Ethics: A Question of Appearances

By Patrick Higgins Apr 1, 2002
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HR Magazine, April 2002 HR's dilemma: how to do right by all when an employee believes he's being invited to a sales presentation only as a 'showpiece.'

As human resource director at Techno Inc., a fast-growing information technology company, Maura Sprenger believes she should do something to resolve a conflict between two valuable employees. But what? At stake is a multimillion-dollar deal with a large client, but winning the contract could be costly if the way it’s done causes a valuable employee to quit.

Jack Ridge, Techno’s vice president for sales and marketing, has been pulling out all the stops to sell a major contract to Apex Co. Jack’s visits with Apex executives impressed on him that the company is very proactive about the diversity of its workforce and likes its vendors to reflect the same commitment. Although Techno has an employee diversity committee, staff training and recruiting efforts, the staff’s diversity is limited, as evidenced by Jack’s sales team.

Jack began to worry that the composition of both his sales group and Techno’s technology team would send the wrong message to Apex and prevent a lucrative contract. He decided he needed one more player—someone from a minority group—and he wants James Tellis at the table when Techno makes its presentations to Apex.

James, a rising star in Techno’s research department, knows the technology and the industry, and has effectively and gladly met with other clients and potential clients. But he knows that his most recent projects would prevent him from ever working on Apex’s contract.

“The only reason I’d be there is because I’m black,” he complained to Maura. He argues that if he participates in the sales presentations, Techno would knowingly be creating false expectations at Apex. He figures his presence would send a signal to Apex that he would be part of the service team after the contract was signed. But James knows that’s not going to happen.

“It’s a sham,” he said. “I resent being used as a sales tool because of my color. If this is how we do business around here, maybe I’m at the wrong company.”

“He can only help us by being there,” Jack told Maura. “With him there, we stand a better chance of getting the contract. If he’s not there, we could be dead in the water. I’m not going to promise Apex that he’ll be working on their contract. But just knowing that he works here and has an important job can only help Apex view us more favorably. Why can’t he be a team player, just this once?”

James’ boss, Techno’s vice president for R&D, has mixed feelings. He wishes James could go along and not fight this particular battle. But he has long known that James is sensitive and outspoken when he’s riled.

Maura knows there are at least two—maybe more—ways to look at the question of whether James should participate. “Would it really be dishonest?” she asks herself. “We wouldn’t be saying he’d be part of the service team. He’d be in the meetings simply as an expert—the most knowledgeable technical person at the table.

“On the other hand, if Apex assumes James would be part of the project team and then he wasn’t, the company might feel like they were double-crossed. Or if they asked whether James would work with them and learned he wouldn’t, having James there might backfire, anyway.”

Despite those risks, Jack wants James’ boss to order him to attend the meetings, and both have consulted with Maura to help resolve the impasse. “I’m in a bind,” she tells herself. “If I try to persuade James to go along, we could lose him because he felt pressured to do something he thought was wrong. If we let James off the hook, we could lose the contract. It would cost the company a lot of revenue and, potentially, some jobs.”

What should Maura do?

By Sherrie Gong Taguchi

This is a complex challenge and a delicate issue. Maura will have to think and act like a strategist, business partner, big-picture thinker, coach, sensitive listener, facilitator and broker. If I were Maura, I would embark on a five-part approach:

  • Meet with James to understand his reaction, especially since he has been amenable to participating in other sales efforts in the past. His objections could be a symptom of deeper discontent or broader dissatisfaction about the company or his career.

  • Offer to identify for Jack, as a backup plan, some other capable people of color or those fitting a broader definition of diversity who might actually serve on the Apex service team and thus could replace James in the upcoming presentations. Diversity does not have to mean minority; for many organizations it’s about diversity of perspective, background or how they think about things.

  • Convince James’ boss and Jack that James should not be forced to participate. It should be James’ choice. Guide them to see the drawbacks of making James do this. The Apex representatives could be influenced negatively if they sense James’ reluctance, or James could quit.

