Sunday, June 27, 2010

Ethical Dilemmas of the Workplace

President Obama fired Stanley McChrystal, the general-in-charge in Afghanistan. For insubordination. For making insulting and competency-challenging remarks about much of the Washington civilian leadership. To a Rolling Stone magazine reporter, of all people. Remarks specifically cutting about Obama, his CEO/commander-in-chief. On a very personal level, not a conceptual or philosophical debate. And apparently not the first time he has tried to out-word his commander. So Obama fired him. Rightfully, in my opinion.

By all accounts, McChrystal is an excellent, dedicated soldier. A Special Forces alumni who sleeps 4 hours/night, and eats 1 meal a day after a morning’s run. A soldier’s solder who emphasizes “the team.” But perhaps crossing over into one of those overly gung-ho types that become a stereotype of “we versus them” toward outsiders. I.e. non-military folks outside of McChrystal’s circle just don’t get it and are a nuisance to “the mission”?

Comparisons have been made by various commentators to President Harry Truman’s confrontation with General Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War. MacArthur famously saw all other beings as lesser than himself, including the president and generals in his chain of command. MacArthur wanted to take the war into North Korea to punish them for their unprovoked incursion into South Korea, arguing that there was no danger of China coming in to defend them. Truman argued for the more limited objective of simply pushing North Korea back to within its borders. (It was sort of like Bush 1 versus Bush 2: H.W. Bush wanted to just push Iraq out of Kuwait and stop there; W. Bush said go all the way to Bagdad as liberating heroes and throw Hussein out – with disastrous consequences.) After a number of blatant instances of personal disrespect to his superiors (including Truman), MacArthur opted to take to the press his disagreement with Truman on the fundamental objectives of the Korean War. So Truman fired him – not for his differences of opinion, but for taking his case outside “the chain” and publicly challenging the competency of the country’s leadership during wartime. By most historical judgments, Truman’s foresight and actions were the right ones on all accounts.

I am quite sure that Stanley McChrystal is an intelligent and honorable man. Apparently he has his concerns about his reporting line’s view of his job and his mission, versus his own view. Why he chose a Rolling Stone interview to publicly air those concerns, in the words that he chose, is a mystery, perhaps even to himself. But what does a person do when personal goals and beliefs do not seem to be matching up with the goals and beliefs of one’s superiors or the collective institution as a whole?

This is the recurring dilemma of the workplace. Be it the military, the multi-national corporation, the local franchisee, or the mom and pop pizza joint down the block. Ethical choices challenged some Enron personnel, some SEC inspectors who suspected Bernie Madoff early on, some oil drilling engineers who were told by BP to cut corners and hurry up their drilling in the Gulf, and an untold number of whistle-blowers who have sought to push out into the open questionable actions that some would have preferred to keep hidden.

The ethical dilemma in the workplace happens in 2 parts:

• Where to set the ethical line of conduct, that point at which actions and decisions become personally unacceptable;

How to respond to that unacceptability – e.g. ignore it and go on; develop a scheme to go around it; raise it quietly up the ladder; raise it loudly across (&/or outside) the organization; quit and go elsewhere.

Setting the line is hard because ethics so often can be made to be “relative,” not absolute. Watergate, and more specifically its cover-up, crossed almost everyone’s line. The financial mis-dealings of the last decade became very relative, as the perpetrators seemed to easily pass the buck on to the next link in the chain. (Note how few of these individuals have ever said “I blew it and take responsibility.”)

If we do decide the line has been crossed, which action step do we choose in response? I personally have never had much trouble with the first decision – “the line” – even if my expectations were perhaps overly intolerant. The response part has always been more difficult to determine, and I have used each of the available options in one situation or another. I have done battle with the enemy within and without, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. But what I have learned over time and many experiences is that:

• No boss gets fired from the troops below, only the bigger cheeses above;

• The troops can sometimes make the impacts of a bad boss a big enough nuisance directly to the higher ups sufficiently for them to take an action;

• Complaining outside the chain may win you some supporters, but it is probably a sign that you’ve already lost the bigger battle inside;

• The ethical conflict is about TWO perceptions of ethics colliding with each other, so an internal debate about “who’s right” is usually fruitless;

• A leader cannot/should not expect everyone to agree with his/her every decisions and actions. And it can be OK if people acknowledge their disagreements openly. But every leader must expect that, once a decision and direction have been determined, people are supportive and capable of working together towards that objective without continued backbiting, arguing and turmoil (e.g. “I personally might have chosen a different option, but this is the decision and we all need to work together to accomplish it”);

• You always need to keep your life positioned so that when your response doesn’t change the landscape, you can know that it is time to go – and then go. Quickly.

