Archive

Posts Tagged ‘Organizational Culture’

Corporate Ethos from the Top-Down

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick issued an apology and stepped down from his position as Chief Executive Officer after a video surfaced of him getting in an argument with his personal Uber driver and then shortly telling the man that some people don’t like to take individual responsibility.

This incident represented yet another stain on the company in a trail of sexual harrassment, discrimination, and pushing the envelope in legal and ethical boundaries. It also raises the question of how much the individual morality or personal ethics of a leader affects the corporate ethos or environment of the business culture. The ethos, or corporate climate, also winded up having an impact on the entire tech start-up industry itself, as evidenced by the avalanche of sexual harrassment revelations this week. Uber has also been found in violation of intellectual property laws and local/international driving regulations. My college mentor always mentioned that it’s naturally much easier to bring people down (e.g. from a chair) than to hoist them up. So it is with individual morality in an environment of corporate depravity.

 

XLIX Ethics

With all this hoopla and outcry over the last few moments of the Superbowl, a casual observer could be led to believe that something (even of moral or ethical import) went seriously wrong.  Talk radio was abuzz assigning blame and finger pointing to the now-infamous “call” ( the Seattle Seahawks’ final offensive play was overanalyzed myriad ways. As a lifelong Hawks fan, it’s easy to look at the wrong end of a 28-24 Superbowl result, and cry “foul.” We wish to blame officials, coaches, coordinators, and/or other players or appeal to the zebra suits or a higher power for assistance in overturning the results. But the decision wasn’t a moral move, and definitely not an ethical one–even though it seems as if something went drastically awry.   The play could be described at best as unwise, and at worst foolish. Even the coaches and players ultimately assumed personal responsibility (see Russell Wilson’s and Kam Chancellor’s response in particular: http://www.fieldgulls.com/…/seahawks-players-react-to-super…

I’m sad (and probably tasted a small portion of what it felt to be a Green Bay Packers devotee a couple weeks ag0 in the NFC Championship; but the Seattle Seahawks will be back in the big game again. Or at least they ought to be . . .  See y’all in San Francisco next year. But when the emotions die down, we will realize that we failed to capitalize on a good play call against a goal line defense (designed to stuff the run (Marshawn), and Malcolm Butler made a mad play (deserving the MVP keys of that truck).  Congratulations to the New England Patriots for winning one of the greatest championships in recent memory. It was a classic battle  truly deserving of the term Super Bowl.

Built to Last

Last weekend, I attended a Sustainability, Ethics, and Entrepreneurship Conference and toured one of the world’s most energy-efficient corporate headquarters (the National Renewal Energy Lab in Golden, CO features net zero carbon emissions and energy consumption). It draws from past architecture (e.g. warm, thick Cathedral walls) to construct the modern building.

I had often assumed that sustainability was financially prohibitive–at least in the short run–but learned that high costs of “going green” primarily come from reactively correcting “brown habits” or modifying traditional construction. When sustainability is the plan from the get-go, expenditures can fall to financially and environmentally desirable levels. This built-in structure reinforces ethical behavior and stewardship of our natural resources.

The relationship between sustainability and business ethics is not limited to office space. Former executive Greg Smith famously quit Goldman Sachs last month from the lack of moral fiber in the corporate ethos. Smith’s diatribe reinforces the Occupy Wall Street protesters’ sentiments against moral unsustainability. During reactive and costly moves to regulate misconduct, greed is the familiar explanatory scapegoat.

The practical question for moral architects consists of how to build ethics into business foundations and incentivize moral sustainability. Business ethicist Jim O’Toole reminded conferees of ethikos (a Greek term for moral character or structure) as a guard against the hazard of group think; to reduce the moral cost, we need ethics integrated into corporate structure from the get-go.

While it is virtuous for corporate employees to be team players, it is also easy to justify questionable behaviors from within the group. While unethical behavior may be obvious to individuals on the outside, the pressure that otherwise mature adults face in the workplace need mitigation. Sustainability and ethics must be built within our corporate structure and foundation.

Say it isn’t, Joe.

Ten years after the Enron Corporation was exposed for its massively systemic and cleverly-planned ongoing accounting fraud, the moral structure of college football is being shaken to its core at Penn State University.

Prospective institutional cover-up for act(s) of sexual abuse allegedly committed by head football coach Joe Paterno’s former defensive coordinator and charges of multiple subsequent infractions have already brought down Penn’s State organizational leadership and storied football program. Will the Nittany Lion’s devotion to a winning culture and Paterno’s subscription to resilience and ‘enduring adversity’ eventually parallel Enron’s obsession with profit at any cost and adherence to their former CEO’s ‘survival of the fittest’ principles?

The developing scandal emits conflicting emotions: I am torn by the outpouring of support for an 84-year-old legend who has earnestly dedicated himself to building a long tradition of winning with integrity without the infamous scandals often associated with a major college program. I am sad for these young, innocent boys who would not have experienced further horrors if someone in power had pushed the issue. Properly evaluating a rapidly developing news story is difficult; determining the relevant ethical considerations may represent the best next step i.e., the distinction between law and ethics, and the connection of responsibility to leadership.