  • Advise James’ boss on balancing James’ and Jack’s conflicting viewpoints. He needs to be sensitive to both of them.

  • Check in with Jack as a voice of conscience to make sure that if James does participate, his role would be crystal-clear to Apex. Provide a gentle reminder that Techno values honest communication. Suggest a positive positioning for communicating James’ participation to Apex. The objective: to be forthright with Apex, to make James feel like a valued contributor to this phase of the project rather than a token, and to pre-empt any disappointment at Apex by noting that James’ previous commitments to projects prevent him from being part of the service team.

A sample positioning to Apex: “James is one of our stars, with a long history with Techno. We asked him to join us in these meetings because we think he’d add a lot, given his technical knowledge and experience on previous projects. Although his workload does not allow him to work with Apex now, that does not preclude him from doing so in the future.”

Maura should have a confidential discussion with James in her office. She should try to break down any defensiveness and let James know upfront that she supports his choice about participation.

Maura should not let James off the hook, however. From her business perspective, she should be clear about the importance of the deal to the company—the revenue at stake and the potential for laying off employees if Techno doesn’t get the contract. She should remind him of some of Techno’s genuine efforts in workforce diversity, acknowledging that there is still much more to do. She should ask James to help her understand his reaction to the situation and ascertain if there are underlying issues making him cynical or causing him to doubt his fit with the company.

As a side note: Jack should also court James a little bit, much as he courts clients such as Apex. He could take time to affirm with James that he is valued and why he would be a valuable player—not a token—at the presentations.

After handling this with objectivity and diplomacy, Maura should know that she’s done her best. She should work through the impasse to a decision that, it is hoped, would be agreed upon or at least supported by James, his boss and Jack.

Sherrie Gong Taguchi, an author, educator and HR professional with more than 15 years of experience in financial services, consumer products, retail and academia, most recently was assistant dean/director at the Stanford Business School. Her first book, Hiring the Best and the Brightest: A Roadmap to MBA Recruiting (AMACOM), was published in November. She currently lives in London and is writing a book on career planning.

By Audrey E. Mross

You’ve seen it before: The gung-ho sales team clashes with co-workers who can’t or won’t fulfill promises made to prospective customers. The heated situation is fueled by both sides’ assumptions, short-term focus and lack of communication.

Luckily, the parties have come to HR for input before unfortunate choices are made. Maura will need to frame the issue, replace the assumptions with facts and bring the parties together for face-to-face resolution of the matter.

Issues: Sales wants the Apex contract and thinks that James’ presence is the key. James does not want token involvement and is too busy to offer more. Maura senses that the outcome will be the loss of a lucrative contract or loss of a productive employee. Neither outcome is certain, however, because each is built on assumptions. Jack is assuming that the lack of diversity, specifically James’ absence, means loss of the contract. James assumes that his presence creates “false expectations.” Maura is assuming that Apex will feel “double-crossed” and that James will quit if he is forced to participate. Maura should negate assumptions and use facts so that the parties will be receptive to a fresh approach.

Facts and resources: What are the odds of winning the contract? If it’s a long shot, why is Techno risking so much? Does James want to work on the Apex project? If so, can some projects be reassigned to make him available? Is there a company ethics policy that can help resolve this matter? Is the policy endorsed by top management (which may be needed as a convincer)? Is Apex’s stance on diversity as integral to its contracting process as believed? Maura should get answers and set the stage, via shuttle diplomacy, for some frank discussions between sales and James.

Communication: Call a meeting with the dual goals of resolving the situation and maintaining relationships. Ask each person to set aside personal interests. Remind everyone of the company’s ethics policy. If there is none, briefly explain why an ethical solution is needed.

State that no employee is going to be forced into a situation in which the employee, Techno or both would be misrepresented. Short-term gains are not worth the long-term damage to James’ and the company’s reputation and integrity.