I sympathize with Stanley McChrystal and his ethical conflicts, as I sympathize with all who struggle with such dilemmas in their workplace. He appears a man of principle and discipline who turned loose of both in one very bad judgment. He further made the disagreement personal, and he did so publicly and irretractably. In any work environment, when that happens HE now becomes the object of discussion, not the policy disagreement. But when the work environment is 90,000 troops under your leadership in a life and death situation, that moment of bad judgment is a moment too long. It was time to go.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Arizona Immigration

Arizona is a rugged place to live. A mix of mountains, desert, heat and barren from its southern border with Mexico to its northern mountains. You have to want to live there, because the weak of heart are separated out relatively quickly. Its vast, open expanses create a bigness of spirit, and its habitat conditions have created a strong sense of self-reliance and independence in its people over the generations.

Arizona is also now the Ellis Island of the southwest, the main port of entry for illegal immigration into the U.S. Immigration of one part drug and weapons dealers, and a second part of employable workers looking to earn a livable wage for themselves and often their families. (Unfortunately, in the dead of night, the U.S. Border Patrol is hard pressed to tell the difference between these two groups as they sneak across the southern border.) The drugs and arms dealers are a menace to the character and stability of this country. The second group typically consists of decent people willing to do credible work to improve their personal lives, for which they are needed by American employers. Just as millions of Asian-Americans, Irish, and Eastern Europeans before them.

Congress and the Immigration & Naturalization Service (INS) are supposed to manage this cross-border traffic. Its failure to do so the last 30 years has given us three kinds of residents of Mexican ancestry:

• descendants of those Mexicans living here before there was a United States, similar to the Native-Americans who predate the rest of us;

• legal immigrants who have been properly coming here within the rules, and are now as American as I with my Scot-Irish immigrant ancestors;

• those who have arrived more recently without authorization, unentitled to the rights and privileges of citizenship but welcomed by American businesses and residents for their services.

Why do we care about these illegals? Partly on economic principles. Ever since the War Between the States, America has had immigration quotas. We have tried to manage the flow of people wanting to come here, though the numbers often reflected our own prejudices about who would be allowed in and who would not. The quotas attempted to protect us from being overwhelmed by population growth and/or excesses of people vis-à-vis available jobs – particularly in difficult economic times like our current condition.

We have also been concerned that if immigrants are not self-supporting and contributing to the overall economic well-being, they will drain from and overwhelm our American “safety net” of social services – however incomplete those services may be. We also fear that illegal immigrants will remain “un-Americanized,” necessarily living in the shadows outside of mainstream America, thereby perpetuating old-country cultures, values, language, rules, instincts and assumptions.

And then there is the simple illegality of their situation: they’ve broken American law just by their presence here. Which means that every aspect of their lives going forward is tainted and influenced by this illegal core. Americans do pride themselves as being a law-abiding nation (even when we have regrettably not acted as such many times over). So our sense of fairness says, “be legal, no exceptions.” And we look to law enforcement agencies to correct this violation of our shores.

Unfortunately, Congress and the Executive branches that are charged with making and enforcing our immigration laws have been virtually ineffective with such enforcement. They have not stopped the flow (though our economic recession has slowed it down). Nor have they dealt with the estimated 10 million illegals already here, shy of some token headline-grabbing raids on a few employers. Congress, that land of no compromise, stands on opposite principles of inclusion versus punishment and passes no new tools to manage this problem. And the INS, Border Patrol, and IRS fail to enforce rules already in place. Employers (business and personal) continue to hire workers to do good work most current citizens are not willing to do.

Against this governmental chaos, Arizona passed a recent law requiring state law enforcement officers to force anyone who “appears to be illegal” (read “Mexican”) to prove their citizenship. (Although the law is written generically, it is safe to say that Caucasians, Asians, Mediterranean and Arab-looking residents will be de facto bypassed in this proof process.) Notwithstanding the understandable frustration that generated this law, it is a horrible law. As a native southerner growing up in the 1950s, this smacks of the worst of the Jim Crow anti-negro laws and treatments of that period. Once again, we give away our innate sense of fair play and constitutional justice to our (mostly irrational) fears. Frightened people love the law – and they assume that they are exempt from it – and policemen hate it because they know they will be dammed if they do or don’t under it. A significant proportion of the rest of the country threatens to shun Arizona by economic boycotts.

I personally doubt that this law will stand up under court appeal – at least until it gets to the U.S. Supreme Court when it is anyone’s guess with Justice Roberts and company. Until then, Congress and the Executive need to set aside their rigid either/or orthodoxy and:

• build the deterrences and staff the border to stop the illegal traffic;

• accept the reality of the 10M already here and get them to citizenship and full economic contributors. We blew it, and we need to accept our culpability by acknowledging that we are not going to send all of those people back and disrupt our economy even more;

• create the “guest worker” program that American businesses, farmers and personal employers need;

• genuinely enforce the labor laws to prevent unauthorized work – the true root of the problem.

The current hidden subculture works for no one. Illegally entering the country is not American. But neither is guilty until proven innocent, selective laws by race, or carrying “identity papers.” Arizona passed a bad law that responds to the worst in us. Congress, on both sides of the political divide, needs to act for the national good, not for parochial political benefit. Let our conscience enforce the laws of the land. But let our hearts remind us that we are all immigrants in this country, and we should be guided by the familiar poem mounted in the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddles masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

We need fear not the stranger in our midst.