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This is a topic that many business people might prefer not to talk about. Haven't we enough problems in these hard times? Must we scrounge around and look for more?
But I'm jumping the gun. Let's kick off with a story.
A certain director of manufacturing, in a large concern employing 4000 people, prided himself in his special management style - "managing by walking around," as he called it.
Rather than sit in his office and wait for people to come to him with their problems, he preferred to move around continuously from location to location. That way, he could learn about the difficult situations in the early stages, and nip them in the bud.
One day, a factory hand was working on a baling machine with moveable parts. The machine caught part of his clothing and the poor man almost was strangled. Fortunately, he managed to wrench himself loose just in time, and despite some nasty injuries, he survived.
Accidents of some sort aren't that uncommon in large manufacturing plants, but there's always the question of why and how it happened, particularly in a serious case such as this. The shop floor management had to file a labor report to explain the circumstances.
The standard form asks: "Was there anything unusual about this case?" To this question, shop management replied: "No."
There the matter may have rested, if not for the perambulatory habits of our energetic director of manufacturing.
On his travels around the plant, he would sniff out all sorts of things. One day, he found out that the man who got mauled by the baling machine had worked more than two straight shifts without a break, and had been into his nineteenth or twentieth hour of work at the time of the accident.
Our director was keenly aware of the gravity of the situation.
Shop management had tried to cover things up. True, they had not claimed specifically "Did not work overtime." But they did say: "No unusual circumstances." Our director of manufacturing was duty bound to read them the riot act.
Unfortunately, there was just one problem.
The worker who had taken the director aside and revealed the true story had made him promise not to reveal his name. The director was in a little bit of a quandary, for he could not betray his informant's trust. But he hit on a solution.
One day, he called in the shop manager and announced: "Here I am with a piece of paper. I've got an anonymous letter that says maybe this case wasn't what it was reported to have been."This did the trick, and the director was able, in his own words, to "get down to brass tacks with this guy." A weakness in the company had been the unwillingness of its people to surface unpleasant information, and finally he had made some of them realize the seriousness of the issue.
A decade or two ago, a professor at the Harvard Business School, Barbara Ley Toffler, conducted a series of candid and revelatory interviews with a wide range of managers and executive officers. The interviewees were asked to talk frankly about ethical dilemmas they had experienced in their work lives. The various accounts, together with Professor Toffler's comments, were published in a seminal book called Tough Choices: Managers Talk Ethics.
Our story above was recounted to the author of this book by one of the participating executives. Our director of manufacturing was reported as confiding in his interviewer: "The 'anonymous letter' bothers the hell out of me because I don't really like to lie."
Interestingly, another young manager, when told how our director had solved his dilemma, instantly responded: "It doesn't matter what good was achieved. Lying is wrong. And once you've told a little lie, it becomes easier and easier to lie again and again. He shouldn't have done it."
When asked how *he* would have handled the cover-up of the dangerous practice while protecting the informant, the young manager confessed: "I don't know. I hate situations like that; they always paralyze me. I guess I would have done nothing."
"Would doing nothing have been an ethical way of handling the situation?" the professor asked him.
"No," he replied, "but at least, I would not have lied."
As Professor Toffler points out, our director, and, hypothetically, the young manager, faced a prototypical ethical dilemma. As the director of manufacturing put it: "The dilemma is letting a person get in trouble to serve the greater good...versus protecting the person and letting the bad persist." The young manager would have done nothing, which would have resulted in "letting the bad persist".
But for our director, this was not an acceptable outcome, so he refocused the problem away from an "either/ or" situation and found an ingenious way of achieving both objectives. The downside was that he had to pay a price: he had to be dishonest, and this troubled him.
What do YOU think? What would YOU have done?
Ethics in business is a topic we can't easily brush under the carpet. To some, as I said at the beginning, preoccupation with such a subject may seem to be a luxury at a time when we are all battling just to survive.
The truth, however, is just the opposite - we won't survive without it.Azriel Winnett is the creater of Hodu.com and author of the highly acclaimed How to Build Relationships That Stick