The response to Michelle Obama’s appearance on the Oscars is completely predictable. The most critical voices can be seen by Googling “FLOTUS interruptus” (which, on the clever-meter, would rival last spring’s NY Post headline: “This is your captain freaking”).
Anticipating the various reactions will be part of the strategy of anything that the Obamas do publicly, and would certainly be part of planning at the Academy Awards (e.g. what will people think of Seth MacFarlane hosting?). Conceivably the “go vs. no-go” decision is a function creating enough “net good” for those about whom we are concerned. Politics in the U.S. can be divisive, and one could easily excuse the Obamas and the Academy for discounting a large group who will find fault with anything and everything that they do. It is good strategy to avoid trying to appease those who will never be so.
Predictably, critics will say that this is the President paying back Hollywood for the support (financial and otherwise) he received in getting re-elected. Perhaps these reactions were not seen as important. If so, I think they discount the group of people whose lens on the situation is not entirely pre-determined by their “Love Obama” or “Hate Obama” view of the world.
If there is a concern for people whose world is not so simple, it was a mistake to involve Michelle Obama in this ceremony: the optics are bad.
I am not talking about the White House “infiltrating every facet of our lives” or church and state separation (if you can equate Hollywood to the former). The bad optics come from the movie “Zero Dark Thirty,” which was up for Best Film. I have yet to see this movie, so I do not know if it looks at the Obama administration favourably or not. It probably does both, and it doesn’t matter either way. By virtue of the subject of this film, a White House presence at this particular Academy Awards ceremony was inappropriate. There is not way around it. Imagine if the movie had not been nominated. Could that have been because it committed some slight on the sitting President? (Bad optics.)
So many facets of our life are political. In this blog, I will often touch on issues relating to health care in Ontario and Canada. Politics will always have its place in these discussions. Why bring more politics into a situation than you have to?
The moral of this story is: be careful where you show up. This may be more pertinent to leaders (politics, as well as business), but speaks to anyone. People will read into your intentions. Any issue is never as easy to discuss as it is to paint an “us vs. them” storyline. Those with influence have an opportunity to muddy the polarizing lines in the sand. I think we need to look for a different kind of leadership: one that doesn’t fall to the “play to your base” and “divide and conquer” approaches… or that even allows the optics of such approaches to persist.
This week in the Globe and Mail, Rita Trichur shared details from an in-class exercise conducted by Prof. Ariff Kachra at Ivey Business School (University of Western Ontario). In short, as I understand it, the students were given an opportunity to pay “tips” in order to access additional value from the professor in the form of extra class work and recommendations for jobs. The not-so-shocking denouement is that he was using this as an exercise to prove a point in class.
The more shocking fact,to me, was that apparently several students actually paid money. I love the exercise in that it forces students to make a decision, which should be the activity that MBA education helps. What the description of the article misses (although this may have been part of the class debrief) is the ethics involved in that decision. Value distribution could be one point of this exercise, but what does it say about the students who were prepared to pay money for additional help with the course material or for a positive job recommendation.
Additional support for course work can take many forms from hiring a tutor to buying last year’s tests. I am not sure where the ethical line is exactly, but I will suggest that paying a professor cash in order to attend an extra tutorial is on the wrong side of that line. I will say the same for cash for recommendations (but the recommending function of linkedin could be a real accelerant for that line of business!).
I would hope that in addition to Prof. Kachra’s intended lessons, the students who paid him the money carried around a sinking feeling in their respective stomachs. I would hope that feeling came before the “reveal,” but reading this story makes me wonder two things (1) can you actually teach ethics? and (2) did the students realize that, in real life, the “reveal” could be whole lot messier?
The theme of telling “the truth” vs. telling “your story” recurs in the world of business communication. (The question of the existence of “the truth” opens a philosophical conversation best kept to coffee houses and whiskey bars… We want practice, please!) One specific application of business communication is in trying to find a job. A dripping irony is that “the truth” probably won’t get you a job.
“Hi there. I am really good at analyzing business data to improve supply chain performance. I get bored pretty easily if I am not challenged. I have a low tolerance for arbitrary rules, and I hate to be rushed to make a decision when I know I need to do more analysis.”
However, as the storyteller of your skills and abilities, you carry a responsibility to align your story with your truth. A colleague of mine shared some insight from one of his field contacts:
“The context and the technical expertise is the easiest type of knowledge to share with a new hire. Give me someone who has a desire and ability to learn, and can work with others in a team environment. That is the kind of person that I want to hire.”
Apparently, there are challenges in filling this particular bill. Even if those are the requirements, I guarantee you won’t see a job description that says only:
“Wanted: someone who can learn our systems reasonably quickly, and work with our people reasonably well. Good benefits. Pay commensurate with experience.”
