Monday Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 4/27/2020: It’s Come To This…

…I have to rely on cute Jack Russell Terrier videos to keep me from heading to the bridge…

1.  No, guys, it’s not unethical to retract a bad law. SCOTUS Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr, Thomas and Gorsuch were annoyed that the Supreme Court refused to consider the Constitutionality of a New York anti-gun law after the state not only repealed the law, but passed a law preventing a similar law from being passed again. The Supreme Court today dismissed a major gun rights case that Second Amendment activists had hoped would clarify the right to bear arms. The decision dismissing the case was unsigned, but the dissent was signed, so we also know who made up the majority.   “By incorrectly dismissing this case as moot, the court permits our docket to be manipulated in a way that should not be countenanced,” Alito et al. hurrumphed. The law’s removal rendered the case moot and denied the Court an opportunity to explore whether there is a right to carry a gun outside the home.

I’d say that when the prospect of being slammed by the Court makes a state back down from an overreaching law, that’s a win. Stop complaining. Continue reading

And The Harvey Weinstein Ethics Train Wreck Rolls On: CBS And Les Moonves

I’ll say this: he’s better looking than Harvey…

 

Ronan Farrow has struck again.

In a new investigative reporting piece, the journalist who revealed that New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was a sexual abuser and who also added to the documentation of Harvey Weinstein’s horrific workplace conduct, revealed in his latest investigative article in The New Yorker that clear sexual harassment was alleged by six women in the entertainment business against Les Moonves, and that, as usual, his fish, CBS, and especially CBS News, had rotted from the head down.

Moonves is as long-established, respected and powerful a figure as there is in the media. He became the president of CBS Entertainment in 1995 and the chief executive of the company in 2006, and is paid $69.3 million a year.

You can close your eyes now and imagine everything that follows from here—it will just be a summer re-run of the Fox News debacle that eventually toppled Roger Ailes. We will need a pool to determine who will play the role of Bill O’Reilly, unless Charlie Rose qualifies. The account of actress Illeana Douglas—you know her face if not her name: she played the woman raped and mutilated by Robert DeNiro in “Cape Fear” and appears in several other Martin Scorcese films–is particularly disturbing, if familiar-sounding.

She describes Moonves grabbing her and violently kissing her during a business meeting in 1997. “What it feels like to have someone hold you down—you can’t breathe, you can’t move,” she said. “The physicality of it was horrendous.”  She made a joke and fled, she says, and soon after the episode Moonves fired Douglas from the CBS sitcom she had been cast in and told her that she would  “never work at this network again.” Continue reading

Saturday Ethics Warm-Up, 7/21/18: Seven Questions For A Rainy Day: UPDATED!

Good afternoon!

1. What did you expect? Following close on the heels of Scott Pruitt’s firing from the EPA as a result of blatant ethics violations, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said last week that he would sell all of his stock holdings to “maintain the public trust” after the Office of Government and Ethics pointed out that his financial transactions could get him into legal trouble.

“I have made inadvertent errors in completing the divestitures required by my ethics agreement,” Ross said in a statement. “To maintain the public trust, I have directed that all of my equity holdings be sold and the proceeds placed in U.S. Treasury securities.”

To maintain that public trust. Right.

The culture of CEOs and business executives is so alien to ethics that this kind of thing was assured as soon as Donald Trump was elected President. I wouldn’t say the business culture is necessarily more unethical than the political culture, it is juts unethical different ways. However, President Trump brought this brand of malfunctioning ethics alarms with him, and we shouldn’t expect it to abate until he leaves the White House.

Then we will get back to the good old-fashioned political versions of unethical conduct we’re become numb to. Ah, those were the days!

2. A question of degree. Professor Brian McNaughton, a former professor at Colorado State University, is facing a felony charge for fabricating an outside job offer to get a higher salary. This meets the technical definition of fraud. Apparently he presented the school with fabricated offer letter from the University of Minnesota. McNaughton resigned his position and apologized, and returned the fruits of the ill-gotten  raise,  about $4,000 per year over four years.

