Reviewed by Bruce Howes, Department of Philosophy, Okanagan College. Email: bhowes [at] okanagan.bc.ca.
TEMPTATIONS IN THE OFFICE by Stephen Goldman is a book in the best tradition of legal approaches to the application of ethics. It is stylistically clear and methodologically admirable. The organization of the book is simple and lucid: Chapters 1 and 2 are given over to the general diagnosis of ethical wrongdoing, Chapter 3 proposes a curative procedure, and Chapters 4 through 8 offer a guide to specific applications of that cure.
At its core the book sets out to accomplish two rather daunting tasks: a) construct a procedure to deal with already recognized ethical concerns, and b) set up a means by which to initially recognize concerns as ethical in nature. While the latter task is left somewhat incomplete, the former and arguably more important task is carried off with resounding success.
Goldman, a practicing lawyer in the Washington, DC area specializing in complex civil litigation and a Distinguished Lecturer in Law at the Catholic University of America Law School, lays down a procedure to aid managers through the choppy waters of clear ethical dilemmas in the workplace. This is the ‘crown jewel’ of the book – what Goldman calls “The Foursquare Protocol.”
Goldman suggests that if a manager finds herself on the horns of an ethical dilemma in the workplace, she should take the following four steps. First, she should marshal as many facts as possible. Second, she should seek out information on how previous ethical decisions within the company were arrived at, as well as how these decisions were generally received by employees. Third, the manager ought to sort out the relevant similarities and dissimilarities between those past situations and the present one. And last, the manager should honestly and clearly assess any personal interests, biases, or conflicting interests she has that might impair her proper treatment of the problem.
Now this is a very brief description of a template for which the balance of the book (pp.73-205) rather convincingly displays the advantages (It is worth buying the book to get more detail). There is a lot of horse sense here. Goldman applies his proposed protocol to the main areas where ethical problems are found: sexual harassment, conflict of interest, executive compensation, corner-cutting, and the abuse of power.
As Goldman says when dealing with, say, conflicts of interest it is helpful to “look at how the law treats business conflicts of interest” (p.120). The Protocol is explicitly an attempt to [*953] transplant the best traditions of the legal profession – practices, procedures, and general outlook – into the midst of business’ clash with values. While some might quip (after inserting their favourite lawyer joke) that, given the ever expanding range of ‘due process’ rights within the workplace, it was really only a matter of time before some lawyer somewhere got around to baldly proposing that managers be required to have the formal skills of a judge. Goldman may be asking a lot of managers here; but given that a new round of corporate scandals may be upon us, perhaps not too much.
Goldman observes that too often managers handle ethical qualms (at least those who acknowledge there is any such thing in business) by following their ‘intuition.’ This often leads to at least the semblance of unfairness and inconsistency, if not the reality of it, which can then lead to compounding the original problem. As such, a key “prong” of Goldman’s protocol is the 2nd one, with its demand that “organizational memory” be mined for insight (p.65). This is an excellent instance where the law provides solid guidance.
One thing to note about the 2nd protocol is its implicit limit. It requires the manager to research past decisions from her own company only. Though not explicit on the matter, Goldman is here suggesting an entirely ‘in-house’ solution to ethical woes. Given that private enterprises are often very sensitive to outside intrusion into internal decisions (beyond what the law demands), this ought to be a generally palatable place to draw the lines of responsibility. With the in-house restriction, each business is seen as a distinct ‘jurisdiction,’ and no serious changes to organizational ‘culture’ need be undertaken.
Now, some might argue that if it makes sense to look at precedents in my organization, then it would also make sense to look at similar situations elsewhere, or solutions found in similar organizations. So keeping things in-house might not be wise or even workable in the long term. But this quibble does not make Goldman’s advice any less reasonable for a manager dealing in real time with slippery ethical issues. And there is the added dividend that any manager adopting this framework will, as well, be building good ethical habits into her company’s “organizational memory” for future reference.
