I’d like to encircle the workplace with ribbons of yellow safety tape. That would give others an inkling of the dangers lurking within. I’m not talking about back pain, eyestrain, and paper cuts. I’m talking exploitation, harassment, and passive aggression.
We need to protect people from the risks that threaten their personal values. In an uncertain world, we can count on one thing: our personal values will be challenged in the workplace. They will be challenged by what we witness, experience, and are asked to do. Mine have, many times.
This problem has existed as long as there have been communal workplaces, and it was studied between 2001 and 2002 in an Aspen Institute survey conducted on a group of MBA students. “When asked whether they expected they would have to make business decisions that conflicted with their personal values during their careers, half the respondents in 2002 (and more than half in 2001) believed they would. The vast majority of respondents both years reported it would be ‘very likely’ or ‘somewhat likely’ that they would experience this as stressful,” according to University of Virginia business Professor Mary Gentile, author of a book, Giving Voice to Values: How to Speak Your Mind When You Know What’s Right.
The risks spread across organizations like foul air propelled by the wind. “In 2001, over half of respondents said their response to such a conflict would be to look for another job; in 2002 that number declined to 35 percent, still a significant number.”
Nearly two decades on, the Aspen Institute findings corroborate what I see today: employees are neither equipped nor prepared for responding when their values are challenged. Most business schools don’t teach techniques or approaches, and the few that do present choices through a moral lens that defines or prescribes right and wrong. That turns people off.
Professional development in sales and marketing has a similarly checkered ethical history. Aside from the ambiguous demand, “put customers at the center of everything you do,” practitioners use absolutism to bludgeon values dilemmas. They mansplain everything. “Don’t lie. Ever.” Huzzzzahh! Easy to say at the sales kickoff. Looks nifty on PowerPoint. But Job #1 for business developers is customer persuasion. Such admonishments don’t penetrate the thorny dilemmas employees routinely encounter, like choosing between pressuring customers to buy and keeping their jobs another quarter.
During my career, I have rationalized not speaking up when my values have been confronted. Many times, I’ve reasoned that for me, it’s safer to allow events to proceed. In other situations as a new hire, I’ve convinced myself that I shouldn’t interfere with how things have been done, or that my opinion wouldn’t be considered anyway. Lately, I’ve learned I’m far from alone in these reactions. As we endeavor to preserve a self-image of high integrity, we have cultivated a parallel talent for sweeping concerns and better judgement under the carpet.
Not that business development culture would have it any other way. Marketing and sales organizations are hives for conformity and group think: “Quit giving excuses!” “I want to know how you are going to sell, not why you can’t!” “We’re not a problems focused group, we’re a solutions oriented group.” “You’re either on the team, or you’re not.” If you’ve worked in sales or marketing even a short time, you have probably heard similar sentiments. They carry a theme: check your personal values at the door before you begin work. Little wonder why so many marketing and sales professionals find it nauseating to rock the organizational boat.
Many of us compromise our values further with another rationalization: “well, I’ve already slid a bit on that ethical slope, so what’s the harm in a little more?” It doesn’t have to be that way. Voicing our values in the present doesn’t require that our past choices be ethically flawless. In fact, recognizing past imperfections in ethical decision making frees us to move in better directions. There’s nothing to be gained beating ourselves up over workplace decisions that we’d rather re-do. Wearing egg has never been fashionable, but as a practical matter, you can’t hold a conversation about ethical choices if the person leading the discussion cops an attitude of finger-wagging, holier-than-thou judgment. And I’ve yet to meet a colleague, client, or direct report who doesn’t wear symbolic egg.
Which values challenges do business developers experience?
Pressure from management:
- “You must not share information with [Customer X] about this defect, because it will delay their purchase.”
- “We can surcharge their invoice. [Customer X] will never know they’re overpaying.”
- “We’ll bury that warranty disqualification policy in our service agreement. Customers don’t read them anyway.”
- “When you prospect a C-Level executive for the first time, always make it seem that you’ve had an earlier conversation with them.”
- “This product has high potential for misuse, but it’s too important to our profits not to aggressively promote it.”
Pressure from prospects:
- “We haven’t made a purchase decision yet, but if you can promise a better price, I will share [Competitor X’s] proprietary proposal.”