He also says that he was urged to use the tactic by other faculty members, who said it was a standard ploy. When does the “I have other job offers” gambit cross the ethics line into fraud? Clearly when you use a forged letter, but short of that, it’s just lying—unethical, but not criminal.

Writes one idealistic commentator:

…if an employee is performing a job and is good at it, that person should be compensated for it accordingly and in line with individuals within the same organization at an equivalent level professionally (ideally pay should be bench-marked against similar-sized institutions in states or parts of the country with comparable income ranges). Does a job offer and the suggestion that the employee is desirable to another organization change how well that person is performing? Promotions and rewards should be directly related to performance and an individual’s contribution to the organization and to science.

Well, yes, but competition and reality interferes with this nice, fair but overly simplistic and impractical theory. In fields where employees are not fungible, basic economic theory comes into play: you can’t deny the influence supply and demand. The fact that there is competition for an individual’s services does increase that individual’s value. Just saying “it shouldn’t be that way” doesn’t change reality. That’s what makes McNaughton’s lie fraudulent: he’s misrepresenting his value, and using false means to do it.

3. Would you fire Dan Coats for this?

Naturally the anti-Trump mob loved it, and that was the director of national intelligence’s intent: he was playing to the mob and virtue signaling to the detriment of his boss. Either than, or he’s thoroughly unprofessional and can’t be trusted to be on TV. Washington Post reporter Dan Baltz is either foolish, naive or dishonest when he writes: Continue reading

Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 2/20/18: Cheaters And Useful Idiots

Good Morning!

1. A Whistle-blowing dilemma.The Ethicist in the New York Times Magazine is no fun anymore, now that a competent, real ethicist is answering queries rather than the previous motley assortment of Hollywood screenwriters and others of dubious qualifications. Even when I disagree with

  • “Given how little cheating is caught, reporting them would have meant that they paid a penalty that lots of others ought to — but won’t — pay.” Ugh! A Barry Bonds excuse! So because all guilty parties aren’t apprehended, everyone should get away with wrongdoing?
  • “Because many people in your generation don’t take cheating very seriously, your friends would most likely have ended up focusing on the unfairness of being singled out, not on their wrongdoing.” That’s their problem. The attitude the Ethicist identifies is 39. The Pioneer’s Lament, or “Why should I be the first?” He’s correct that this will be the likely attitude of the busted cheaters, but since when did how wrongdoers rationalize their wrongdoing become mitigation?
  • “The intervention you were considering was likely, therefore, to be very costly to you.” Yes, doing the right thing often is.
  • “The burden of dealing with cheating in your school shouldn’t fall on you.” Boy, I really hate this one. It’s #18. Hamm’s Excuse: “It wasn’t my fault.”

This popular rationalization confuses blame with responsibility. Carried to it worst extreme, Hamm’s Excuse would eliminate all charity and much heroism, since it stands for the proposition that human beings are only responsible for alleviating problems that they were personally responsible for. In fact, the opposite is the case: human beings are responsible for each other, and the ethical obligation to help someone, even at personal cost, arises with the opportunity to do so, not with blame for causing the original problem. When those who have caused injustice or calamity either cannot, will not or do not step up to address the wrongs their actions have caused (as is too often the case), the responsibility passes to whichever of us has the opportunity and the means to make things right, or at least better.

This rationalization is named after American gymnast Paul Hamm, who adamantly refused to voluntarily surrender the Olympic gold metal he admittedly had been awarded because of an official scoring error. His justification for this consisted of repeating that it was the erring officials, not him, who were responsible for the fact that the real winner of the competition was relegated to a bronze medal when he really deserved the gold. The ethical rule to counter Hamm’s Excuse is a simple one: if there is a wrong and you are in a position to fix it, fix it.

Appiah doesn’t feel the full force of my fury because the case involves middle-school, and the questioner is a child. This is what makes it a toss-up. If this were college or grad school, I think reporting cheaters is mandatory. Appiah also says that he doesn’t care for honor codes because they are usually not followed.

Maybe I was wrong about him… Continue reading

Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 2/2/18: Of Tyros, Typos, Grandstanders And Rotting Fish Heads

Good Morning!

