In all the years that I taught moral philosophy, I never once taught business ethics. Truth to be told, I went out of my way to avoid it. Given an opportunity to teach classes in the MBA program at my university, which reimbursed at a higher rate than the School of Arts & Sciences, I turned it down. The very idea of business bored me to tears. The idea of teaching it seemed tedious beyond tears. A couple hundred dollars here or there weren’t going to compensate for the waste of time and brain power involved in teaching such a dumb-ass class. So I bagged it.
And then, one day, like a character in a Kafka novel, I woke up to find that I’d become a business analyst for a multimillion-dollar revenue management company. Weirder still, I remain one. So what do I daydream on my days off? A Caribbean cruise? Leisurely wine-sipping in the French Riviera? Island-hopping with an attractive partner in the Aegean? No, I dream of teaching business ethics.
The main reason for this renewed interest in the subject is the belated realization that business is more ethically interesting than I initially gave it credit for. I hasten to say that I don’t mean that business is more moral or noble than I first thought. Just the reverse. It’s actually a lot worse than I thought. That’s why it’s so interesting.
My relative indifference to business, back in the day, arose from an overly rosy, not an overly pessimistic, view of it. It’s not that I had some particularly lambent, pie-in-the-sky view of it, either. I had what I regarded as a middle-of-the-road moderately moderate view to the effect that business was In Principle a Noble Calling, sullied only by the structural defects of particular systems of political economy, and by the idiosyncratic vices of particular businesspeople, surely a small minority of the whole. But as a somewhat spoiled hedonist with high-end consumer tastes in coffee and hair conditioner, I was glad it was there, and not about to rock any boats over it. Somebody’s got to serve our desires, cater to our whims, and keep the economy going, or growing, or in general doing whatever a healthy economy does. So business was the kind of ethical dog I preferred to let lie.
I wasn’t totally wrong, I suppose, but not exactly right, either. One thing I hadn’t counted on was a big difference between the business world, my new home, and academia, my old one.
Whatever the vagaries of practice, academia has an institution called academic freedom. Yes, I know it’s under attack nowadays, but even so, the phrase exists and means something. According to the hallowed norms of academic freedom, an academic is, within limits, candidly permitted to speak her mind on virtually any subject without fear of institutional or professional retaliation. That includes criticisms of academia itself, including one’s home institution, its leadership, its policies, its students, its faculty, and even its cafeteria selections. The result, in theory at least, is a distinctive sort of openness and candor.
A business analyst, by contrast, is not permitted any such latitude. There is no such thing as “business analyst freedom,” or “business associate freedom,” or “business discourse freedom.” A business analyst is permitted so little latitude, in fact, that I’m tempted to leave matters there and end this post for fear that I’ve probably already written enough to get my ass fired. But the residual academic in me prefers to keep going. Old habits die hard, even when they kill the habitué.
Reading the mainstream press, you might well come away with a very different impression of academia than the one I’ve just given you. As far as mainstream sources are concerned, it’s academia that’s the discursive tyranny by contrast with the rest of the world, where plainspoken candor reigns. Here’s David French in The New York Times, reciting what’s become the standard view:
The nonpartisan Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression — of which, full disclosure, I was once president — has tracked over 900 incidents since 2001 where scholars were targeted for termination or other penalties for speech that was protected by the First Amendment or by conventional principles of academic freedom. In 2021 alone there were 111 attempts to penalize professors for their speech, and almost 70 percent of those attacks came from the left.
This strikes me as a misleading account of the situation in academia, but leave that aside, and focus on the contrast between academia and business. To start with the painfully obvious: there is no equivalent of a Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression for the business world, and the idea of having one would likely provoke gales of laughter in the C-suite of any firm in the country worth its salt.
Academic freedom grants a presumption of discursive freedom, however violated that presumption ends up in practice.There is no remotely comparable presumption in business, whether in theory or in practice. It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that the reverse presumption holds. A corporate meeting is nothing like an academic seminar or a session of the Faculty Senate. It’s a top-down exercise in which those at the top do the talking, and those further down either listen or answer the questions they’re asked. People proceed very carefully, and try their best not to say very much at all. Things don’t change once you leave the meeting, but there’s a real sense in which you never do.