The task of providing a framework for already recognized ethical problems is solidly completed with the Foursquare Protocol. Goldman’s other important task is to help provide people with what he calls an “early warning system” for recognizing ethical problems in the first place. Such a system would provide managers with “a way of detecting when what seems like a perfectly straight-forward business issue actually hinges on values” (p.xi). This is very laudable aim, but a difficult one to define. As such, this aim remains, at best, only vaguely realized in TEMPTATIONS.
Early in the book Goldman makes the point that ethical problems are one of three major ways that businesses tend to get themselves into serious trouble (the other two are market failures and liquidity problems). And as he puts it, these ethical business failures “usually [*954] start in a mundane way” with people simply “ignoring the basic values underlying situations” (p.xi). This is a keen insight denoting that early diagnosis of a problem’s ethical core is the key to solving it.
Obviously such an early warning system will be of no use to those who positively refuse to acknowledge that there are business decisions that require ethical considerations. And indeed in Chapter 1 Goldman explicitly identifies such a group, referring to them as “Ethically Indifferent Persons”, or EIPs.
EIPs are described as people who are “impervious” to any kind of argument which shows sensitivity toward the well being of others (pp.13, 38-40). To those who have an EIP as a boss, Goldman counsels that they should avoid any attempt to question or challenge the EIP’s insensitivity – usually an encounter with a brick wall is less futile. Yet the goal of the employee must be nonetheless to make sure that his own decisions continue to be humane. So such an employee must find a way to do the ethically sensitive thing while framing the issue for the boss in terms of the bottom line.
The distinction Goldman builds between EIPs and non-EIPs seems right; and his advice that non-EIPs should attempt to approach EIPs on a footing consistent with business rather than on a ‘values’ footing, seems correct too (p.14). Chapter 2 seems to be the place where we ought to find the early warning system. But Chapter 2 seems no more than a well written but standard defence of the need of ethics in business. Is this the early warning system?
If so, EIPs will not use it, since they refuse to accept the existence of ethical concerns. And if so, non-EIPs do not need it. If the ‘early warning system’ is merely this argument that ethical concerns in the workplace should be taken seriously and treated distinctly – then it seems that Goldman is preaching to the choir. Non-EIPs already know they should be treated that way.
What an early warning system should be is a means by which to distinguish ordinary business problems from those with an ethical dimension while the ethical problem is still a small distant ‘blip.’ NonEIPs do indeed need such a system to alert them to the ethical dimension before it overruns them. Goldman alludes to this but fails to provide such a system.
So an early warning system remains elusive, but this in no way diminishes Goldman’s success at providing a very useful tool (The Foursquare Protocol) for managers to deal with already recognized ethical problems in the workplace.
One last subject needs to be delicately broached here. Goldman very early on states that moral philosophy is to be avoided as much as possible given that it is “dense and maddeningly divorced from reality” and that “[b]usiness ethics are too serious a business to be left to the philosophers” (p.xiv). As a philosopher who teaches business ethics, this view requires some token resistance here.
Be assured that I understand what Goldman means by this statement. I have seen the whites of my students’ eyes on more than one occasion. Goldman’s complaint about [*955] ‘maddening’ philosophical abstraction may be fair if being taught ethics in school (Goldman cites his own frustrations with philosophy as an undergraduate in the early 1970s) has the effect of making business people wildly flee in the face of ethical concerns on the job. Reflection has to be ‘managed’ in the real world. And I would hope that Goldman is not meaning to suggest that any ‘Protocol’ could make reflection redundant.
I would as well argue philosophy need not leave such permanent scars and no longer does. And a glance at recent business ethics texts by philosophers (at least the ones that I have seen) should be enough to convince Goldman that most of those authors fully agree that a first priority must be striking the right balance between theory and praxis. With such a glance he will see that even philosophers can be sensible – when we absolutely must.
© Copyright 2008 by the author, Bruce Howes.
Temptations in the Office: Ethical Choices and Legal Obligations