The Value of Terror

We know that some people try to make money out of everything. Given half a chance, they would sell their own families down the river if they thought they could get even a few cents out of the deal. It’s just business, nothing personal. And so what if the ethics involved are somewhat questionable? There’s really no harm done, right?

Wrong. Last year’s terrorist attacks have led us to scrutinize moral and ethical issues more closely, and one of the consequences is a strong antipathy toward people who cash in even remotely on events that, to almost anyone with a shred of human feeling, are calamities beyond description. What may or may not be urban legends proliferate: aid fund-raising scams, con artists selling World Trade Center debris for scrap, rescue workers looting the disaster site, recipients of million-dollar settlements haggling for more. Close on the heels of this come solicitations, thick and fast: for seminars on bioterrorism, trade shows on security, workshops on diversity, courses in religion.

Not all of these are unacceptable — hey, if you can teach people justice and tolerance and still make a few bucks in the process, more power to you. But no matter how emotional our responses, we must separate our personal needs from business imperatives. Just how urgently must you attend that conference on warehouse security? How do the new, tighter regulations on global shipping affect the product you handle? Here are some ways to judge whether you truly need the information you are promised:

Check references

Is the event organizer someone you trust? If the conference is not conducted by a well-known industry association, find out if the group that’s doing it is reputable. Local universities are often good sources of information.

Confer with your peers

Discuss the seminar with logistics managers at companies similar to yours. Is it something they would attend?

Scrutinize the program

What does the event claim to teach? Look for concrete benefits — for example, cost-cutting techniques. If you’re going to be instructed in doublespeak like “strategic change management,” stay home.

Stay alert, too, for another form of commercialism: the peddling of values as business wisdom. Consider this e-mail I received a couple of weeks ago. “I propose a 1,500- to 2,000-word article for your magazine on the subject of courage and honor in logistics leadership,” the message says. “This message is needed more than ever after the Sept. 11 attack. Having courage in the small acts and everyday decisions prepares you for the time that you must face down your fear.”

While a part of me applauds this writer’s sheer chutzpah, another asks: What on earth is she thinking?

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