Saturday, July 08, 2006


The movie version of "The Devil Wears Prada," starring Meryl Streep as the challenging boss, Miranda Priestly, has rekindled media interest in bosses everyone loves to hate. The stories about difficult bosses is hardly new.

Below is a reprise of "The Right Thing" column that touched on the subject in the past. Others can be found in the collection of columns (also called "The Right Thing" by clicking on the title on the home page of the blog.

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company

August 20, 2000, Sunday, Late Edition
Final SECTION: Section 3; Page 4; Column 2; Money and Business/Financial Desk


When the Boss is a Stealth Bomber


AN anecdote in Kay Hammer's book, "Workplace Warrior: Insights and Advice for Winning on the Corporate Battlefield" (Workplace Warrior: Insights and Advice for ... ) brought me up short. It seems that Ms. Hammer once had a boss who set up a secret team of employees to develop a project that would replace work she had been doing. She didn't find out until the stealth project was presented as a fait accompli at a meeting of her entire division of 80 employees.

"It was awful," Ms. Hammer said in an interview. "One of the things I had to ask myself after that public humiliation was why somebody would have so much animosity toward me that they would do that."

Ms. Hammer's story struck me, because I had once been involved in a similar incident from the other side. I was the one asked by the boss to develop a project in secret that might supersede someone else's work.

What should an ethical person think when asked to operate behind a colleague's back?

On one level, it is perfectly reasonable for a boss to want to explore new ideas and find innovative solutions to business challenges, and to assign the work to whichever employee seems best suited to the task. And it often makes perfect sense to hold potentially disruptive experiments close to the vest until it is clear that they will bear fruit. So keeping some co-workers in the dark is not automatically unethical. It all depends on what the boss is up to.

"Surely, there are ways to negotiate an outcome that partakes of the boss's desire for confidentiality but engages the support of the employee," said Rushworth Kidder, president of the Institute for Global Ethics in Camden, Me. "But that will only happen if the motive behind the boss's action was up front and straightforward rather than deceptive or wily. Was the boss trying to get rid of the employee, but simply lacked the courage to say so?"

In highly politicized workplaces, discussions of such issues are often avoided on purpose. Instead, innuendo rules under the guise of "an obvious necessity for secrecy" or "for the sake of the good cause," said Laura L. Nash of the Center for the Study of Values in Public Life at Harvard. "When this is allowed, you create a business culture with upside-down values. There is a general sense that honesty about underhanded tricks is more distasteful than the tricks themselves.

"By insisting on secrecy, Ms. Nash said, "people begin to portray the deceived person as the enemy -- the dysfunctional one who deserves to be blindsided."

"This little mental trick," she added, "covers up their own participation in the deception."

It's also a sop to cowardice. Unethical bosses resort to this kind of tactic, said Steven Berglas, a clinical psychologist who teaches at the Anderson School of Management at U.C.L.A., when they are afraid to confront subordinates about problems with their work. Instead, they scheme to achieve their ends indirectly, by pitting employees against one another.

Employees, naturally, tend to put what the boss wants ahead of the needs of fellow workers. That's what I did when my boss approached me, though I didn't realize it until I took the plan to another colleague for confidential feedback. My confidant's response was unambiguous: The whole thing smacked of unfairness.

Maybe he felt free to respond that way because it was me asking, and not our boss. In any event, he immediately saw ethical implications that I hadn't acknowledged.

"Sunshine is a great disinfectant," Ms. Nash said. "When such behavior is opened to scrutiny -- even in a confidential setting -- the stench becomes clear. If you can't develop a product internally without cannibalizing your own team members, there is something wrong with your managing or your morals -- or both."

Ms. Hammer said in hindsight that had she been more attuned to the kind of person the boss was, she might have seen the ploy coming and gotten out earlier. "If you think the boss is a total jerk and he shouldn't be in this position, that's not productive," she said. "You're not going to fix him or thrive."

Having learned the hard way, Ms. Hammer quit to start her own business, Evolutionary Technologies International of Austin, Tex., which sells software that helps dissimilar computers communicate.

I stopped peddling my own secret proposal as soon as my confidant expressed his discomfort, and the whole thing fizzled out. But now, after reading Ms. Hammer's story, I have to find the moral courage to call my old deceived colleague and apologize.

Jeffrey L. Seglin teaches at Emerson College in Boston and is the author of "The Good, the Bad, and Your Business" (The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choos... ). His column on business ethics appears the third Sunday of each month. E-mail may be sent to:

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