Honestly Working in Five Steps

The message of #MeToo – sexual predation will no longer be tolerated – is an implicit warning to a wider circle than those guilty of making unwelcome sexual advances.

The demand for sexual favours by those with power over others has a long history – the infamous Hollywood casting-couch is an example. Suddenly, with the aid of social media it has become unacceptable. The terms of what is acknowledged but tolerated have changed.

Such behaviour by perpetrators takes place at the ill-defined boundaries between social censure and the illegal. And the nature of those boundaries will vary in different parts of the world and everywhere change over time.

But the core behaviours – those with power pressure subordinates to behave in ways the compelled find distasteful, humiliating, improper or outright illegal – occur in situations other than the sexual. And they commonly occur at work.

Work relationships are generally hierarchical. The bosses boss and those thus bossed in turn boss those below them. And corporate culture often reinforces borderline behaviour, or worse.

Consider this: you retain the services of a financial adviser to assist with managing your assets, such as your pension or investments. Your expectation is that she or he will act in your best interests.

But your advisor will have other obligations. Among these may be an instruction from the boss to promote a particular product from which the company would earn higher remuneration from sales, regardless of its suitability to your needs or its inferiority to competing products.

Is this common? Yes. How does one know?

One significant example: in the United States, the Department of Labor proposed the introduction of a fiduciary rule that would oblige advisers to act in the best interests of clients. Advisers would have to be transparent about fees and compensation and to try to avoid conflicts of interest. As it should be, you may think.

President Trump effectively vetoed the rule in February, 2017. Buyers of financial products and hirers of financial advisers beware.

A public revelation of a large-scale corporate version of poor attention to client needs appeared in the New York Times on 14 March 2012.

Greg Smith, a long-term senior employee of Goldman Sachs, set out the reasons for his resignation from the firm. His general thesis was that the culture of an organisation he had respected and for which he had been proud to work had changed for the worse.
Specifically, he cited pressure to persuade clients to invest in stocks or other products that GS was trying to get rid of because of their low profit potential; and to get clients to trade whatever products brought the greatest profit to the firm.

Sales and marketing is a notoriously difficult area for honest dealing, as anyone who has ever bought a secondhand car will confirm. International standards of commercial truthfulness vary enormously, except possibly in markets for secondhand cars where misleading potential purchasers is an art form.

In 1968, the UK government passed a Trade Descriptions Act to limit excessive and wholly inaccurate claims by marketing professionals and vendors. By way of contrast, Hong Kong marketing can be heroically, comically misleading.

A large development of flats in Pokfulam on Hong Kong Island has been named Bel-Air on the Peak. From some flats you may be able to see the Peak but on the Peak the viewer will not be. A more accurate name for the development, based on location, would be Bel-Air almost by the Sea.

But deviant behaviour is not always the outcome of a direct order from the top. Techniques familiar to those acquainted with corporate life include the generalized instruction: ‘there’s a problem, fix it’. Or the handing off of decisions that are clearly dubious with the admonishment that you as a highly paid manager should know what to do.

The instruction to do the potentially improper is both implicit and deniable.

Here are five suggestions about how to find your way through the maze and pitfalls of an honest day’s work.

    1. Choose your industry with care. Becoming an apprentice to a celebrity chef will likely entail significant personal abuse. And a high-pressure sales career will expose you to conflicting loyalties with which you may be uncomfortable.
    2. Make sure you are familiar with changing definitions of the socially acceptable when dealing with colleagues (and others, of course). And be familiar with the law, regulations and expected behaviours that condition your work. A reputation for probity is a precious thing.
    3. Cultivating clarity of policy and actions is essential for efficiency and accountability. And such clarity requires explicit and accurate communications. The resulting audit trail provides evidence of what was done by whom and when, a valuable revelation of proper behaviour and a defence against dubious conduct.
    4. If the situation in which you find yourself is intolerable, a violation of corporate ethics or worse, then you may complain or become a whistleblower. Either option should be approached with caution.A complaint about serious misconduct should provide relief for you and protection for others. But it should not become habit-forming. Serial complaints rapidly invoke the law of diminishing returns.
      Whistleblowing can have severe consequences. Edward Snowden holed up in Russia after revealing confidential information about what he perceived as serious overreach by US agencies, is an extreme case. But colleagues, not just employers, sometimes see whistleblowers as organizationally disruptive and disloyal.
    5. Situation intolerable, find another job.

    Disruptive changes are difficult for all. But to change, adapt, cherish your integrity or move on are the only options. May the zeitgeist be with you.

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