- “I’m willing to award your company the order, but I need a personal favor . . .”
- “We need your developers to modify the quality algorithm so the defect rate we report to the government appears lower.”
Since 2014, dozens of companies have been inducted into the Annual Sales Ethics Hall of Shame. Theranos, Wells Fargo, VW, Takada, and Purdue Pharmaceutical became notorious because their business strategies became deeply infected with nefarious intent.
In September, 2018, Theranos announced it was formally “dissolving”, which suggests its ending was less horrible than it was. Like saying that the Titanic submerged. Two senior Theranos executives, founder Elizabeth Holmes and Sunny Balwani, were indicted the same year, charged with engaging in schemes to defraud investors, doctors and patients. Takata filed for bankruptcy. Wells Fargo got spanked with onerous restrictions on its asset growth. And VW, well, I’ll never buy a car from a company that unrepentantly sacrificed my respiratory health to pad their profits.
For all these companies, the proximate cause for their bad fortune wasn’t a cliché risk like rabid competition. It wasn’t warp-speed market disruption. It wasn’t onerous government regulation or economic chaos. Instead, it was unchecked greed.
Opining greed in the C-Suite won’t make anyone more ethical. It won’t reduce manipulative practices. It won’t produce better outcomes for customers, employees, or suppliers. Nor will moaning about high pressure sales tactics. After all, sales forces are predominantly paid on revenue production, and as we know with incentive compensation, the goal is to get what you pay for.
Instead, we must identify the root cause. Risk mitigation for corporate malfeasance begins with employees who are prepared and equipped to voice their values. Put another way, we have met the responsible party, and it is each of us. Time to take the bull by the horns and wrestle it to the ground.
Some tips for voicing your values:
- Know what your values are. Write them down – it doesn’t need to be a long or complicated list. Own them. This is essential, because they are yours, and that makes them unassailable.
- Believe that your values deserve to be taken seriously. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an intern or board chair.
- Prepare yourself for situations where you know you will need to draw the line. This means anticipating challenges such as the ones described earlier and developing a response ahead of time.
- Don’t judge the action of others or presume to understand them. If you assume a manager or colleague has malintent, you will come across that way, and will be less likely to change his or her mind.
- Invite conversation about the issue. For example, “This doesn’t work for me. I don’t think it’s right. Do you see it differently? Help me understand.” (reference Giving Voice to Values, page 157).
- “Frame choices in ways that align them with broad, widely-shared purpose.” (Giving Voice to Values page 159). It’s easier to redirect a problematic request when you can gain consensus on a larger goal.
- Craft a description that focuses on the advantages of your recommendation or role, rather than the disadvantages.
- Practice, practice, practice your responses to values challenges. Reflect on your experience and that of others, figure out what you’ve learned, hone your tactics, and practice some more.
“Once we identify the common challenges in our particular line of work, it is especially useful to look for and note any examples of individuals who have effectively voiced and acted on their values in this type of situation,” Professor Gentile writes. Examples are abundant online. It’s also important to familiarize ourselves with common rationales for not resisting. The top four, according to Giving Voice to Values,
Expected or standard practice: “Everyone does this, so it’s really standard practice. It’s even expected.” Antidote question: “If the practice is accepted, why are there often rules, laws, and policies proscribing it?”
Materiality: “the impact of this action is not material. It doesn’t really hurt anyone.” Antidote question: “Does the apparent small size of this infraction make it any less fraudulent?”
Locus of responsibility: “This is not my responsibility; I’m just following orders here.” Antidote question: “Is the issue likely to cause significant harm, and are there few (or no) others able to act to prevent it?”
Locus of loyalty: “I know this isn’t quite fair to the customer but I don’t want to hurt my reports/team/boss/company.” Antidote question: “Am I being truly loyal to the company if I perform this task/operation/process and it undermines trust and credibility?”
Paraphrasing the immortal words of Glenda, the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz, “You’ve always had the power to act on your values, my dear. You just had to learn it for yourself.”
“We are beginning from the position that we want to act.” Professor Gentile writes. “Therefore we are trying to answer the question: “How can we do so most effectively?”