There is a human tendency to overestimate the cost of doing the “right thing” and to underestimate the cost of unethical behavior. Concerning the latter, explain that co-workers will learn of the position James was put in, harming trust between staff and management. Cite studies showing that employees justify their own unethical behavior at work when they’ve seen it among managers. Suggest that future contracts could be jeopardized if Techno appears duplicitous. Issue a warning that James could quit, could try to sue Techno or both.

Once it’s clear what Techno will not do, shift the focus to what it can do. Discuss how the Apex contract can be sought while being scrupulously honest. Does James want to be on the Apex team and, if so, can his workload be reshuffled? Can he be involved in a part-time capacity if full-time assignment is not possible? If he cannot be involved beyond the initial meeting, is James comfortable serving as a technical resource provided his unavailability going forward is fully disclosed at the meeting?

Whether James can be involved or not, be prepared for Apex’s questions about diversity. Sales should be briefed to explain Techno’s efforts (committee, training, recruiting). Techno representatives should acknowledge that they have not yet achieved the desired results, should express admiration for Apex’s success in this area, and should ask Apex about its “best practices” that might work at Techno.

By replacing assumptions with facts and eliminating unethical options at the outset, Maura will have created an environment that preserves trust and encourages ethical decision-making.

Audrey E. Mross, a labor and employment attorney with the Haynes and Boone law firm in Dallas, was an HR professional for 11 years in several industries, including hotels and restaurants, oil and gas services and information technology. She is legislative affairs director of the Texas State Council of the Society for Human Resource Management and president of the Dallas HR Management Association.

By Patrick Higgins

Unless a compromise is reached, Maura should support James’ right not to be assigned to this sales team.

I see conflicts between business and personal ethics regularly in medicine. Many medical professionals object to participating in certain legal medical procedures because of their personal religious beliefs and ethical standards. Most of these conflicts are resolved by compromise. When they can’t be resolved, the company or the employee may have no option but to terminate the employment relationship.

Techno is trying to package its product in a way to make it most attractive to a potential purchaser—a goal that most companies would find ethical. Businesses pay billions to develop images associated with their products, images that often have nothing to do with the products. Techno’s sales team has discovered what is important to Apex Co. and wants to use that information to present Techno’s product successfully. In this case, Apex wants to contract with companies that are committed to having a diverse work group.

I see nothing unethical about Apex wanting to do business with companies that are committed to having a diverse work group and with Techno wanting to promote that image.

While Techno may not be violating its standards of business ethics, it needs to respect James’ ethical standards and realize the potential consequences of its actions. James is justified in feeling that it is wrong for the company to force this assignment on him against his will. If James were not black, he would not be asked to accept this assignment. Jack’s efforts to force James to accept the assignment may even cause James to leave the company.

James may also decide to call the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to obtain information about his civil rights. I believe the EEOC representative would tell James that assigning duties based on race is illegal, and James would be encouraged to file a discrimination complaint. That is what I was told when I recently called the EEOC pretending to be James and described this scenario.

There may be a win-win solution, however. James is concerned that Techno would be establishing false expectations that he would be a member of the contract team. The answer may be to place James on the contract team. That may require the company to reassign some of James’ other projects and to make other concessions so that James feels comfortable.

James may still have objections that can’t be resolved. He may not want to be released from the other projects, or he may feel that it is improper for him to be selected for this project on the basis of race. If these objections cannot be resolved to James’ satisfaction, Maura should advise Jack that the company should not use James.

Maura also should provide the sales team with information regarding its affirmative action plan. Part of the team’s presentation could highlight Techno’s diversity committee, training program and recruitment activities. Jack may not be able to offer a sales team that presents Techno as a diverse company, but Techno may still win the Apex contract. Techno may succeed because it has a good product, promotes diversity, respects all of its employees and complies with EEOC laws.

HR Magazine Discussion Area

Patrick Higgins is HR director for the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, an Alaska Native-owned consortium of hospitals and clinics based in Sitka. He has more than 25 years of HR management experience, much of it in compensation and in labor and employee relations. He has investigated allegations related to ethics, discrimination, harassment, intimidation and retaliation against whistle-blowers.

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