How To Strengthen Your Moral Compass - InformationWeek

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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.

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.

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User Rank: Apprentice
10/30/2012 | 9:10:48 PM
re: How To Strengthen Your Moral Compass
Corporate values and the role of personal integrity (related to the "debt/equity ratio" described above) have been downplayed for too long. I roll my eyes whenever I hear someone say "its just business". Good decisions aren't always popular. As pointed out in a similar themed blog by IT mgmt consultant, Joel Dobbs, "Most of the good decisions you make will pass unnoticed, but the bad ones usually do not." --Paul Calento
User Rank: Apprentice
10/30/2012 | 3:23:35 PM
re: How To Strengthen Your Moral Compass
I absolutely agree with the premise that the more money you have saved, the greater your ability to resist compromising your moral compass. BUT, there are 2 other more serious factors that could well override one's financial ability to resist doing what the boss tells you to do when you know it is wrong:

1) If you were fired for resisting the boss's request(s), now you have to explain to your next potential employer why you were fired. Given the corporate culture assumption that almost every fired employee is naturally a disgruntled one, this is a tough nut to crack! Of course you will blame your boss for what happened, but doesn't everyone? So what proof do you have that your version of why you left is the correct one? Is there video or a recording, that one just so happened to have a-la-Cops TV style, showing your nefarious boss asking/telling you to do something "wrong"? Not likely, so it gets down to he said/you said. We all know that even a hint of trouble and your moral crusade to do the right thing will very likely get you to be labeled as another conspiracy theorist or "troublemaker." Your chances of getting further along the interview process are understandably nixed.

2) If you were fired, naturally your potential employer(s) will conduct due diligence to get your former boss's version of why you were fired and any assessment of your work abilities and accomplishments. You think for a minute that your ex-boss will just roll-over and say, "You got me! I tried to get him/her to do the wrong thing, but resistance is futile!" Of course not! You will be lucky if your ex-boss doesn't at least hint about your reality distortion field and then portray your work abilities/accomplishments as middling. It doesn't have to be a bad review, just a so-so one that will keep your ex-boss from being sued, assuming the conversation was even being recorded. But you will quickly get tarred by the inference(s) which say between the lines, "I tried to work with him/her, but that is why he/she was fired".

You can't lie about your firing, because due diligence will always reveal that you didn't just quit. Even if your ex-boss allows you to claim you "quit" your last job, factor #2 will prevail when you try to explain your real reason(s) for quitting. If you lie about your real reasons for "quitting" to avoid factor #1, then your ex-boss can still crucify your chances by assessing you as average at best. BWAH-HA-HA-HA!!! What a Kobayashi Maru situation! (More Star Trek references coming)

So while having even 2 years of savings may make you way less financially vulnerable, doing the "right thing" will very likely end up being career suicide because your ability to get your next job is seriously compromised by the existing power structure in corporate culture. That is why you will ocassionally see an ex-employee shooting up his former workplace, however wrong that choice may be. It is an ill-conceived and desperate attempt to "take back" the power that an evil ex-boss can have over your future job prospects. Sometimes nice guys/gals come in last. Usually, as the Borg would say,"RESISTANCE IS FUTILE!"
User Rank: Apprentice
10/30/2012 | 2:20:19 AM
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