Question for the day: Are careers compatible with morality?

Next to family, the workplace is the most important testing ground for right behavior.  We arrive at work early, and leave late; we handle relationships based on power and money; not infrequently, we bring to the job great expectations, ambitions for success that may or may not match our talents.

With family, evolution and culture conspire to make our labors feel transcendently worthwhile, but no such buzz is expected in the workplace.  Fellow workers are genetic competitors and may be cultural opposites.  The job itself may be a drudge.  Workaholics face a different set of troublesome moral dilemmas.

What, then, is right behavior at the workplace?  Is it consistent with career success?

The key problem here is the moral integrity of the person.  Good character, ideally conceived, should be unyielding.  Right behavior shouldn’t depend on time and place.  Yet it may well do just that.  In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell argues for the “power of context.”   In the immediate environment, he maintains, seemingly minor attributes such as graffitti on the walls can “tip” behavior radically, even to violent crime.

While I think Gladwell’s evidence is thin — conclusions based on studies of college students strike me as, by definition, untrustworthy — part of his argument is obviously and trivially true.  People behave differently driving downtown than they do walking around the neighborhood.  Abusive parents are sometimes described as kindly persons by neighbors or coworkers.

Most of us conceive of morality as a set of abstract universal principles to be applied to each specific situation.  Integrity poses a fundamental problem at the workplace because, in reality, morality is tradition-based and situation-focused:  by observing others, we learn that right behavior varies at home, in the classroom, in church, in the playground, and in the football field.  Character means imposing a theme or style on these disparate behaviors.  It is an act of will, not of deduction or logic.

At the workplace, two of our most powerful moral traditions happen to collide.  One is the principle that, in a free republic, citizens must be sovereign and bend the knee to no one.  It motivates the self-employment mania in this country.  The second is the vague but pervasive belief that righteousness is rewarded by material success.  Thus medieval people studied the lives of the saints, while we absorb the lives of the rich and famous.

Americans despise craven suck-ups, and manage an equal amount of contempt for individuals so swollen with principle that they can’t hold a job.  Much of the moral confusion at work stems from these conflicting emotions.

I fully endorse both propositions, but I don’t believe they are of equal value.  Briefly put, I doubt that an overload of principle is a problem often encountered.  Caving in to temptation, on the other hand, is an everyday occurrence.

Because workplace relations are based on power and money, they can easily corrupt good character.  Most Americans remain employees.  That flies in the face of historical ideals of republicanism, which equated political freedom with economic self-sufficiency.  Marx, who made moral fetish of economics, spoke of “wage slaves.”  That phrase comes at us from another era, one wholly devoid of the freedom of movement and extraordinary affluence available to today’s employees.  But the problem is still with us.  We must maintain the integrity of sovereign citizens while dealing with bosses from a servant-like position.  If the boss says “jump,” should I ask “how high”?  If the boss wants to punish a good worker and reward an incompetent suck-up, should I go along, or even avert my eyes and keep silent?

The answers are obvious.  We don’t check in our human dignity and moral integrity at the office door.  Yet the temptation to do either can be great:  rewards for compliance and punishments for transgressions can be great.  It isn’t all that difficult, in today’s fiercely competitive workplace, to become an accomplice in one’s own humiliation or that of others.

I have no magic solution but, as a civil servant, I have a perspective.  Being an employee means offering one’s service to a company.  The choice of company is strategic:  there’s a moral difference between Cisco, or even Walmart, and Enron.  Once the choice is made, one’s duty is to deliver excellence to the company.

I can think of few ways in which self-humiliation or deception can help fullfill this contract.  Maintaining the aim of excellence doesn’t usually entail spitting on one’s boss.  The purpose of a company’s hierarchy and culture must be to manufacture excellence.  An intelligent employee can utilize both to deliver his own contribution.

Achieving a position of power presents the inverse temptation:  to engage in the humiliation of others for one’s own gratification or profit.  Today, there’s an obsession with sexual harrassment creating a “threatening workplace.”  That is certainly one form of abuse of power, but by no means the only, or most pervasive, one.

I mentioned Enron, where upper management succumbed to the illusion that they were Harry Potter-like wizards, able to control reality.  In fact, they were vain and greedy men, who allowed their vanity and greed to destroy the equity of their employees.  Bernie Ebbers of WorldCom did the same thing, “borrowing” company funds for his personal use.

Fewer people are presented with the temptation of too much power, but the damage they can inflict far exceeds their number.  Again, I have no ready solutions, but having been a manager, I can offer some perspective.  The wisdom of any group lies in how many individuals within that group can, practically speaking, participate in decision-making.  Exceptional executives can ignore this rule and succeed — but they are literally “exceptional,” that is, rare, and sometimes, like Ebbers, just temporarily so.

Oriental despotism is a terrible management model:  look what transpired with Marxist-Leninist countries in our own lifetimes.  Most of us, if we wish to succeed in the dispensation of power and money, are best served seeking advice from those to whom it will be dispensed.  This very same mechanism should, all things being equal, help us to retain the moral integrity of our characters.


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