The not-so-gradual decline of ethics in the workplace

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Ethics in the workplace is a tricky issue. I think we all know, logically, that if you’re higher up a chain or hierarchy, you’re not beholden to the same rules, regulations, and even processes as the rest of us target-chasers down the line. You’re closer to more money, more perks, more rewards, and more of generally the good stuff. (Yes, there’s also more responsibility and falling from a higher perch hurts more no matter the context.) No matter how you view the intersection of ‘formal power’ and ‘authority’ and ‘the rules and processes’ of a place, it’s hard to argue that the top dogs don’t get a few examples of leeway now and again. Interestingly, in a way, this whole thing is why e-mail is such a goddamn boondoggle all the time.

Alright, so. Are we about to talk about absolute power corrupting absolutely in the context of ethics in the workplace? Not exactly. But we may get close.

Ethics in the workplace and moral norms

Most of society at an individual-to-individual level is built around moral norms, specifically reciprocity. Here’s the easiest way to think about that: if you walk past someone on the street and nod/smile, you expect some type of acknowledgment of that in return. We’re social beings and that’s how we roll.

Now, this idea of reciprocity doesn’t really exist at the corporate level — and most moral norms don’t either. There’s documented research on all this. Look at this article by Liz Ryan over at Forbes entitled “My Performance Review Was Outstanding — And Then I Got Fired.” You don’t even need to read the article; the title says it all. It happens all the time at companies. It comes from an idea, which is somewhat defined legally within the concept of a corporation, that people don’t matter — the bottom line does. This is why we over-focus on products and processes, and mostly lip-service the idea of “talent” or “human capital.” (If we cared about those things, wouldn’t Human Resources be empowered as something more than a cover-your-ass department by now?)

So this is Tier 1 of ethics in the workplace: companies don’t have any obligation to behave according to the moral norms that guide most of our daily interactions. That’s a problem, eh?

Ethics in the workplace and moral decoupling

Moral decoupling is an idea whereby people engage in moral rationalization so that they can benefit from people doing immoral things. Good business school example: people still wanted to get in bed with Martha Stewart after she went to the pokey for insider trading because, well, she moves volume of product — and that means money, and that’s what most of the guys (predominantly men, yes) making the big decisions at big companies want and care about.

It’s almost the same deal where people in conversation will say that El Chapo is a great businessman. He is, for sure. He’s also got a ton of blood on his hands and his drugs destroy families and communities. But you know, he’s got more cash under the mattress than you’ll ever see in your life — so let’s deify him a bit! Heck, I’m guilty of this too.

Another version of moral decoupling is what you’re seeing with Amazon in the last year. Amazon now, by all accounts, seems like a terrible place to work. All the white-collar people are hitting targets 24–7 and can’t sleep, and all the fulfillment center people are being harassed around productivity goals. It seems awful. But in the mainstream press, Amazon is deified. Why? Its sales growth is amazing, and it’s the №1 ‘disruption’ story of the last 20 years. (Uber may pass it eventually.) We’re in a business world where we value disruption and innovation a lot, so we turn the other cheek on how Amazon is getting there.

At this point, we’ve established two things:

  • Companies don’t behave according to moral norms
  • When companies do immoral or harmful stuff, we often find a way to rationalize what they did to ultimately benefit our tie to them

OK, this is going really well!

Ethics in the workplace and the decline of strategy

Look, I’ve never had a big role at any big company, no. So you can take some of this with a grain of salt. But at every place I’ve worked — and that includes some Fortune 100 companies — there is absolutely no semblance of strategy anywhere, from high middle management to middle management to (in my interactions w/them, which are more than you’d think) executives.

Instead, we buried ‘strategy’ in task work — and oftentimes it’s completely meaningless task work, but we think it’s tied to making money or pleasing an executive/higher-up. At a freelance gig I just had, I was helping people update an events website. Somehow my credentials crashed for a few days and I couldn’t make updates, but I had this total target-hitter in Charlotte sending me e-mails every 10–12 minutes shrieking that some executive (who I didn’t know and had to Google) needs these changes and OMG it’s so urgent and OMG why isn’t this done yet? I sent him about 19 e-mails explaining the situation calmly, and all I ever got back was more shrieking, yelping, bellowing, and sense of urgency bullshit.

This is how many business interactions go these days — everyone’s so desperate to please those with power and keep them happy, because everyone is secretly terrified their job could disappear at any second. News flash: it could, which is why ‘personal branding’ really is crucial — although it sounds like a massive buzzword, so we ignore it.

So think about this for a second: in a world where everyone is racing to satiate those with power already, including inventing deliverables for their direct reports to complete to please a boss, well … how can we have ethics in the workplace if everyone is pucking the posterior of the already-established? What incentive would they have to behave ethically? None.

The cheapest, fastest way a company can hit growth is slicing headcount. Now, there are dozens of repercussions to that — but a company’s goal is growth, oftentimes. If the goal is there and all you gotta do is let 60 people out the door to get it, those 60 people start meaning a lot less — especially when most of them were probably sycophantic to you for the better part of the last 30 months anyway. “Pfft, forget Kevin, he’ll never be the man here!” Kevin has two kids and a mom with Alzheimer’s, and the boss knows that — but none of it matters a lick. Gotta hit those f’n numbers, baby! People like this do exist.

Here’s the net-net now:

  • Companies aren’t moral
  • When they’re not moral, people rationalize it
  • As all this happens, no executive in a company has to behave ethically or even set strategy — just sit back and let the perks roll over ya

Ethics in the workplace and everyone’s dirty laundry

Google had a slogan like “don’t be evil” for years. They seem to be part of the “Panama Papers.” Dozens of companies — and their executives — run around yelping about their core values, but in reality the only ‘core value’ that matters is make more money, get more perks. As a result of that, ethics in the workplace will continue to be in decline — and concepts like mission, value, and purpose (the core values) will be the good things executives say to make themselves seem better in public. Behind closed doors, they’re shrieking, hollering, bellowing and barking at their lieutenants about revenue plays and the need for more, more, more growth. You know it. I know it. We all know it. Ethics in the workplace? Pure comedy at present.

Your take?

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.

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