Beyond this, people in the business world are hired at-will. Top-level executives aside, there is nothing comparable to tenure. That means that such people can be and are terminated with or without cause, and with or without notice, often for saying “inappropriate” things on the job, or often as a matter of sheer caprice, e.g., simply because they’re disliked in some way that no one can put into words.
A termination of that sort took place last week at my workplace. No one’s going to “report” it to anyone, much less to the business world’s non-existent equivalent of David French or FIRE. The person who was fired (so to speak), like the person before, and the person before, and the person before, was simply “let go,” as though from an invisible leash, and duly forgotten. I suppose he could come back and go postal, but it’s far more likely that he’ll just shut up, slink off, and quietly find another job. The lesson to be learned here, I suppose, is to keep a lower profile at his next job. To be noticed or noticeable is in some cases an offense, and what causes offense often causes termination. The guy clearly said something that set someone off. What it is, no one will ever know. And at this point, it doesn’t matter.
FIRE has, French tells us, tracked over 900 incidents over the last twenty years. I’d love to ask David French how many speech-related at-will terminations he thinks have taken place in the business world over the last twenty years. 900? 9,000? 90,000? It’s not even clear what database you would consult to confirm the figure. And how many of those terminations were driven by left-wing considerations? 70% 68.7%? 63.4%? While we’re at it, how many left-wing HR departments are there? How many HR departments are there, for that matter? The very idea of counting such things is enough to make a cat laugh.
The only freedom you have in the business world is the freedom to shut up and get the job done. Indeed, to the extent that academia has suffered an erosion in the norms of academic freedom, I would point the finger of blame at business rather than the Left: it’s because university administrations want to imitate what they imagine to be the productivity of The Corporation that they’ve decided, in the name of “branding” and the like, to gut tenure and tear the guts out of academic freedom.
Back in 2020, my ridiculous institution, Felician University, underwent an accreditation site visit by officials from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, a regional accreditation agency. During the visit, these big poo-bahs held a big, important meeting intended exclusively for faculty, the “exclusive” invitation intended to give the impression of confidentiality where candor might be welcomed. It was only too obviously an Inspector Clouseau-inspired mission in academic espionage. What, they asked, was missing from ol’ FU? What was worth changing?
I was, of course, the first person in the room to raise my hand, raring to go with a snitch-worthy answer straight out of Fire His Ass 101. FU didn’t have tenure, I said, so it’d sure be nice to have some. It might even get us off the AAUP’s Censure List. The accreditor laughed derisively–that’s the kind of assholes these people were–and responded that tenure was no longer part of the standard business model at The University of the Twenty-First Century. I felt like asking him if he’d like some Grey Poupon with his Tenure-Free University. It was all I could do to prevent myself from getting up and breaking his skull. What this man knew about business or about academia was anyone’s guess, but regardless, he held the cards.
This feature of business–its hostility to candor and open discourse, along with its commitment to a form of productivity founded on discretionary reticence–is not, in my view, specific to this or that firm or system but something inherent in the competitive enterprise itself. Business is conducted in secret. Business competition requires concealment. A habit of concealment, especially when redescribed as a virtue, like “discretion,” inhibits candor. A discursive environment that devalues candor will inevitably devalue the freedom and openness that candor requires. That’s why none of these things–freedom, openness, candor–exist in a business environment. They’re all, as business is conventionally conceived, regarded as obvious liabilities. Very few businesses literally manufacture talk, and practically none manufacture back talk.
Having taught for twenty-six years in higher education, and having spent an overlapping decade or so working in business (some blue collar but mostly white collar), I would say that there simply is no comparison between academia and business: academics have far more discursive freedom than people in business, even at places where PC wokeness or reactionary chic hold sway. Business is by comparison a closed circle of authoritarian conformity where public candor is about as rare as a Black Panther at a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert.
