Topic: Business & Commercial

Destroying Ethics By Remote Control

Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times is to be congratulated for his revealing report of an apparently widespread ethical outrage that most of us didn’t know existed: the intentional deletion of hours from workers’ time records. As Greenhouse meticulously documents, computers make the act of cheating employees out of well-earned pay both easy and difficult to detect. Discount stores and fast-food chains are the main culprits, but the real lesson of Greenhouse’s story is not that the practice occurs, but why it occurs.

Officials at Toys “R” Us, Family Dollar, Pep Boys, Wal-Mart and Taco Bell who were interviewed for the piece explained that they had strict policies against such fraud. What they didn’t say is that their unwritten policies may include placing unrelenting pressure on managers to keep costs down, and a tacit understanding that as long as they did so, they could keep their jobs. From Greenhouse’s piece:

“A lot of this is that district managers might fire you as soon as look at you,” said William Rutzick, a lawyer who reached a $1.5 million settlement with Taco Bell last year after a jury found the chain’s managers guilty of erasing time and requiring off-the-clock work. “The store managers have a toehold in the lower middle class. They’re being paid $20,000, $30,000. They’re in management. They get medical. They have no job security at all, and they want to keep their toehold in the lower middle class, and they’ll often do whatever is necessary to do it.”

Greenhouse also documents how many of these companies have made bonuses a larger part of compensation, with the bonuses tied to making certain budget goals:

“The pressures are just unbelievable to control costs and improve productivity,” said George Milkovich, a longtime Cornell University professor of industrial relations and co-author of the leading textbook on compensation. “All this manipulation of payroll may be the unintended consequence of increasing the emphasis on bonuses.”

What is at work here is a common phenomenon: individuals cornered into unethical conduct by those who have power over their lives. While simultaneously swearing their devotion to ethical values, the power-holders make impossible demands, reap the benefits of the unethical conduct that results, then condemn the same acts that they knew, or should have known, that they fostered.

The teacher that over-loads students with assignments, the parent that insists on top grades without regard for a child’s ability, the boss that demands impossible hours or unrealistic performance, the editor who demands sensational stories, the publisher who is unyielding on submission deadlines: all create a rich growth medium for unethical conduct. Beyond question, the individual who shaves hours from a time card, plagiarizes an essay, concocts an interview, or puts material from another author’s book into his own is responsible for the unethical conduct. But the power-holders are unethical as well. We must not ignore the enormous influence they have over the lives and welfare of others, and when they make unyielding demands that cause individuals to choose between honesty and keeping their jobs, providing for their families, or advancing in their careers, they share responsibility for the outcome. Human beings, even ethical human beings, have limits. We all must recognize when our actions are pushing others to those limits, and we cannot pretend that we have no culpability when those limits end in unethical behavior.

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