Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

Learn How the Experts Characterize a “Bad Apple” At Work

How the Experts Characterize a "Bad Apple" At Work

One bad apple spoils the bunch via Flickr

Chapter 3: The Corporation, The Real American Idol Part 15

Earlier in the chapter, I argued that corporate idolatry is not the same thing as unethical business behavior.   However, there is significant overlap, and I read the business ethics literature in hopes of learning what drives people towards idolatry.

I hit the jackpot with a paper by Linda Treviño, one of the leaders in the field of business ethics.[i]  Treviño and colleagues did a meta-analysis of 136 prior publications studying the causes of unethical behavior, with a total sample size of 43,914 people.  Not surprisingly, any attempt to quantify human behavior is complicated, with many interdependent factors.  Nevertheless, there are enough people to do some real statistics, and what the framework she provided helped me understand the 80 hours of interviews I conducted as background for this book.  Unethical decisions at work can be traced to three sources: people, circumstances, and the overall company culture.[ii]

People-centric drivers of unethical behavior

In general, Trevino showed that people who look out for number one are more likely to make unethical choices.  In addition, the data showed a statistically significant correlation between unethical behavior and the following personality characteristics:

  • a relative moral philosophy (i.e. values change with circumstances, which also is one of the key characteristics of idolatry.)
  • a propensity to manipulate others
  • an inability to see a connection between his or her own actions and consequences to other people

Equally interesting were the characteristics that did not correlate with unethical choices:

  • age
  • gender
  • education
  • level within the organization.

The latter finding was particularly disturbing to the authors because “integrity tests are most often used with lower level employees.”[iii]

Go to the next post to learn how circumstances and corporate culture impact ethical decisions.

Learn How the Experts Characterize a “Bad Apple” At Work is an excerpt from my book Busting Your Corporate Idol, the Five Star Best Seller on Amazon.

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[i] Linda Treviño is Distinguished Professor of Organizational Behavior and Ethics, and Director of the Shoemaker Program in Business Ethics in the Smeal College of Business at Penn State University.  She is the author of over 70 articles as well as several books.

[ii]   Bad Apples, Bad Cases, and Bad Barrels: Meta-Analytic Evidence About Sources of Unethical Decisions at Work.  Kish-Gephart JJ, Harrison DA, Treviño LK. . J Appl Psychol. 2010 Jan;95(1):1-31. Abstract.

[iii] Ibid p.20

Why You Shouldn’t Let the Company Provide Your Moral Compass

Chapter 3: The Corporation, The Real American Idol Part 14

Let me be clear: I think corporations are fantastic at creating goods and services – they enlist cooperation on a level not possible with any other system.  However, even Adam Smith, who coined the term “The Invisible Hand Of the Market” understood that free markets were good for maximizing economic value, and not moral value. A corporation is created to make money, i.e. increase revenue and minimize costs.  Just as a real person will strive to survive and thrive in the fiercely competitive natural world, the artificial person seeks to survive and thrive in the highly competitive economy.  But there is one key difference: a person’s struggle for survival is tempered by our capacity for moral reasoning, while a company is incapable of any moral agency.

Let me give you an example that seems obvious today: child labor.  I don’t know when the first moral issues about child labor were raised, but in the United States, the first state to make child labor illegal was Massachusetts in 1832.  At the Federal level, child labor was not illegal until 1938.  So what happened in between?  According to The Child Public Education Labor Project  “Growing opposition to child labor in the North caused many factories to move to the South.  By 1900, states varied considerably in whether they had child labor standards and in their content and degree of enforcement.”

Lets unpack this: there were a heterogeneous set of laws, and presumably child labor was less expensive or more productive than adult labor.  So a factory in a state where child labor was illegal was at a disadvantage when compared to a state without regulations.  Based on the numbers, the business case was strong to move the factory.  The only thing to keep it behind would be a moral argument.  But in my experience, it is hard for a morality-based argument to beat a numbers-based business case, especially if inaction could threaten the future viability of the business.

