Sunday, October 28, 2007

THE RIGHT THING: WORKING FOR THE BAD GUYS?

Going over to the dark side. Selling out. Compromising your values for a buck. These are accusations that people often hear when they decide to take a job with or do business with someone whose values clearly conflict with their own.

I wasn't surprised, then, when I received an e-mail from a reader asking if it would be unethical for his company to bid for a contract to design the exhibits for the George W. Bush Presidential Library, given that Bush's values and beliefs run contrary to those of the owners of the company.

It's a terrific question. The library is, after all, designed to promote the legacy of a president whose policies they dislike. The better the design of the exhibits, the more persuasive those policies will be.

Ultimately, though, the answer has to do with the designers, not with Bush.

If they feel confident that they can deliver the same high-quality work that they would for, say, the Al Gore Presidential Library, then there is absolutely nothing wrong with making the bid. Anything short of their best professional effort, however, would be unacceptable, and if they can't promise that then they are ethically bound to pass up the opportunity.

Would helping to promote views with which you disagree make you an unethical hypocrite? No, not unless the purpose of your company is to promote particular values. The Catholic church couldn't ethically design a rabbi's vestments, since it is based on values that are in some degree contradictory to a rabbi's, but a Catholic tailor -- who is informed by his beliefs but whose business is not meant to disseminate them -- could make the vestments.

In short, if a company's purpose is to produce the best product while making a living from doing so, it needn't apologize for any distance between its values and those of its clients. A useful example is provided by Cable Neuhaus, a former editor at Entertainment Weekly and People who is now the editorial director of Newsmax (Newsmax.com), a monthly conservative magazine. He considers himself a longtime moderate Democrat, and most of his current colleagues are conservative Republicans.

"We hold different views on lots of topics," he says.

When his nephew, a recent graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, learned that Neuhaus was working for Newsmax, he wasn't pleased.

"You work for the enemy," he told his uncle.

Neuhaus doesn't see it that way. He doesn't see his work for Newsmax as a personal endorsement.

"I work for people who hold a different world view," he says. "The views explored in Newsmax are legitimate, even when they're not mine."

He realizes that not everyone would be able to handle the dissonance that he faces in his workplace. So how does he do it?

"I remind myself each and every day that I am a communications professional," Neuhaus says. "I make magazines. I owe them my best work as a magazine journalist."

In a similar vein, the right thing for my reader and his colleagues to do is to provide their best work for each of the clients they take on, regardless of whether they share those clients' world view. A Republican can hire a Democrat to fix her car, or vice versa, without compromising her integrity.

Nonetheless, my reader's crew would not be wrong if they decided not to bid on the job, simply because they didn't believe that they could work for someone whose values were so different from their own. If they truly believe that their discomfort with Bush and what he stands for would get in the way of their ability to do good work and to be satisfied with the job, they not only can pass on the job but ethically are obligated to.

The time to decide, however, is before they make the proposal, not afterward. Once they win the job and agree to do it, it's too late for any second thoughts about the client.

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

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