This claim will, I know, be hotly contested by defenders of the Honor and Dignity of Business: far from being inimical to business, they’ll say, candor is necessary to the proper running of business operations. A good manager encourages candor because the free flow of information is instrumental to the business enterprise. A manager can scarcely manage while shooting in the dark. Nor can operations operate that way, or data analytics analyze that way, or cleaners clean that way, or techs tech that way. A leader can’t lead, or lean in, if she lacks the trust of those around her, and she needs to know the minds of those around her to gain their trust. You can hardly lean in on people if you’re not sure they’ll hold you up. (I’m egregiously misusing the “lean in” lingo, but it was designed for abuse.) Freedom is central to free enterprise. And free enterprise is the heart and soul of business. How could business function without candor?
How indeed. How do businesses function without candor? They compartmentalize. They value candor, or claim to, in some very narrow domain, but not outside of it. And the scope of the domain changes every day, sometimes every hour. You can be as candid as you want if your candor serves the interests of someone in a position of superordinate power. Otherwise, every exercise of candor is an act of self-subversion, a grave you dig for yourself while standing in it. Put somewhat differently, business claims to value candor, but also values “discretion,” and just happens to place discretion higher in the hierarchy of values than candor. In Rawlsian terms, the “balancing act” involving candor and discretion is really a lexical ordering: in any case where discretion comes into conflict with candor, discretion wins. And that’s 99% of the time.
When I first saw the movie “Fight Club,” I chuckled at Brad Pitt’s mantra, “The first rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club.” I naïvely thought at the time that the mantra was meant as a parody of the old sexual clichè about Las Vegas: “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” And I interpreted it accordingly as some sort of homoerotic trope. It may well be all that, but I later realized that it was better understood as a parody of the discursive norms of American business. The first rule of any business enterprise is: you do not talk about what happens on the job. The second rule of business is: you do not talk about what happens on the job. Everything is proprietary, and “everything” probably exceeds your wildest imaginings.
One very proximate example: according to the Employee Handbook of my company (peace be upon it), merely mentioning in a public setting that you are an employee of the company–meaning: simply invoking its name and associating your name with it–makes you, by that act, a de facto representative of the company, giving the company the right to regulate anything you say on any subject whatsoever, in the interests of ensuring that what you say puts the company in its best light. You’re to think of yourself as an ambassador for the company, and of carrying its values with you wherever you go. You also, simultaneously, do not represent the company in any official capacity, and are to make that clear, lest your discursive mis-steps reflect badly on the company. As usual, simplicity turns out not to be so simple.
This stricture recently became a minor dilemma for me when I submitted a paper to the APA’s Central Division Meeting in Denver, loosely (very loosely) based on my experiences working in Big Data. Everything was going well during Early Bird Registration until the APA demanded to know my “institutional affiliation” in one of the required fields of the registration form. I wasn’t sure what to say. I’m no longer affiliated with a university; I work for a corporation. Listing a university affiliation usually doesn’t imply endorsement of one’s claims by the university, but what about listing a corporate one?
So many conundrums. Who knew that getting the Early Bird discount would be so fraught an affair? I put a proviso into the paper saying that I spoke in it only for myself, but ironically, intentions don’t really matter in this domain: usurpation of a corporate brand is a strict liability offense. Fixated on the Early Bird discount, I reluctantly put my name down with my corporate affiliation, unintentionally implying by that act that my paper, “Push Back Harder: Asymmetric Power and the Struggle for Privacy,” reflects the values of my employer, CorroHealth. Is that true? Does the Law of Excluded Middle hold for corporate boilerplate? Will the falsity of the claim (supposing it is false) get me fired? Stay tuned.
And this is why I want to teach business ethics. You teach in order to learn, and I dream of teaching exactly what I’d like to learn. People say that talk is cheap, but it actually turns out to be pretty expensive. Should you speak up in a milieu that demands concealment? Fall silent when it demands falsehoods? Or split the difference between those options? Does candor require plain old “straight shooting” or does it require the services of a “professional talk translator“? Or are candor and sincerity over-valued altogether?
Questions like this, I’ve come to think, are the real crux of business ethics, the burning questions on the mind of every front-line worker, whether janitor or nurse, dishwasher or business analyst. I haven’t found the answers on LinkedIn or Indeed, or even in the pages of Business Ethics: Readings and Cases in Corporate Morality (5th ed). They’re to be found in human experience articulated, and there’s no better place to find that than in a classroom.
