Artful Dodgers

May 01, 2002 9:30 PM  By

Back in elementary school, I was forced to attend a class on something called “moral science.” It wasn’t religious instruction, exactly, but it did give you some very definite ideas about good and bad, right and wrong. Not only that, but you were graded. If you wrote cheeky answers to moral dilemmas, you got an F.

Post-Enron (just think of all the possible Fs at that company), mandatory corporate classes of that sort may well be in order, because the ethical quandaries raised by some companies’ misconduct affect all others. Now that senior logistics executives are increasingly visible in the boardroom, disquieting issues such as the following may arise:

Ignorance is bliss. Can you reconcile higher-ups’ wrongdoing with your own conscience? A pivotal question is how much you know about what’s going on. The extent of your knowledge can be a legal minefield, so if anything comes to light that bothers you, report it immediately to the authorities.

Truth and consequences. Celebrity crusaders such as Erin Brockovich enjoy some degree of protection from retaliation, but you, as a run-of-the-mill whistle-blower, should probably brace yourself and your family for quiet persecution and a humdrum career.

Soul self-exams. We all wrestle with this duty every day, but now the bar is higher. Where’s the line between that $10 social meal passed off as a “business” lunch and a trip to the nearest paper shredder?

Personal best. Monicagate made us more aware than we wanted to be of the degree to which personal and professional activities intersect. What sticks in the craw about public misbehavior is when business kingpins make the company their personal plaything. The Detroit press reports that Kmart’s chairman commuted on the corporate jet to his home in New Jersey every weekend at a cost of about $12,000 a trip — when the retailer was sliding into bankruptcy. Then there’s Harvard Business Review editor-at-large Suzy Wetlaufer’s affair with former General Electric CEO Jack Welch. By itself, the news is a yawn, but it becomes infuriating when we learn from related articles in The Wall Street Journal that HBR allows interviewees to revise their comments before publication. Some of Wetlaufer’s colleagues at HBR were allegedly repulsed enough by what they perceived as her conflict of interest to resign their positions. To leave a prestigious journal, at a time when the market for publishing jobs is the worst in decades, smacks of recklessness, foolhardiness — and heroism. I wish those editors well.