Fast Company

We're Good People, We Just Work for Bad Companies

I was watching a program on The Learning Network, one of those educational reality shows that focuses on helping people become financially responsible.

The woman featured on the program, we'll call her Bertha, was a serious shopaholic. The host of the show tracked her down in a store and said "Bertha, we need to talk."

"Should I ring this stuff up first?" she said.

The program host staged a finanicial intervention; he showed her video testimonials of her family and friends, admitting their concern over her spending habits. He walked her through her closet and asked some evocative questions:

"Why do you need 75 pairs of shoes, Bertha? Why do you need 49 purses?"

Lastly, the host walked Bertha through her finances. He showed Bertha that she had racked up $94,000 in debt and that she was currently spending several thousands of dollars more than she or her domestic partner brought in every month. Tears flowed from her eyes as she looked up and said to the host,

"I didn't mean to do this."

I tried to put myself in Bertha's position, but I couldn't.

How could she not know what she was spending? Maybe it was my Midestern upbringing, my father's insistence that I not purchase anything I couldn't afford and knowing he meant it when he said he wouldn't bail me out. Somewhere in my upbringing I've had a ledger line in my brain that I knew not to cross. Becoming a small business owner, my challenge was learning that some debt is useful.

The thing that struck me about Bertha was her utter shock that she was spending more than she had. She seemed like an intelligent woman, did she never add-up the numbers?

But then I realized that Bertha never looked at the numbers for that very reason, so that she could claim ignorance. She probably suspected that her spending far exceeded her means, but by not actually looking at her finances she wouldn't have to feel responsible for them.

This is a common tactic across all sectors--business and consumer. There's a general willingness to sidestep limits by pretending they don't exist, and this tendency is compounded in situations where we don't have immediate governance. If our bosses seem to approve, well, then, what's the problem?

Bertha surprised me by her ignorance of her personal means, but seeing her interaction with her domestic partner I could see how she'd let her debt grow. Her partner had become the parent, in effect, the responsible one. Similarly employees knowingly do things that are wrong or unethical because they are condoned by people in power.

It's true--we don't put "Thwarted an illegal business transaction" or "whistleblower" on our resumes. We can't often brag about many of the responsible things we do at our jobs. We don't win awards for being the highest earner on the sales team who didn't exaggerate her numbers. We often have to enact the highest "good" (good in many cases meaning profit) by doing a little bit of bad.

In her strategy + business article "Winning the Devil's Bargain", Elizabeth Doty tells of her own executive struggles with following through on little things that chipped away at her values.

I wasn’t naive. I told myself that ethical bumps in the road were part of the game of business. Our hotel managers sometimes secretly canceled guests’ discount-rate reservations on oversold nights. I myself had concocted the “right” numbers on sales forecasts, and then convinced my boss in his staff meeting that I really believed them.

And in her future career she interviewed dozens of executives who'd made similar tradeoffs, massaging numbers or effectively ignoring things that, if one's livelihood weren't on the line, would never have transpired unquestioned.

Fortunately, with transparency becoming more than a lip-service term, there is an increasing tolerance for the manager who will lay it straight. But here's a new problem: Do managers on the whole know how to lay it straight? We're so used to shrinking appropriately to adversity that we don't know how to stand up for what's right.

I once worked for a company that was about to declare bankruptcy and suspected that the shipping bills I was racking up would likely never get paid, but it was standard practice to move forward until the shinola hit the fan--why worry about it otherwise?

Eventually, when I applied basic logic and realized that we would likely never pay this vendor, I approached a supervisor and asked if this was, you know, like, "OK to do?"

"Oh absolutely," he said. "This is how it's done." "This" being racking up bills you had no intention of paying. It's an unspoken rule in business, you don't "tell on" your employer, especially to another vendor. Rather than raise a stink about this practice being wrong, I felt stupid for questioning it. Stupid kid, nobody's banrupt until they stop sending the packages.

Today this attitude strikes me as short-sighted. Why not empower your employees to get a handle on your resources/debt by keeping them in the loop and making them responsible? Why not show them the budget and allow them to make the right decisions? Why not let them keep every ounce of their dignity by allowing them to question things that they feel aren't right? Why not put the responsibility squarely where it belings--on everyone?

I suspect that, like Bertha, your employees aren't really that surprised that the shinola does, eventually, hit the fan.

Jory Des Jardins also blogs at Pause and

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