I have no immediate plans to return to the classroom, but still sometimes find myself in one, notionally speaking, never having quite left the place. I’d like to think that I would bring a new-found wisdom to this notional classroom I envision, some profound, hard-won experience I’ve gained in the “real world” that I lacked the last time I was in a classroom. The funny thing is, you can’t know whether that’s true until the first time you open your mouth in class, and say whatever comes to mind. The sad thing is, you can’t do that at all in the corporate boardroom. A yet sadder thing is the attempt to turn the classroom into the corporate boardroom, and in the attempt to chase candor and discursive freedom out of human experience itself. Whether or not to let that happen is what people call an ethical question, and is probably worth a discussion or two. Preferably under conditions of freedom.
I would add that there IS supposed to be a business-world equivalent of FIRE. It’s called a union.
I agree, obviously.
Speaking of unions, so to speak:
Critics of campus wokeness don’t have much to say about any of that.
That’s not, of course, meant to be an argument in favor of things like this:
The campus Left really does deserve some of the criticism it gets.
How do you like my poem, by the way?
The World, 2023
J.S. Mill! Thou should’st be living at this hour:
The world hath need of thee…
Irfan, everything you said about speech in business is true in my experience. That is, concerning large firms. In the small firms, my experience was that you just don’t have, e.g., meetings asking employees to vent their criticisms. I do not have an opinion about whether lack of openness in large firms is bad for the success of the firm. I would say only to the employee: “keep your mouth shut and do the work.” Your opinions and suggestions about running of the firm may be invited, but they are not sincere, they are an entrapment for some, or as in my own case simply to be ignored, if ever really heard in the first place. Put that sort invitation in a large firm in the league of when the advertising department at British Petroleum says “Let’s get people associating the letters BP with Beyond Petroleum.” That the only socially redeeming value of a business firm be the product or service it provides and the resulting profits for the firm’s owners is fine with me. It is fine perhaps as well, that usually the only real interest employees have in the firm is a paycheck and benefits (which is better in bigger firms, in my experience.). By “fine” I mean simply that it seems to be enough to keep the machine running. It was not fine by me that so many employees (and even some managers of employees), mostly non-technical ones, could care less what it was we were producing and drew no satisfaction from working with others in the firm to make that happen and no satisfaction that our product was needed and valued by customers. That was disappointing to me. The pay was great (much greater than most academics I imagine), and every day, I would think of how fortunate I was to have such an employment. (I had been poor, and I then worked as an unskilled laborer for several years, just getting by really).
Thanks for your comment. We’re clearly agreeing on a lot. I think in a way you stumble on the explanation for why non-technical staff have the attitude you find problematic. Take a job with the following features:
In a case like this, the job offers the employee pointlessness, tedium, and contempt. An employee in this situation can only reasonably be expected to perform the job for the paycheck and benefits. The technical staff has the consolation of doing technical work, which is often motivating in itself even at an otherwise pointless job. But the non-technical staff doesn’t.
Change the variables and the equation changes, however. In 1997, I worked as a clerk for Raytheon Engineers & Constructors, on a project where we were building a power plant at Ratchaburi, Thailand. Notice that I still say “we,” despite the fact that I did nothing that qualified as engineering or constructing. I felt as though I was a part of the overall endeavor. My own tasks were usually pretty tedious, but in a larger sense, the job was meaningful, and both management and my other colleagues were pleasant to work with. So it ended up being a positive experience for me. I look back fondly on the memories.
In 2020-21, I was a janitor in a hospital operating room. Here, I regarded the job as meaningful, and even my particular tasks as meaningful, however unpleasant they were. It was a joy to work with the nursing staff, and I mostly felt a sense of solidarity with the other janitors and technicians. But as far as management was concerned, we were treated with contempt–forced in a sense, to do a bad job. So my experience was decidedly mixed.
I have only rarely been at jobs that were strong minuses on all three points, but I found it very hard to stay. I had the luxury of leaving in those cases. But some people don’t. In that kind of case, I sympathize with their plight.