March 9, 2009 12:12 am

Trade-offs in the moral maze

Harvard Business School

In today’s climate of corporate scandal and recrimination, there is a tendency to look at business ethics in black or white terms.

Not in Michel Anteby’s classroom. An assistant professor of organisational behaviour at Harvard Business School, he specialises in looking at moral grey areas in the workplace.

Building on an innovative study of an aerospace factory he carried out in France*, Prof Anteby is adept at exploring situations in which employees break house rules with the tacit or explicit agreement of their supervisors.

Such shady behaviour can sometimes benefit an organisation, he argues – a conclusion that evades the polarised, good or evil certainties of the post-Madoff age.

The aerospace study examined a tradition found in many factories in which craftsmen pinched raw materials from their employer in order to make objects for personal use in company time, using company tools.

The objects they made at the factory – retirement gifts, lamps, stools, chandeliers – were examples of what the French call perruques, which is also the word for “wig” (the two usages have concealment in common).

Higher-ups tended to turn a blind eye because, far from damaging the company, the perruques helped to make the workforce more cohesive by providing an outlet for individual flair that could not always flourish in the rigidly controlled manufacture of aircraft engines.

“They were gaining identity and gaining recognition as craftsmen,” says Prof Anteby. “For them, it is who they are.”

Moreover, he adds, the practice involved an implicit social contract between workers and supervisors that meant the skilled perruque makers were particularly flexible and helpful during exceptionally busy periods at the plant.

Another relatively benign grey zone cited by Prof Anteby is drawn from the anecdotal behaviour of staff at a US department store during a sale period.

Under the eye of supervisors, the more desirable discounted items are removed from the shop floor and hidden for purchase later in the sale when prices have come down further and staff can enjoy an even bigger bargain.

He says: “The employee gets the item not at 30 per cent off but, maybe, at 70 per cent off.” Such behaviour damages the retailer’s sales figures but it also makes staff more engaged, he adds.

Given the imperfections of the world that all managers operate in, that kind of trade-off can be deemed acceptable by bosses.

A 'perruque' retirement gift

But, when Prof Anteby helps to teach the first-year leadership and organisational behaviour component of the Harvard MBA, the Frenchman is not trying to topple entirely the conventional view that staff pilfering is to be discouraged.

When he goes through examples of grey areas, Prof Anteby is instead trying to make his students alive to the nuances of each situation, so they are better equipped to figure out if flexibility is appropriate when they encounter their own morally tangled situations.

In addition, he recognises that grey areas of the type that seemed to work well in the French aerospace factory can also make participants vulnerable to disciplinary action if the prevailing mood of indulgence changes.

For that reason, some French unions advise their members not to make perruques even if they are unofficially tolerated by their employer, he says.

Prof Anteby’s current research project takes his fascination with moral ambiguity into a new realm: the supply of corpses for medical training. He is looking at what medical faculty do when they realise that they do not have enough bodies for students to dissect. Are they willing to source them through a third party?

It is another grey area – and one most managers will be grateful to have avoided in their own careers.

*Moral Gray Zones: Side Productions, Identity and Regulation in an Aeronautic Plant, Princeton University Press, 2008

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