Does your work require you to compromise your morals?

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In an episode of ‘Community’ (season 2) I watched yesterday, the main character Jeff goes to a party hosted by his old law firm. His friends from Community College crash the party to find him. Within a short time the friends have got themselves in morally ambiguous situations
ie. Shirley wants to sue someone for an accident her husband had, Britta is negotiating use of a beach house in exchange for sex twice a month and Pierce wants to go on holiday to an island where you can hunt and kill people.

The dramatic change in morals have obviously been sped up and exaggerated for comedic purposes, but the main idea is the same. The environment of this law firm encouraged people to change their moral standards. In Suits, another American program set in a law firm, this is one of the main ideas of the series. The main character finds that work is overtaking his life, and he doesn’t have time to visit his Grandma. He buys her a new fancy apartment, but cancels meeting her when he was meant to. She ends up dying before even seeing the apartment and his friend questions how he could have neglected her for work.

At my own workplace, I have witnessed a similar thing happening, but obviously to a much less dramatic extent.

I sit next to 2 new employees. One of them is a graduate trainee who is expected to work hard, listen and learn as much as possible before moving on to another department. I’ll call him Graduate. The other is a new employee who used to work for a different firm in the same line of business. We’ll call him Newbie.

When Newbie started he immediately fit in well with the rest of his team. They accepted him and at once he seemed like he was ‘one of the lads’. Graduate came a bit later and also settled in really well. He seemed to be faring well with the workload and was impressing his team. However, under the surface, tensions were rising, and when the rest of their team was out I heard what they really felt.

Newbie was surprised that on his first day he didn’t get a tour round the office, he wasn’t taken to lunch and no one mentioned drinks out after work to welcome him to the team. In fact, a month in to the job and he wasn’t even aware that there was a communal kitchen in the office or where the fire exits were! This was a big difference to his previous job which was more friendly and welcoming to newcomers. He took a proactive approach and attempted to organise social meet ups or lunches away from their desks but after being consistently turned down by his team he gave up.

I admired Newbie because although he felt unwelcomed, he didn’t want to perpetuate this attitude, and made an effort to positively change this office environment.

This was shown when Graduate started here. It should be noted that not only was Graduate new in this office, he had also moved house to be situated here and knew no one locally. Newbie made a positive attempt to introduce him to the team even though it was not his responsibility. Newbie took Graduate out for a couple of drinks after work. Newbie showed Graduate the best places to go out in town and even introduced him to his friends. Newbie was giving Graduate the welcoming, friendly introduction to the team that he had not had himself.

The next day, at work, another employee of the team warned Newbie that he was in trouble with his boss. He was in trouble because he had taken Graduate out on a weeknight. This was despite the fact that neither of them had been late for work in the morning and that both of them worked hard that day. From the boss’s point of view, productivity and time spent at their desks was far more important than making a new employee feel welcomed and valued both at work and in the local area.

It now seems unlikely that any new employee to the team will get the warm welcome that Newbie showed Graduate. The boss has made it clear that this is inappropriate behaviour. I wonder if Newbie will act differently now when someone new starts here. Maybe he’ll be like the rest of the team and not do anything welcoming.

The next week I overhead a conversation between Graduate and a colleague. The colleague was teaching Graduate how to negotiate on a deal. He wanted Graduate to lie. It was obvious that this colleague had done this hundreds of times before, and didn’t even consider it lying. He had convinced himself that this was part of the ‘art of negotiating’. What he was doing was not unethical business practice, and is perfectly legal but it certainly was morally ambiguous. He asked Graduate to make the phone call.

Graduate said he didn’t think he could. He asked for specific clarification that this was not illegal. He asked why it was necessary to lie and whether there could be a different method that they could use. He asked why the price had to be driven up so much when it didn’t even affect their profits that much. And in the end he made the call.

Graduate must have been grappling with his conscious because the next day he stated that he wasn’t sure he had the right personality to do the job, and he doesn’t think that he is ‘devious’ and ‘sly’ enough. He will do it though, because he’s on a graduate scheme. He partly viewed his conscious as an obstacle to overcome to become a better employee and started looking for answers to his questions so that he could convince himself that the lying was ok. A few weeks later and he was still questioning why the profit had to be driven so high.