1 Don’t try that here! Several commenters on the Ethics Hero post yesterday , about a British minister resigning in self-declared disgrace after he was late for a session in Parliament, argued that his wasn’t a true resignation because he had to know it wouldn’t be accepted. I had written a comment to that theory, but I decided to post it on the Warm-up instead.

Fake resignations are unethical. Ethical people don’t attempt such a stunt, which is designed to make everyone beg them to return and create a sense of power and importance. I learned long ago in my parallel theater and management careers not to trust or tolerate subordinates who threatened to quit, telling one cast member of this ilk, in what he thought was  too-vital a lead role to be relaced last in rehearsals and who made the threat in a full cast rehearsal, “You have ten seconds to either quit, be fired, or retract that threat. I’ll play your part myself if I have to, and I’ll be a lot better at it. 10-9-8…” He retracted the threat. When I took over a struggling, spectacularly badly managed health promotion organization in Maryland and announced major policy changes, two legacy managers of the non-profit handed in their resignations in protest.  Then they came to work the next day. My predecessor, it seemed, routinely tolerated such games. They were shocked, indignant and angry when I told them, “You don’t work here any more, remember? You quit. Good luck in your future endeavors. Now get out.”

Ethics Alarms, as veterans here know, has the same policy regarding commenters who self-exile, usually with a “Good day, sir! I am done here!” flourish. When they try to weigh in days, weeks, or months later, they find that their self-banning is permanent. This is now explicit in the Comments Policies. As at least six regulars here know from their own experiences, I reserve the right to try persuade a valued commenter to reconsider his or her exit, and I have done that as a manager with subordinates too. But anyone who counts on a resignation being rejected is a fool.

I have to believe that Lord Bates’s resignation was principled, not grandstanding.

2. Fox owes me a keyboard!  Yesterday afternoon,  I spit out a mouthful of coffee when Fox News flashed this news item under a feature while I was surfing the news channels to see what was happening to the “secret memo”: “Poll Says Majority of Americans Support Border Ball.”

This came up multiple times. I think spending billions of dollars for any ball is unethical, whether it is the party or the toy, or even if “Border ball” is a new professional sport that doesn’t give its players CTE.

And speaking of typos, yes, I would fire for cause everyone in the chain who let this happen…

If you don’t have enough respect for the government, its institutions and the nation to take more pride in your work than that, you shouldn’t be working for the government.

3. A show of hands: Who has heard about this depressing story? Anyone? Funny that the mainstream news media doesn’t think it’s newsworthy… The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that many of the nation’s “historically black colleges and universities” have ridiculously low graduation rates.  The newspaper found that the six-year graduation rates at twenty schools were 20% t or lower in 2015, and some schools in the category had graduation rates as low as 5%.  Here was the explanation offered by Marybeth Gasman, an education professor at the University of Pennsylvania who directs the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions: Continue reading

5 Signs That Your Organization Has An Unethical Culture Brewing…

The Harvard Business Review has published an article describing what it learned from a survey of experts asked to describe the conditions they have observed in organizations later revealed to have serious ethics problems—the symptoms of an unethical organization ethics culture. Here are the five top signs, with the corresponding rationalizations from the Ethics Alarms list where appropriate, as well as related unethical patterns of thinking and relevant organizational ethics principles that are repeated constantly in training sessions by people like me, yet routinely ignored. The news media, meanwhile, often covers the incidents as if journalist have never heard of those principles.

I. Urgency and fear: Following corruption scandals, leaders tend to describe events in terms of pressure, necessity, and what the company needed to do to ”survive.” This perception of existential competitive threats can be used to justify the creation and maintenance of toxic incentives, and it will undermine any efforts to raise concerns.

Rationalization 28. The Revolutionary’s Excuse: “These are not ordinary times.”

An argument for those who embrace “the ends justify the means”—but only temporarily, mind you!—the Revolutionary’s excuse has as long and frightening a pedigree as any of the rationalizations here. Of course, there is no such thing as “ordinary times.” This rationalization suggests that standards of right and wrong can and should be suspended under “special” circumstances, always defined, naturally, by those who defy laws, rules, and societal values. Their circular logic results in their adversaries feeling justified in being equally unethical, since times in which the other side engages in dishonesty, cheating, cruelty, and more is, by definition, extraordinary.

