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Finding Moral Compass at Work

Ethics: A Harvard Business School professor suggests that sometimes there are two correct answers to management or career problems.

June 14, 1998|KIRSTIN DOWNEY GRIMSLEY | WASHINGTON POST

Peter Adario has a problem. And it is about to get bigger. Adario, 35, is a marketing manager of a debt-laden computer retailing firm that is fighting for its life in a brutally competitive world. He and his sales force, primarily single people in their 20s, are working long hours and weekends to keep the company afloat and build its market share. Four months earlier, Adario had hired a new employee, Kathryn McNeil, 37, an experienced computer marketing executive and the single mother of a 6-year-old son, with no child care assistance or financial help from her ex-husband.

But McNeil, though she is working hard, is putting in only 60 hours a week, and the other workers, none of whom has children yet, resent her for not carrying her load at work. Now her work has slipped behind schedule, and her immediate supervisor, Lisa Walters, a 29-year-old rising star in the firm, has demanded that Adario, who heads the department, fire McNeil.

Adario feels torn. The company can't afford any slack performers, but on the other hand, Adario believes McNeil deserves another chance. Also, as a father of two, he understands McNeil's time pressures, and he feels that he, too, is being asked to sacrifice his family life. Top executives have said they want a family-friendly environment, and Adario believes that McNeil's situation is a classic case where the company could show its values are more than words.

On this day, Adario must make his decision.

*

These are fictional characters, not real people. But this is the real world, as described by Joseph L. Badaracco Jr., an ethics professor at Harvard Business School, in his book "Defining Moments: When Managers Must Choose Between Right and Right."

Its central premise is that workers and supervisors often must pick their way through thorny ethical dilemmas with little moral guidance. In fact, in many of these situations, the author says, given two choices, either decision can be correct, and which one is better will depend on your point of view and personal moral code.

Sometimes the conflicts are obvious--a downsizing that boosts share prices for stockholders, at the cost of workers' jobs. And sometimes the dilemmas are subtle--workers given assignments that raise troubling personal questions.

Badaracco presents four dilemmas, including that faced by marketing manager Adario, and then delves into how great philosophers of the past would have resolved the questions. Among the philosophers he cites are Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, Nietzsche and, most frequently, Machiavelli. He describes how leadership often entails making decisions that feel wrong in some way but advance a greater good, and ways people can try to balance these issues better.

*

Take, for example, the question faced by an African American investment banker who has been asked to pitch his firm's services to a prospective client who is black, even though the banker has not been involved in the project and knows little about it. He sees the request as a form of racism and misrepresentation, because in fact, the company has few African American employees. But while the request offends him, it also could have lifelong career implications.

In this case, the investment banker agrees to make the presentation, but asks for several days to study the proposed project so he can speak knowledgeably about it to the client. He tells his bosses, diplomatically, that he will perform as part of the team only if he is indeed a player on the team. It works out; the presentation goes well and he does not need to make a decision that would have cost him his career without fixing the larger problem.

Marketing manager Adario's predicament is particularly common, according to many human resources executives, who say that workers often feel that benefits extended to one group come at the expense of another. Working men whose wives stay home to care for their children might resent the company's offer of subsidized child care to dual-career families, and childless workers might resent both the subsidized child care and the free health insurance offered to the at-home wives and children.

For that reason, they say, "family-friendly" policies often have many secret internal enemies, who sometimes create more opposition to improvements in benefits than top executives or shareholders.

This is the danger for marketing manager Adario although he doesn't know it. Even as he mulls over what to do with McNeil, his subordinate Lisa Walters already has gone over his head to a vice president, who quickly agrees that McNeil is not pulling her weight and fires her himself. As Badaracco's book ends, Adario's own career is at risk because he has been seen as indecisive and weak in dealing with a problem employee, and ultimately irrelevant. It appears that Lisa Walters will be sitting in his seat soon.

Badaracco, citing Machiavelli, says Adario has sealed his own fate. Badaracco failed to realize that McNeil would need true support from allies to survive. He also says Adario was both careless and naive in hiring McNeil because, as a single mother, she was bound to have time problems that the company would not want to accommodate. Taking the Machiavellian view, Adario was trying to be nice, but he wasn't "playing to win," says Badaracco.

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