This was actually the second time I had witnessed a graduate trainee have their morals ‘broken’. The previous graduate trainee had been the brunt of the office ‘banter’. To me, banter is a word that describes insults told in a joking way. The ‘lads’ in this team have a lot of ‘banter’. It’s seen as a positive thing, relating to how comfortable they are around each other and how they can joke with each other. Typical ‘banter’ would be making fun of someone else’s clothes, hair, car, briefcase, lunch etc. It doesn’t have the backstabbing, menacing tone of the office gossip. It is all done in jest directly between the person saying the insult and the person insulted. The correct response to banter is either to laugh or to retaliate with an equally insulting or more insulting insult, said with a smile and a laugh.

Banter seems to be a way for people to break down social barriers and have a laugh. It gives employees opportunities to make fun of their bosses without getting in trouble. It uses that witty part of your brain which delights in word puns and jokes. However, the central part of this banter is that it is insulting. Whether an insult about your hair is said in jest or not, it is still an insult. It may still make the person receiving the comment to go and check their hair in the mirror, or get a hair cut.

I think there are better ways to have a laugh with your colleagues than resorting to insults. And if you have someone in the office who really does need to dress smarter, or who has lipstick on their teeth every day, is it kinder to let them know alone, quietly to one side, or to state it in a loud, jokey way in front of all of your colleagues?

Being part of the team, Graduate was on the receiving end of a lot of this banter. Every day the lads joked about his bag, physique, voice, clothes and the quality of his work. He couldn’t argue back or get annoyed because it was all said in jest. However, he didn’t reply with more banter because it was against his morals to insult anyone, as a joke or not. He never, ever, ever, ‘bantered’. He was a genuinely sweet, kind person. He worked as hard as he was able to, always putting a lot of effort into his work and his appearance. He really respected his team and looked up to them. He desperately wanted to be treated as a friend. In some ways, he was like a puppy. He was consistently trying to please them and wanting their approval. In response, he was insulted.

On his last day of work in this office (graduate trainees move around), he wanted to go for leaving drinks at lunch time. He thought that, it being a Friday when everyone finished at 3pm, everyone would want to leave quickly to get home after work, so lunch time would be the best opportunity to say goodbye. His boss wouldn’t let him. His boss got angry and said that he would have to wait until after work as he was busy at lunch time. It came to the end of the work day and the rest of the team were all in different parts of the building, still working. Graduate went to the pub down the road with 2 other people from different teams. While he was gone, one member of his team put his leaving card on his desk and then went home. She didn’t even pop in at the pub to say goodbye. Another team member went home without saying a word as well. The boss who had refused to allow him to do anything at lunch was in the middle of a meeting, and finally went to the pub 2 hours later with one other member of his team.

What a poor send off for this hard worker who just wanted to feel appreciated! Once again, his boss had proven to me that he didn’t think that employee happiness, or feeling of being valued, was necessary.

Graduate came back to the office some months later for training, and was really excited to see his old team again. The first member of the team that he spoke to turned their back to him. Another member of the team had this conversation:

 

Graduate- It’s been really good to see you again

Team – Yeah it has, we should meet up some time

Graduate- That would be great! What’s your number? I’ll send you a text

Team – Err, I didn’t mean it! Hahaha! (rest of team laughing as well- this was said in a ‘banter’ way, not a mean way)

Graduate- Haha…..errr…ok, bye

 

Graduate then text another member of the team a bit later on saying ‘it would be good to meet up’ and the whole team had a laugh about it.

To me, this banter had gone too far. It was on the verge of bullying! The next day I told the team members that I thought they had been extremely rude to Graduate and that I was shocked at the mean things they said about him when he only ever tried to impress them. They responded with lawyer-like phrases, denouncing all responsibility and stating that they had not done anything wrong as it was all ‘banter’. In their eyes, their behaviour as grown men, and as people that Graduate admired, was fine.

These events may seem inconsequential, but they are happening constantly in one small team, in one office. These scenarios are probably playing out all around the world in many organisations. From my own experiences I know that I feel like my morals have sometimes been compromised for the good of the business. For example;

– I have gossiped about other people to try and fit in with a team.

