How To Strengthen Your Moral Compass

Those in the spy business know that people in financial trouble are more vulnerable to blackmail and bribery. So are you.

Jonathan Feldman, CIO, City of Asheville, NC

October 26, 2012

3 Min Read

I coach a lot of IT leaders, both new CIOs and up-and-coming supervisors. I don't know if it's because of the massive spin on both sides of the political aisle or because of all the kingmaker and puppet master talk I'm hearing, but I'm having more and more discussions about ethical dilemmas and how to avoid becoming ethically compromised.

Allow me to frame what I mean by "ethically compromised." Without going into the nuances of moral relativism or absolutism, let's agree there are things you generally know you shouldn't do, like faking audit results and doctoring resumes.

As I've pointed out before, the "little things" can contribute to a person being more ethically vulnerable. A small lie here and there, combined with what Duke professor Dan Ariely calls the "what the hell factor" and "altruistic cheating," can snowball into something much worse.

But the big things are a big deal as well. Self-preservation is a huge factor in becoming ethically compromised. Generally, this translates to several aspects of personal finance: your personal debt/equity ratio, your ability to find a new job if you lose your current one, and how much of a rainy day fund you've set aside. Put in plain terms, when the boss asks you to do something that you think is ethically wrong, the less able you are to withstand the financial downside of losing your job, the less likely you are to push back.

[ What do you do when the CEO expects more but the CFO provides less? See IT Has Changed, But IT Budgets Haven't. ]

While corporate employers don't pay attention to debt/equity ratio, maybe they should. Those in the spy business know that people with a high personal debt/equity ratio are more vulnerable to blackmail and bribery than those with low ratios. Famed double agent Aldrich Ames, who worked for the CIA and later sold to the Soviets, was a classic case of how high personal debt can lead to compromise.

But you don't need huge debt to get compromised. All you have to do is spend as much as you make.

In my coaching I chat with lots of people who have recently received big promotions. They usually come to me to discuss IT strategy, customer management, professional development, but I always inject this question: "So what are you planning to do with that big raise?" There's usually a big goofy grin, followed by variations on bigger house, nicer car, better vacations. Then I say: "No, you're not. You're going to save at least some substantial portion of that raise so that you won't have to worry about what happens if you get fired." Fired? The goofy grin usually goes away.

Here's the problem most new IT managers and executives don't see. There are fewer and fewer job openings the higher and higher you go up the ladder. When you were a Django/Python superstar, other jobs were plentiful. When you're head of application development, not as much.

CIO roles are even tougher to find, no matter how good you are. Among the more than 400 unemployed CIOs polled by outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas earlier this year, almost half had been out of work for more than a year. Being out of work that long is scary, and scared people who haven't saved for a rainy day are more prone to engage in wrongdoing.

And now we're expecting--correctly, I think--that the total number of CIO jobs will decline over the next few years. Not every organization will need a CIO, or at least the same level of highly compensated CIO.

The temptation, when you don't have a cash cushion to see you through a six- to 12-month job search, is to go along to get along while you're employed. But when you're not worried about how to pay the rent if you lose your job, you're much more likely to push back if something smells wrong.

About the Author(s)

Jonathan Feldman

CIO, City of Asheville, NC

Jonathan Feldman is Chief Information Officer for the City of Asheville, North Carolina, where his business background and work as an InformationWeek columnist have helped him to innovate in government through better practices in business technology, process, and human resources management. Asheville is a rapidly growing and popular city; it has been named a Fodor top travel destination, and is the site of many new breweries, including New Belgium's east coast expansion. During Jonathan's leadership, the City has been recognized nationally and internationally (including the International Economic Development Council New Media, Government Innovation Grant, and the GMIS Best Practices awards) for improving services to citizens and reducing expenses through new practices and technology.  He is active in the IT, startup and open data communities, was named a "Top 100 CIO to follow" by the Huffington Post, and is a co-author of Code For America's book, Beyond Transparency. Learn more about Jonathan at

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