Sunday, September 30, 2007

THE RIGHT THING: BLAMING THE BYSTANDERS?

Many of my readers have worked for companies that employed supervisors whose on-the-job antics were not exactly model behavior. Some manipulated expense reports, justifying it as payback for all the unpaid blood, sweat and tears they'd poured into the business. Others abused their supervisory positions by currying favors from their subordinates in exchange for better work assignments. Still others lacked simple social graces, such as the willingness to thank colleagues for favors.

Then there are those readers lucky enough to work for a wholly different kind of supervisor, the sort who treats employees with respect. I don't hear from them as often, but they're out there.

When I do hear from them, however, it's often because, while their own supervisors are exemplary, their companies also tolerate the behavior of other, far worse supervisors, bad apples whose misbehavior usually is no secret throughout the company.

Outraged employees often tell themselves that top bosses would fire the problem cases if they knew how badly they behaved, but more often than not the bosses do know, but choose to turn a blind eye. Sometimes it's because the bad-behaving supervisor manages to deliver on whatever goals the big bosses have set, and that's enough to keep the bosses happy. And sometimes they are simply afraid of confrontations or worried that to take action will make a bad situation worse.

The question my readers then ask me is whether it's ethical to continue working for a company where such behavior is tolerated. For those who are directly under the thumb of a dysfunctional supervisor, it's often a question less of ethics than of how much misery they can tolerate. But for those who are innocent bystanders, the question is whether they are enablers by association.

There's a terrific story by Ursula K. Le Guin called "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas." (The story was written in 1973 and appears in the collection The Wind's Twelve Quarters: Stories.) In it Le Guin describes the town of Omelas, an idyllic community where everyone is happy, well-fed, productive and just plain satisfied with life. As the story unfolds, however, the reader learns that there is a single exception to this idyllic state: a young child who sits in a dark room in the basement of a building, where it is fed a small amount of gruel and confined in terrible conditions.

But the community knows that, for its idyllic state to continue, this child must remain in place. Change it, and everything would come tumbling down. All the people know of the child and, upon seeing him, are saddened -- but they know that there is nothing they can do. Yet every year some decide to walk away from Omelas, knowing that wherever else they go will never be as idyllic.

To people working at companies that tolerate bullying bosses, the question seems similar: Are you endorsing their misbehavior by staying?

No -- as long as you don't engage in or encourage the behavior yourself, and are not in a supervisory position over someone responsible for such behavior, merely being in its presence does not make you ethically responsible.

It would be too glib, and too naïve, to advise everyone that the right thing to do in any job at which there are people whose behavior they find distasteful is to leave. Leaving for a place where mutual respect seems higher on the list of management's desires always seems a good option, of course, but many people don't have the luxury of being able to afford to abandon their jobs on this sort of principle. They have to worry about house payments, putting food on the table or otherwise supporting their family.

Besides, they may simply love every other aspect of their jobs and not want to let a bully's misbehavior force them out.

If you choose to stay, the right thing to do is to provide a model of better behavior and, in the process, to improve the working environment for those around you. And, above all, never to allow anyone else's misbehavior to turn you into that person about whom so many readers regularly write me to complain.


c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

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