Corporations like Enron were familiar with the law; they knew how to exploit and profit from it. University President Graham Spanier and Head Football Coach Joe Paterno met all legal requirements and will not be tried in a criminal court. The ethical question is whether they failed to meet their moral duties and obligations as human persons. Even more so—in their de facto roles as leaders, figureheads, and guardians in their community—greater responsibility is often associated with greater privilege. What personal responsibilities do individuals have beyond their specific job descriptions? Is an act of omission as heinous as the sin of commission?

The university has decided in the best interest of ‘business’ to relieve Spanier and Paterno of their responsibilities. Further clarity is needed before passing judgment on whether Penn State shares a similar aura of hubris with Enron. Even without the pride, their indecision produces greater consequences than even the dissolution of a major corporation.

In the business of uncovering the truth in the digital age, this game will have no winners. Prayers, comfort, and support to the victims and their families.

A Social ‘Theft’work?

The Winklevoss twins represent two enemies that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg made in the process of designing The Social Network (2010). Did Zuckerberg steal the inspiration for Facebook from the brothers’ idea for their website? The answer may hinge on the divisive issue of intellectual property.

The debate centers around the intrinsic right to own non-tangible, creative ideas. According to traditional patent, trademark, and copyright laws, intellectual property represents real ownership of intangible assets. Dissidents like Richard Stallman−a software freedom activist−argue that intellectual property creates a ‘bias’ toward property rights by confusing non-physical monopolies with ownership of physical things.

Regarding the creation of Facebook, courtroom and journalistic evidence shows no formal contract between Zuckerberg and the Winklevosses . . . only interesting and entertaining “dorm-room chit-chat.” A mere week after beginning what Zuckerberg referred to as ‘the dating site,’ he started working on a separate ‘Facebook’ project. Zuckerberg appears to have considered the two as competing for the same users’ attention, but also seems to have regarded them as different in key ways. While Zuckerberg does appear to have intentionally strung along the twins with the goal of making his own project the more successful launch, the Winklevosses $65 million lawsuit settlement seems more than fair−especially considering that the entire dispute took place over two months in 2004 and that in the years since, Zuckerberg has built Facebook into a massive global enterprise.

The Winklevoss twins are demanding that the case be reopened not for money but for honor. If there is no such thing as intellectual property rights, then there was nothing to steal and additional demands represent mere ego and greed. If intellectual property represents real ownership of intangible assets, then the battle between information highway robbery and issues of gentlemanly agreement should return to the top of Facebook’s News Feed.

Update: the Winklevoss suit against Facebook was thrown out by a federal judge in Boston as reported on July 22, 2011.

The ‘Customer’-Physician Relationship

Medicine is subtly shifting from an emphasis on what is ideally best for the patient to an environment where hospitals are marketed from survey results and physicians are instructed on how to encourage customers to check the ‘Excellent’ box when rating their care. The danger in primarily viewing a patient as a consumer is that well known adages like ‘the customer knows best’ can gravitate toward motivations based primarily on the profit motive rather than the apparent benefits of collaboration, patient voice, and better service.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant reminds us to ask whether we are treating persons (customers) as a means to some end (profits) or as ends themselves (patients). When push comes to shove at medicine’s financial margins, decisions tend to lean toward monetary gain. Efficiency and profits are needed components of every venture (even Kant says not to use people as a means only but as a means as well as an end). Yet this move from taking care of patients to customers—while promoting friendlier hospital environments—may be damaging to the health care system in the long run.

The Hippocratic Oath has been condemned for promoting a ‘guild-like’ environment and its ancient author set aside in the hope of adopting the examples of other tightly managed industries (ironically, some business academics call for managers to take on the guild-like professionalism of the medical field). While some combination of treating patients as a means and as an end is probably acceptable, it seems that the customer/consumer metaphor is being adopted wholesale.

To Hippocrates, a physician’s first consideration was to use his/her art for the patient’s well-being—a re-emphasis that can benefit all stakeholders. Otherwise, this move to make the medical environment more patient-friendly has the potential to make it ultimately more vulnerable.

Written in conversation with Cory Wilson, M.D.

Does BP = Beyond the Pale?

The Center for Public Integrity reported that two refineries owned by BP accounted for “97 percent of all flagrant violations found in the refining industry by government safety inspectors over the past three years.” The Occupational Safety and Health Administration classified most of BP’s citations as “egregious willful” reflecting rule violations designed to prevent catastrophic refinery events.

Consider the 582-page application that BP submitted for its Deepwater Horizon well that never once discusses how to stop a blowout. Granted, the Minerals Management Service does not require a plan. Instead, amid lax regulation and/or a sloppy corporate cut and paste job, BP pledged that cold water mammals including sea otters, walruses, and sea lions would be protected in the Mexican Gulf. They also provided a Japanese home-shopping network Web address for its primary spill response provider. Not to be outdone, BP attempted to contain the public’s outrage by paying big bucks to fill top search items like “oil spill” with their own video material.

As a practical outlet for the philosophy of morality, ethics gives structure and boundaries. BP’s actions could be considered beyond the pale (unacceptable) for its loss of human life, underestimating the environmental impact, or social gaffes from its CEO. Some counter these unfortunate occurrences with the corporate behemoth as a victim of bad moral luck, regulators unable to keep up with complex rig technology, or managers pressured by the continued drive to hold down costs and make money for shareholders. Do these nuanced qualifications deserve further consideration before making final judgment or does BP’s systematic stench of unethical behavior run outside agreed standards of decency?