Acting Ethically at Work 1 – Spooks and the Greater Good

I recently saw the new Spooks movie featuring the troubled spy-master Harry Pierce who, during the course of the film permits the death of a few individuals for the sake of saving many. One of the protagonists then asks him how he can make such decisions and Harry replies “I have to. It’s my job”. Not very helpful as far as helping us choose right from wrong in the workplace! But of course the title of the film gives it away – the moral principle of The Greater Good. Some of you may remember that this principle was movingly expressed in the Star Trek movie The Wrath of Khan in which Spock sacrifices himself for the sake of the crew of the Enterprise.

We may have some sympathy for Harry. At work we carry responsibility for making decisions that affect others for good or for ill. Some of these decisions have major effects on others; most, relatively minor. But how conscious are we of the principles that we use and the moral compass that we follow when making decisions at work? To act unthinkingly or with only superficial reference to our personal and professional moral codes is to ultimately invite disaster. For, unless we adopt a consciously ethical approach, we are more likely to lack integrity and unwittingly contribute to the corrupt practices and dysfunctional organisations we have seen in recent years.

A consciously ethical approach is critically important when we are faced with real and unavoidable moral dilemmas at work. We are unlikely to face life and death situations like those faced by Harry Pierce, but how about the following example provided by Roger Steare in his book Ethicability?

Jane is a senior human resources executive within your company. She has just been told in strict confidence that one of the business units is being closed down. Given the difficult trading conditions faced by the organisation as a whole, the opportunities for new employment within the business for the 20 employees concerned, are zero. Jane’s best friend, Helen, works in this unit. Helen is a single mother with a two-year-old daughter and is the executive assistant to the business unit’s managing director. Jane and Helen trust each other completely when it comes to sharing confidences. Helen had phoned Jane earlier to say that she was planning to complete the purchase of a new and larger apartment that afternoon. The company is not yet in a position, nor is it yet legally obliged to make any official announcement on possible job losses.

Put yourself in Jane’s position. Should Jane respect her professional duty of confidentiality and say nothing; or should she do “what’s right” for her friend and tell her, or at least drop her a hint?

In my years as an HR professional I have found that people seldom reflect deeply on the values, ethics, morals and principles they use in making difficult decisions. Rather, we just ‘get on with it’ echoing Harry: “I have to. It’s my job”. Perhaps we subconsciously appeal to some notion such as the greater good – or to enlightened self-interest (I gain; everyone gains). Few of us would want to admit to using the Machiavellian principle of “expediency before morality” but how often do we unwittingly do so? Arguably, Harry was doing that: “I have to. It’s my job”. The question is, what is that made Harry feel that he has to make such decisions? What is it that makes him feel obligated?

Like Harry, we may at times feel that no-one else is going to make that difficult decision unless we ourselves make it. That may require of us great courage and personal cost. Or we may feel that we have to follow orders irrespective of our own convictions because that is what our employer expects. In that case the ultimate responsibility for our actions lies with our employer. Or does it?

Years ago I watched an interview with a then recently released Soviet dissident named Vladimir Bukovsky. He was asked why, if most of the citizens of the Soviet Union hated the Soviet Union, they did not immediately rise up and overthrow it. He answered, “When people do not want to make a choice, they pretend they don’t have a choice”.

We always have a choice – even in the most difficult circumstances. The Iron Curtain eventually fell when people – notably those of the Polish Solidarity movement – were prepared to make choices often at great personal cost.

We always have a choice at work and especially when there is a moral issue or a matter of principle at stake. It may mean whistle-blowing in the public interest; it may mean resigning on a matter of principle. We may flinch from it but one thing we cannot do is to deny that the choice remains – however difficult that may be for us personally.

So in summary, my contention is that we need two things: how to decide what’s right and finding the courage to do it.

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