The inevitable result is a downward spiral of conduct, until unethical behavior is the norm. Ironically, the rationalization that “these are not ordinary times” no longer is necessary at that point. Unethical conduct has become ordinary, the new normal. This is, it is fair to say, the current state of American politics.

and…

Rationalization 31. The Troublesome Luxury: “Ethics is a luxury we can’t afford right now”

Ethics is never “a luxury.” It is slyly effective to describe it as such, however, and those who do so usually believe it—which means you should sleep with one eye open when they are around, watch your wallet, and never turn your back. Saying ethics is a luxury simply means that the speaker believes that one should be good and fair when it is easy and benefits him or her, but when problems loom and crises have to be faced, ethics are optional. This attitude is another calling card of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ “Bad Man,” the law abiding citizen who will cut your throat for his own benefit if he finds a legal loophole. In a true crisis, ethical values are often the only thing standing between us and catastrophic misconduct in the throes of desperation and panic; they aren’t luxuries, they are life-lines. When you hear yourself saying, “I’ll do anything to fix this! Anything!” it is a warning, and the ethics alarm needs to start ringing hard. Grab those ethical values, and hold on to them. They are the last thing you can afford to be without at such times.

***

II. Isolation: Groups and teams that are far from headquarters—either in geography, access to information, or both—are vulnerable. When a team that is isolated (by accident or design) comes under the direction of an authoritarian, competitive leader, an enterprise has created the baseline conditions for corruption. People are far more influenced by their immediate surroundings than by a code of conduct set at the top.

This is group-think, ignoring the tenets of Professor Zimbardo’s rules that he recommends to avoid the phenomenon:

“Avoid situations where you lose contact with your social support and informational networks, for the most powerful forces of social influence thrive then. You do not want all your reinforces to come from these new sources….Never allow yourself to be cut off emotionally from your familiar and trusted reference groups of family, friends, neighbors, co-workers…

***

Continue reading

Ethics Quote Of The Month: David J. Apol, Acting Director, U.S. Government Ethics Office

On October 5, David J. Apol, Acting Director of the U.S. Government Office, felt it necessary to send the following memo to all Trump Administration agency heads.

MEMORANDUM

TO:   Agency Heads

FROM:    David J. Apol, Acting Director  and General Counsel

SUBJECT:   The Role of Agency  Leaders in Promoting an Ethical  Culture

As a leader in the United States Government, the choices that you make and the work that you do will have profound effects upon our nation and its citizens. It is essential  to the success  of our republic that citizens can trust that your decisions and the decisions made by your agency are motivated  by the public good and not by personal interests.

You are ultimately responsible for the ethical culture within your organization. The priorities that you set, the messages that you deliver, and the actions that you take demonstrate your level of commitment to ethics in Government. Your personal conduct sets a powerful example  for the employees  in your organization.

I am grateful to agency leaders who have demonstrated their commitment to ethical service. At the same time, I am deeply concerned that the actions of some in Government leadership have harmed perceptions about the importance of ethics and what conduct is, and is not, permissible. I encourage you to consider taking action to re-double your commitment to ethics in Government. Attached is a sample of actions that OGE has observed in Government agencies,  which  you can take to strengthen  the ethical culture in your agency.

The citizens we serve deserve to have confidence in the integrity of their Government. The public’s trust is not guaranteed. We must earn that trust every day, because the loss of that trust is catastrophic. I want to personally thank you for your service and your work to earn and secure the public’s trust.

