit rate of the business. In all likelihood, according to a manager close to the situation, the CEO, a man with a financial bent and a ready eye for the quick paper deal, felt so uncomfortable with the exigencies of mining these minerals that he ignored the fact that the prices the corporation was getting for the minerals had been negotiated forty years earlier.

Navigating Fundraising’s Moral Maze with a Robust Ethical Policy

Such impulsiveness and indeed, one might say from a certain perspective, irrationality, is, of course, always justified in rational and reasonable terms. It is so commonplace in the corporate world that many managers expect whatever ordered processes they do erect to be subverted or overturned by executive fiat, masquerading as an established bureaucratic procedure or considered judgment.

And he and others know that I am someone who can be trusted. I can keep my mouth shut….

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Only those men and women who allow peers and superiors to feel morally comfortable in the ambiguous muddles of the world of affairs have a chance to survive and flourish in big organizations when power and authority shift due to changes in markets, internal power struggles, or the need to respond to external exigencies. The logical result of alertness to expediency is the elimination of any ethical lines at all. One must therefore prevail regularly, though not always, in small things to have any hope of positioning oneself for big issues.

The hidden agenda of seemingly petty disputes may be a struggle over long-term organizational fates. A fundamental rule of corporate politics is that one never cedes control over assets, even if the assets are administrative headaches.

However, since rewards are always scarce, bureaucracies necessarily pit people against each other and inevitably thwart the ambitions of some. When asked who gets ahead, an executive vice-president at Weft Corporation says: The guys who want it [get ahead]. The guys who work. You can spot it in the first six months. They work hard, they come to work earlier, they leave later. They have suggestions at meetings. They come into a business and the business picks right up.

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You see the parade of people going back and forth down here? I never did that. If you need coffee, you can have it at your desk. Some people put in time and some people work. Managers also stress the need to exercise iron self-control and to have the ability to mask all emotion and intention behind bland, smiling, and agreeable public faces. To become credible easily and quickly.

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You can advance quickly even without technical experience if you have style. You get a lot of points for style. The key in public performances and presentations is in knowing how to talk forcefully without referring to notes and memoranda. To be able to map out plans quickly and surely. More generally, there are several rules that apply here. Second, a person who always hits his numbers but who lacks some or all of the required social skills will not rise.

Third, a person who sometimes misses his numbers but who has all the desirable social traits will rise. People know their own shortcomings. A lot of people are sitting in jobs that they know are bigger than they should be in. And they are very fearful of making a mistake and this leads to all sorts of personal disloyalty. But people know their capabilities and know that they are on thin ice. And they know that if they make mistakes, it will cost them dearly. The two go together. One comes to gauge that hard-won access to managerial circles takes precedence over fussing with abstract principles.

One must, in fact, put distance between oneself and technical details of every sort or risk the inevitable entrapment of the particular. Salesmen, too, must leave their bags and regular customers and long boisterous evenings that seal measurable deals behind them and turn to marketing strategies. Work becomes more ambiguous, directed as it is toward maneuvering money, symbols, organizational structures, and especially people. And those who do succeed, those who find their way out of the crowded, twisting corridors and into the back rooms where the real action is, where the big games take place, and where everyone present is a player, shape, in a decisive way, the moral rules-in-use that filter down through their organizations.

The ethos that they fashion turns principles into guidelines, ethics into etiquette, values into tastes, personal responsibility into an adroitness at public relations, and notions of truth into credibility.

Corporations rely on other institutions—principally the schools—to establish what might be called competence hurdles. The demonstrated ability of a student to leap over successively higher hurdles in school is taken as evidence of the ability to weather well the probationary trials of corporate life. In Alchemy Inc. By the time managers reach such a numbered grade in an ordered hierarchy—and the grade is socially defined and varies from company to company—managerial competence as such is taken for granted and assumed not to differ greatly from one manager to the next.

A product manager in the chemical company talks about the lack of connection between work and results: I guess the most anxiety provoking thing about working in business is that you are judged on results whether those results are your fault or not. So you can get a guy who has tried really hard but disaster strikes; and you can get a guy who does nothing and his business makes a big success.

One of the top executives in Weft Corporation echoes this sentiment: I always say that there is no such thing as a marketing genius; there are only great markets. Assuming a basic level of corporate resources and managerial know-how, real economic outcome is seen to depend on factors largely beyond organizational or personal control.

You know, the old virtues. Things happen to people and being in the right time and place and knowing the right people is the key. Both outcomes, however, undercut the ideology of managerial planning and control. So when you get a guy in the business who comes in under or over the plan, well, both are equally suspect.

Like when we shut down [business A] and put the money into [business B], the whole legitimacy of the operation depends on the [business A] guys accepting the rationale that more money can be made in another operation. The machine sprang to life and he became a hero. If I tell someone what to do—like do A, B, or C—the inference and implication is that he will succeed in accomplishing the objective.

They just give a statement of objectives, and then they can criticize subordinates who fail to make their goals. The following day, a stringent system for monitoring mileage replaced the previous casual practice. I once knew a guy whom I knew was about to be fired and I asked if he had been told and he had never been told. I think you should tell people explicitly.