Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, October 18, 2021
by Neil Senturia
Here is a question for my readers. Feel free to weigh in. I will set the basic parameters.
A senior management executive joins a startup, venture-backed company, growing fast, well-funded. After six months, he and his wife have a child. The paternity/maternity policy is three months’ paid time off. The gentleman says he wants to take his three months. The CEO and other senior members are dismayed because they contend that his new team will fall apart without his leadership for that length of time.
The CEO suggests that three months is fine, but could you take it in three smaller chunks over a six-month period? The gentleman is not so inclined and decides to quit.
Now, I am not interested in legal policy nor the rightness of family leave. What interests me is how you would react if you were the CEO. What obligation, if any, does this senior employee have to his team (seven people) and the company (less than 150 employees) beyond simply the legal stance?
Now let’s shift from legal to ethical and explore how one should handle ethical breaches in the workplace?
Wharton professor Richard Shell says that “normally when we are faced with an ethical breach at the office, we think there are only three options: remain silent, single-handedly confront the perpetrator or report him to a higher authority.” But he argues for a fourth option — bring in an ally. He calls this the “Power of Two.” I applaud this plan and use it myself for lots of decisions.
I always assume there are at least two schools of thought for each decision, and I like to find a sympathetic ear, an ally, who will let me wave my arms and draw diagrams on the whiteboard in an effort to come to a right-headed decision. If I can “convince” myself and the ally, then there is a reasonable chance that the decision is a good one.
It is hard to be the lone voice in any room, wanting to speak truth to power. But too many people dilute the message and the focus. A single ally is the right number, otherwise, as Shell points out, you create the risk of “social contagion,” peer pressure or group think.
Erika Cheung, the “whistleblower” in the Theranos /Elizabeth Holmes trial had been at the company less than a year, but when she saw what she thought were fraudulent practices, she was not able to confront Holmes directly. Instead, she went to another young researcher, Tyler Shultz, to discuss and analyze the issues. Satisfied that they had the facts, they then went together to their superiors to report the fraud. They got no comfort from on high, rather they were berated for not being “team players.” They filed an anonymous complaint with federal health authorities and left the company. That complaint set in motion the Wall Street Journal reporting that ultimately brought the company down.
Small world indeed. Several years ago, my daughter was a newly minted Ph.D. in mRNA microbiology. She went for an interview at Theranos, was offered a job, but turned it down, telling me later that the company was too secretive (she had to sign an NDA to enter the lobby), and she didn’t think the technology would work.
Shell has a second rule for leveraging the power of two, “Stand up to authority.” He points to the famous Stanley Milgram studies on giving what appears to be lethal electric shocks to “victims” and deciding when to stop. The takeaway was that when there were “two dissenters” observing the process, “90 percent of the shocks were terminated prior to arriving at the supposed lethal dose.”
Shell’s third suggestion for addressing moral dilemmas is to “go get a fresh perspective.” There is the famous Stanford Prison Experiment with “guards” and “prisoners.” I won’t detail everything but the bottom line is that it took an outsider, an unrelated third party, not involved in the experiment to step in and put a halt to the proceedings, someone who could see more clearly how far the program had strayed from an ethical and moral center.
Shell says, “It is easy for ordinary people to be swept up in wrongdoing by peers and bosses.”
Rule No. 684
You’re less likely to trip if you walk hand in hand.