Now, I grant that some companies have cultures that do try to adhere to standards other than the numbers.  (I reject the notion that there are “good” companies on the same grounds that I reject the concept of “evil” companies.) But whatever company you are in, I would not trust them to set my moral compass.  They simply cannot detect moral issues.  Asking a company to do the right thing is like asking a blind person to pick out the blue shirt.  They can pick a shirt based on size or texture, or maybe even a label that says “blue” in brail.  But they do not have the sensory apparatus to know the difference between blue and red.

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What Are The Shared Values In Your Organization?

McKinsey 7S Model

Chapter 3: The Corporation, The Real American Idol Part 7 – UPDATED 8/10

As we have seen in the previous chapters, idolatry goes beyond the literal definition of statue worship to include excessive devotion and/or blind adoration for an entity, idea, or force of nature.  Moreover, this “idol worship” brings with it adoption of a value system other than the universal value system espoused by the Golden Rule*. (More on Universal Values here.)  Value systems are important because they define the accepitble boundaries of human behavior.  Corporate idolatry, then, has something to do with the adoption of a value system that permits a different set of behaviors than those permitted by The Golden Rule.

In the corporate world, the whole concept of values gets muddy because many corporations have a written set of positive “values” that frankly are more slogan than substance[i].  If you are wondering “What Are The Shared Values In Your Organization?” look at what people do, not what they say. True values are what drive actual behavior, and they can be positive or negative. I find the McKinsey 7S framework particularly relevant model for organizational behavior.  It categorizes 7 elements that together categorize a company.  (See the image).  Shared values are placed in the center because they touch and define the boundaries of all other aspects of the business, just as personal values touch and define the boundaries of behavior in a person.  One of the biggest implications of 7S is that real change in an organization will not happen unless the shared values of the company change.  Let me give you an example.

I interviewed multiple people from a Silicon Valley company about its transition a few years ago as its revenue surpassed $250 million dollars annually.  The company had become large enough that the ad-hoc decision making was no longer effective, and product development was impeded by political infighting.  The company sought to solve the problem through systems and staff.  It hired a consulting company to deploy a new product development governance system.  The system worked beautifully for a year – the product launches were streamlined, and groundbreaking.  Customers were happy, revenues were through the roof, and the company was considered best in class by Wall Street.

But it didn’t last.  The executive running product development was demoted, and soon left the company.  Within a year or two product development once again political and ineffective, and revenues suffered.  Why did this happen?  From the perspective of someone who was caught in the trenches at the time, it made no sense and wasn’t rational. In the context of shared values, it does.

The values of the organization, (propagated by the founder/CEO) did not reward operational issues, or believe in customer feedback.  The CEO had a certain vision of the world, and thought development resources should be concentrated on pushing the core technology, as opposed to the usability features requested by customers.  And his vision was shared by a significant portion of the executive team, who were hired and promoted for that very reason.  There was a mythical belief that all the company needed to do was to create more powerful hardware and the customers would love it.

In summary, there was a disconnect between the company’s shared values and the new process.  The shared values won. 

Note: This post is an excerpt from Busting Your Corporate Idol: Self Help for the Chronically Overworked, a 5 Star Amazon Best Seller in the Work Life Balance Category. Learn more.

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* Treat others as you would like to be treated in a similar circumstance.

[i] What Do Corporate Values Really Mean? Published on February 7, 2010 by Ray Williams in Wired for Success retrieved August 12, 2012

The Quick and Dirty Way To Learn Your Company Culture

Chapter 3: The Corporation, The Real American Idol Part 6

The writer David Foster opened his 2005 Kenyon Commencement address with this story: an older fish said to two younger fish “Morning boys.  How’s the water?”  After he swam away, one fish looked at the other and said “What the hell is water?[i]”  I love the story, because it captures a truism – we don’t notice something we are immersed in.  Corporate culture is the water of corporate life.