JOB EXPERIENCE, EDUCATION, SKILLS and ABILITIES are parts of your storyline (and maybe even headings on your resume), however the underlying questions you face are: Can you do this job? And, if you can do it, do you want to do it for us? Deeper questions include, “have your overstated your qualifications and abilities?” and, especially if you a shifting careers, “do you have a realistic appraisal of your value (in this new marketplace)?”
You may be able to defer the answers to these questions almost indefinitely. I will suggest that for all concerned, truthful answers to these create the most value for employee and employer. Everyone expects a degree of story, especially in the written communications (Cover letters, C.V., resumes, etc.). The interview process, especially the latter rounds, provides an opportunity for both sides to explore and share a bit of truth. On both sides of the equation, it is dangerous for the story to stray too far from it!
Toronto city workers are striking, because they can. City management and union representatives, hopefully, continue to negotiate, because they have to. I am expecting final class assignments devoted to analyzing this situation:
- what went wrong?
- how could it have been better?
- what should they learn for next time?
I always enjoy the perspectives and the biases that come out in the analysis. Likely because he shares my biases, I enjoyed Howard Levitt’s legal perspective on the situation in today’s National Post.
As an additional perspective, my MBA class (Negotiations) this week tried to deal with ethics as practically as possible. With the assistance of some readings, excersises and discussions, we arrived at some criteria that can help inform ethical decision making. (I don’t like to think that it always “depends;” there are some more biases for you!) One of the criteria was “It is unethical to maximize your own interests with a disregard for shared interests.” You can argue the semantics of any of those words, but the point, as I see it, is look out for number one, but stay attentive to shared interests.
Under this criteria, in nature, a parasitic relationship becomes unethical if it threatens the survival of the host. Does that mean the Bernie Madoff was unethical because he failed to create a sustainable Ponzi scheme? Maybe. Remember, this is one of four criteria.
Do city workers violate this ethical code by holding out for, specifically, sick day banking and pay-back for half a year of sick days upon retirement? I think the answer is, “Yes.” The shared interest is in a sustainable system whereby reasonable tax revenues cover reasonable city services. As Mr. Levitt illustrates, the status quo union agreements have progressed to being unreasonable (evidence by the fact that you don’t see similar benefits in the private sector).
The checks and balances of the private sector are not perfect–and certainly do not guarantee ethical behaviour–but can help. Uncompetitive wage burdens were part of GM going bankrupt. Unions, workers and pensioners live with the consequences. Pushing a business to unsustainability is unethical if your plan is to continue working there (as it appeared to be for many workers) or to bank on retirement income from the company (as it appears for many pensioners).
If today’s City of Toronto workers are in it for anything other than short-term gains, they are not behaving ethically, I will suggest. Anyone who makes such a claim, better have a strong ethical leg to stand on (or had best make it on a blog whose readership is limited to like minds… we will see.)
One of my children got an invitation to a birthday party this week. On the invitation was a handwritten addition indicating that my child was invited to sleep-over after that party. We later confirmed that this “after party” was a bit more “exclusive” than that described on the invitation.
You could tell me to lighten up, but I have a fundamental issue with this approach. I envision the conversation (because I have first-hand experience) between the parent and the child.
- Child: “I want to have sleep over for my birthday.”
- Parent: “Great. How many kids are you planning on inviting?”
- Child: “Let me see…. (verbal list of names each prompting a finger to extend). Twelve.”
- Parent: “You can’t have that many kids to sleep over.”
I can understand the motivation to sidestep a conflict/tempter tantrum. Such forks in the road exist. You can invite twelve people, OR you can have a sleepover. You can’t do both.
But hold on a second. In the spirit of Negotiating… What if we invite a large group of kids to the party, and then keep a select few back to sleepover. Is that not a good compromise? Out of the box, eh?
Not to make too much of a big deal out of this, but I think it is unhealthy to fail to select (or fail to make the child select) “one of the other” from the above options. If pushed to further explain, which I was, my argument extends to the quality of the first party. How much fun can it be if the “sleep-over group” has to keep suppress the “wink-wink-nudge-nudge” temptation of the after party? Isn’t there an inherent risk that the “go-home group” will learn about the after party and feel (rightfully so) like a second-tier friend?
This specific trade-off approaches an ethical question. Select between the two party streams OR do both and be deceitful to at least half of your “friends.” (This is all happening in the context on an ongoing conversation with some fellow Schulich faculty on ethics and decision making among business school students. E.G. Is it wrong to gain competitive advantage through exploiting a legal loophole?)
So, yes, you can “have your cake and sleepover, too.” You may find that this type of “compromise” ends up compromising the integrity of those involved. The risk-return will be an individual call, but I can certainly tell you I will take on a conflict with my child to avoid treading into ethically murky waters.
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