– I have been asked to sell things to people that I know they do not want or need.

– I have been told that I should spend more time at work and less time with my family.

– I have had to tell people that we can’t give them compensation when I know we can

It’s not exactly ‘selling my soul’, but I think there are a lot of people who are asked worse. Reddit is a really good forum for finding out what people think about their work. A lot of people post anonymously so they have the freedom to say what they really feel. A lot of them give hints and tips to other readers. For example, although I have to tell people that they can’t get compensation, I could post on reddit what they would have to do to get it and then I could feel better about myself.

What’s awful is that we’re working for these companies that do not share our moral values, and as a result we have to grapple with our own inner conflicts.

Ok, so here are my questions:

– Have you ever worked in a company which required you to compromise your morals? Why and how did you cope with it?

– Which particular industries are the worst for making people behave against their moral values?

– Is it possible to become very successful in business without compromising your morals?

– Can introducing moral codes into businesses improve productivity (e.g. some businesses have a ‘no blame’ culture) or is the business more effective if moral standards can be compromised?

– From my examples it seems that the boss of this team has a big influence on the team’s behaviour. Is it the role of the business owner to encourage good moral conduct in their employees?

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6 Comments Add yours

  1. Ed Broyd says:

    Interesting.
    Amy’s actually going through the job-seeking process at the moment, as Citi Group have pissed her off sufficiently and she’s looking for redundancy. They have kept her on despite the fact she wasn’t able to work for ages, but for the last month hasn’t had a sick note from the doctor. The issue has been that Citi haven’t had a job for her, and yet have kept paying her to sit at home and wait for something to come up. Some people might like the option of getting paid to do nothing, however after a while (you’ve got to take some of the pro’s with the cons) it really started getting to her that she was being a massive waste of money for them!

    Complaining about a job will normally be a fact of having a job. Unless everyone is perfectly aligned (excuse the HR babble) in what they want and how they want to go about it there will always be differences of opinion and differing levels of belief in what you’re doing. It doesn’t matter whether it’s co-workers, employers about employees or vice-versa.

    My personal belief is that as long as the bean-counters are in charge of things (and let’s face it, they probably will be for the foreseeable future) the world will always be driven by looking for that extra 1% of profit. Sad but probably true.

    I don’t want to live in a yurt.

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    1. rachel says:

      Noooo! Ed that is so depressing! Ok so everyone does have a different opinion of what is ‘moral’ but there are also differences of opinion on ethical practises.

      There has been a surge of ethical companies recently, primarily in banking (co-op), energy providers and food providers (fair trade, organic etc).

      Is it such a big leap to think that companies may want to be ethical / moral with their employees?

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  2. Penny Brown says:

    I’m really lucky that although the school I work for is an academy, so is technically a business, we are a co-operative academy so the whole school is run on the co-operative and ethical values http://www.co-operative.coop/corporate/aboutus/The-Co-operative-Group-Values-and-Principles/

    It’s still not perfect in every way, but I think it is a better working environment for having these values.

    Like

  3. Ollie F says:

    Reading this makes me feel incredibly lucky. Yahoo’s a fantastic place to work these days – every week we have a company-wide meeting with the executive staff (Marissa & co.) where they answer any questions we put to them. They regularly get questions about company policy, employee schemes (food, transport, lifestyle choices, etc.), strategy, etc. & they are obliged to answer. So they must always justify their decisions not just to the shareholders, but to us as well. The transparency is wonderful & the atmosphere great. As a result it has become a company which must align to the morals of its employees as much as its shareholders.

    IMO any company who would be unable to practise this sort of openness is not a company ‘fit for purpose’ & should not be allowed in this modern age. Yahoo (& other similar young tech companies) are leading the way in this & I hope others will come to follow this model in future… we can see slow moves in this direction from the government for example as they head towards the new world of transparency (e.g.stuff they provide here: http://data.gov.uk/).

    Like

  4. Erica says:

    So I know this was posted months back but I am currently facing moral dilemmas brought on by my job and came across this blog. Thought I might share.

    I work for Macy*s as a sales associate. One would think, or at least I (maybe naively) assumed you wouldn’t run into many moral issues when it comes to being in retail. I’ve worked retail jobs before and being new to the state and needing a job fast, thought that this would be fine.