Corporate culture is defined as the shared values, traditions, customs, philosophy, and policies of a corporation.[ii]  We used to grill new employees about our products to get an outside perspective before they absorbed the biases of our organization.  And I think a big part of the stress of a new job is learning all of the unwritten rules of “the way things are done here.”  Here is a trick to learn the new culture quickly: ask to hear stories.

In their book “In Search of Excellence,” Tom Peters and Robert Waterman argue that great companies have strong values, which are transmitted not through “written procedures” but through “stories, myths, legends and metaphors.[iii]”  This rings true for me, based both on my own experience and from stories I heard while conducting interviews for the book.  For example, when I asked about company values, people started talking about the bullet points in the employee handbook, and were quick to point out that no one paid attention to them.  But when I asked for stories, I quickly learned what a company stood for.

At one company, there was a story about the sales rep who drove an instrument across Europe during the Christmas shutdown to complete the sale.  He even got the customer to unlock the building and take delivery so that the company could recognize the revenue.  This story was told more than once at company-wide meetings, and reminded employees an important lesson about the company values – do what it takes to make the numbers.  Of course the sales rep got a commission check, and it could be argued that he was simply acting in his own self-interest.

But self-interest certainly was not a factor in a story I heard from a former employee of Amersham.   a company in the UK that sold radioactive labels for biomedical research in the 80s and 90s. What does this story say about Amersham values? “Something went wrong with the [nuclear] reactor and the people on the night shift had to run into the reactor to get some stuff [so that it could ship to the customer on time.]  They got 10 times the dose they legally should have. … It wasn’t driven by commercial gain.  It was driven by ‘oh we’ve go to do a good job.’”  The Amersham alum laughed fondly as he told me the story.  It was clear that the story was told often when the beer began to flow, and is the type of myth that helps propagate company values.

What are the stories, myths and legends at your company, and how do they guide how you make decisions?

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[i] Transcription of the 2005 Kenyon Commencement Address – May 21, 2005 retrieved August 5, 2012.; David Foster Wallace, The Guardian, Friday 19 September 2008 retreived August 3, 2012


[iii] In Search Of Excellence: Lessons From America’s Best-Run Companies.  Thomas J Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr. Harper and Row (1982) p. 282.

Twitter NBC Olympics Flap Torches Boundaries Of Free Speech

Chapter 3: The Corporation, The Real American Idol Part 4: 

At the end of the last post, I was discussing circumstances when a person has to speak in the name of the company.  This is not a problem, until that speech starts to conflict with your internal value system.  The whole issue of speech gets tricky pretty fast, because a company routinely expects an employee not to publically disclose things that would be damaging to the company.

I asked many people I interviewed if they were ever in a situation where they had to make a trade off between being straight with a customer and protecting the company.  Here is a typical answer, this one from “Matthew,” a 20-year software employee, and a Buddhist.  “I do that every day.  I deal with customer issues that are unresolvable, or 18 months in the future.  We are encouraged to be relatively straight with them and also to not bad mouth the company.  As a representative of the company, we have a certain obligation.  It’s of it is why you get the paycheck.  I have had 1 or 2 situations that had to do with directly lying to customer.  It came back and caused a huge headache.”

Matthew’s last point is worth elaboration.  Lying to customers is often a bad business strategy, but the criteria for what speech is permissible varies greatly between company cultures.  Which brings us to the Twitter Olympics flap.  Twitter first suspended and reinstated the account of Guy Adams, a news correspondent who shared the corporate email address of NBC executive Gary Zenkel.  (More details on the story available here.)  The key point for now is that, in Twitter’s own words, “there are some limitations on the type of content that can be published with Twitter.”  I love the name of this section on the website, “Content Boundaries and Use of Twitter.”  Boundaries is a wonderful word.  And what sets the boundaries of behavior?  In my opinion it is values.

What are the values of your company, and how do they impact speech by employees and executives?

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