ATTACHMENT:

Suggested Actions for Agency Leaders

Demonstrate personal ethical behavior by modeling a “Should I do it?” mentality (versus a “Can I do it?” mentality)

  • Talk about the importance of ethics to your organization by including ethics themes in speeches, communicating ethics priorities in memos, and recognizing the support that ethics officials provide. For example:

    • the Secretary of Defense recently stated his expectation that all employees maintain high ethical standards1
    • the Secretary of Agriculture recently announced new ethics training initiatives and encouraged employees to participate2
  • Get to know your ethics program, and ensure that it is staffed by qualified personnel and has sufficient resources

  • Include ethics officials in meetings of senior leaders

  • Recognize and praise honorable service by employees in your agency

  • Underscore the consequences to the organization and its mission of unethical behavior

  • Promote a safe culture for reporting misconduct

Observations: Continue reading

From The “The Fish Rots From The Head Down” Files: The Uber CEO’s “Miami Letter”

You wonder why Uber has ethics problems?

This is why Uber has ethics problems.

Uber is being investigated by two law firms hired to make assessments regarding the corporate practices and culture at the ride-sharing giant, determine what created the toxic environment that led to sexism, sexual harassment, other unethical management conduct, and recommend remedial measures. Usually in such situations, the problem stems from unethical leadership. Guess what? Uber’s unethical conduct stems from not merely unethical leadership, but a leader with ethics alarms that have rotted into dust and rust.

The two law firms recently uncovered a 2013 e-mail sent to Uber’s staff by  CEO Travis Kalanick before a company outing in Miami.  Internally referred to as the “Miami letter,” this thing screams “What was he thinking?”, “Where were the lawyers?” and “This guy might get elected President of the United States!”

Here is the e-mail; I’m going to bold some important features: Continue reading

“Elfin’ Around,” Best Buy? Really?

bestbuy_logoBest Buy just became the latest TV advertiser to conclude that it’s astonishingly clever and hilarious to evoke “fuck” in a commercial, one that I just heard at 7:54 PM. The spot extolling Christmas shopping at Best Buy (it isn’t even Halloween yet) featured a cheery announcer pointing out that when you shop there, you won’t be “elfin’ around.” Get it? It sounds like “effin,” a cover-word that means “fucking,” and is meant to be heard as “fucking.”  But, see, it’s SO clever, see, because it’s NOT “effin’,” but “ELFin’,” and this is a Christmas ad! Wow! Christmas AND Fake Fuck in the same word! There must have been high fives all around when the writers came up with this one.

An ethical management would have told them to grow up, and fired the lot of them. This is 2015, however, a banner one in the coarsening of America, so Best Buy decided it was cool to join Verizon, Booking.com, CNN, and President Obama —you know, our national role model?— in following the lead of K-Mart’s disgusting  “ship my pants” ad in 2013. Continue reading

Here’s The Thing, Booking.Com: If You Think Your Customers Appreciate Gratuitous Smuttiness, I Don’t Want To Be One Of Them

Booking_com_Logo The manners of society appear to be heading south at an accelerating rate, with our up and coming generations being increasingly sent the message from the culture, celebrities and even elected officials, that manners and civility in public conduct and speech is for snobs, nerds, dorks, and goons. It’s cool to be vulgar! I admit, I’m in at least two of those three categories, so I really don’t get it. Ethics dictates that one communicates with respect for anyone within hearing distance, and unless ugly words serve a material purpose, using them is not the mark of a good citizen, a good neighbor, or a trustworthy human being. Nor is spouting vulgarity witty, and unless you are 11, and employing obvious code words that sound like curses, epithets and obscenities isn’t especially funny either, since we pretty much exhausted the possibilities at summer camp. I have no idea why anyone would want to recast the culture as a place where professionals curse like sailors and the words “fuck” and “cocksucker” are as likely to issue from a debutante’s lips as those of a hip hop artist, but that seems to be the objective now. President Obama, the Fish Head, signaled his approval by repeatedly using the word “bucket” in a televised event when he obviously meant “fuck it.” First President ever to use fuck on TV! Yes, Obama continues to burnish his legacy. Small wonder that CNN’s John Berman thought his audience wanted to see him snigger over a colleague’s “big stones,” a testicle joke that always has them LOL-ing in the 7th grade. Making sure that there is nowhere for the civil and well-mannered to hide, all the other TV stations happily accept money from advertisers using code words for “ass” (Verizon), alluding to sexual intercourse (Reese’s), and evoking the word “shit” (K-Mart and DraftKings). Continue reading