Challenging the Boss on Principle

Most of us would agree that good ethics is good for business and bad ethics is bad for business. However, this basic concept begs the question, by whose or what standard do we measure what is good and what is bad? Is there a baseline below which bad ethics is punished and above which acting ethically is rewarded? How do we or should we respond when a colleague or superior does or says something that violates this ethical standard? Let’s dissect these questions within the context of a recent comment posted on the Human Resources IQ community's Q&A board.

The company Director and my immediate supervisor were involved in a discussion in which I became the topic. The Director stated that I have been with the team over six years and, making reference to my age, continued with the comment to the supervisor that he needed to get rid of me. The supervisor stated that he would not discharge me on that basis and asked what would compel the Director to make such a remark, as I have a clean performance record. This discussion came to light when the immediate supervisor informed me of what had transpired during that meeting. If I had not accepted another position within the organization, I feel that my employment would have been terminated.

The comment above suggests that management at this organization views the age of an employee as an important factor contributing to success. It also suggests that the organization does not value the employees' experience and prior performance. It implies that when an employee reaches some unspoken and arbitrary age/number, a termination strategy should be employed.

Most human resources professionals would agree that this example is a clear case of age discrimination. The standard or baseline is the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. But in reality, what difference does it make? The discriminatory comment will likely go unreported to HR or senior management. Even if the comment were to be reported, the affected employee can show no harm (he/she is still employed).

However, let’s step back a moment. Although not readily apparent, the company does suffer. There is a corporate cost. Employee morale has been affected, at least for this employee and those they tell about the incident. The message sent is that because of their age, their good performance is not likely to be rewarded. So, why go the proverbial extra mile? There is no value in intellectual capital and although they have provided good service to the company, they are now obsolete. The company, in fact, loses.

This type of discriminatory behavior is all too common today; especially with a depressed economy. How many HR professionals assume that an "experienced" worker or applicant will not "fit in," is adverse to change, not technically savvy? On the other hand, how many HR professionals know "seasoned" workers who bring experience, dedication, and ability to work the long hours and travel, appreciate diversity of cultures, embrace the multiple generations and backgrounds in the workplace because they have lived it. They are mature and have depth. But there is this arbitrary number that rules. Again, the company loses.

The immediate supervisor in this example is to be heralded as an ethical hero. This supervisor acted in the company’s best interest by standing up for what is right. This supervisor took a stand and stated that they would not discriminate. They would not judge someone on a purely arbitrary factor. They challenged the Director’s statement by asking why they would think that way.

How many of us would have boldly taken a stand for what is right and in the best interest of the company and its employees? How many of us would have agreed, walked away and done what was requested in the interest of protecting our career?

Being an ethical leader often means standing up for what is right and challenging unethical behavior. We must live the code of ethics. We cannot expect that employees will do the right thing when we reward and embrace leaders who don’t. How employees treat our customers, care for our products; explore cost effective ways to doing business and bring those suggestions to management’s attention, is often a result of how valued our employees feel. The reaction of this immediate supervisor should be the norm, not the exception. Great companies are run by great leaders. Great leaders evidence ethical behavior as part of their corporate persona.

Good ethics is good business. It can be felt in the tone of the company, is evidenced by how the company treats its employees, and how employees in turn treat the customer and care for business’ operations. It is the trickledown effect. It is also quantifiable.