    They grade you and pressure you on multiple things, daily it’s meeting sales goals and signing people up for their store credit card. It seems weekly they come out with something new you have to sell people on on top of this (such as their thanks for sharing program) The managers make it very clear that to earn more shifts you better be pushing and signing up loads of cards and their other programs.

    The girls who are exceeding at this, and who then seem to get special treatment (aka can push work off onto everyone else and act as catty as they want with no consequences) are the ones pulling underhanded stunts. This includes targeting and pressuring people who a lot of times have no idea what they’re signing up for, like non native English speaking customers and elderly customers. I distinctly remember one woman, who could barely remember the conversation she was having, with a “star” co worker, having her credit card and ss card taken from her so she could be signed up. I was appalled.

    After a few months I see now that in this company you must sell people things they don’t need, backstab coworkers (like stealing customers from them), schmooze with certain managers, and generally be dishonest/ take advantage of people to get ahead. It’s actually managers jobs to pressure you to use any means necessary to help the companies bottom line.

    I don’t believe companies should be run this way, but I understand that sadly many corporations do this to get as much profit as possible. And at least with this company, with the way it is currently organized, if they were to truly implement morals into the job they would not be as successful as they are now.

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  5. rachel665 says:

    Hi Erica,
    I’m sorry- your post got bogged down under all the spam comments so I’ve only just seen it!

    Your situation doesn’t sound great 😦 I would suggest standing up for your morals and trying to change perspectives but it does depend on how big the company is and how long its been working the way it is. I see what you mean about how implementing morals the profits would be reduced – and that is a sad case for almost every business! Ultimately that’s why change doesn’t happen easily.

    Sadly, we have to make money, so assuming you need a job, there’s only a few solutions I have managed to think of:

    If you have to stay in your current job:

    1. Accept the company you work for and join them. Perhaps they are not as ‘bad’ as you think? A lot of companies try and justify their potentially damaging actions through using CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility). E.g. they may be a building company that fills in a lake and then justifies this environmental destruction by donating money to a wildfowl charity or building a school for the local community as part of their development. Would this kind of ‘justification’ be ok to you or not? Does the company you work for have any schemes with local schools or charities? Check out their CSR and chat to your colleagues about the forced sales and backstabbing- maybe they see it differently? What are your colleagues like outside of work? How do they justify their actions to themselves? Do they see that what they are doing is morally ambiguous or do they not even think about it? Or do they justify their actions in some way? Perhaps they think they really are ‘helping’ the customers??
    2. Change the company from the inside. Either get really influential among your peers or work your way up to management and implement change

    If you can leave your job:

    1. Work for a company that is not so morally ambiguous. There are some companies that are particularly working towards improving the ‘Character’ of their staff (see http://www.charactercincinnati.org/business.php) or you could be lucky like Ollie above and find somewhere that is just generally a lovely company to work for where you can really believe in their principles and purpose. Read their mission statements to get a feel for where their priorities lie.
    2. Work for a company where profit is not the primary purpose – ie. a charity or a social enterprise. There are particular jobs that also lend themselves to being more ethical – eg. care workers, nurses, teachers etc. are all professions where the primary purpose is to help people
    3. Work for a co-operative company like Penny above, where every employee gets a say in the running of the company
    4. Set up your own company or work for a very small or family run business who are more in touch with their clients and customers
    5. Move to a commune or a place like an Amish community where everyone is working to earn or farm for each other in a co-operative way.

    I think, ultimately, being aware of exactly what is making you unhappy about the company is a good start as then you can act on it and do something about it. Like Ed said above – there are good and bad points to every job. There will always be something to like and something to complain about. E.g. If you are money driven then perhaps compromising on your morals would be something you are willing to do to get paid more. If you are driven by being surrounded by a great team then working alone at a computer would be far too lonely.

    So all I can suggest is – get to know yourself, what you find most important, and then find some suitable roles that will help you meet your needs and go for it! It will be quite impressive in an interview for you to be able to say, “I want to work for this company because I have done my research and found that you do X, Y and Z, which I really admire and want to be a part of”. Good luck!

    Like

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