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Where does your responsibility start and end at the workplace?

  1. Jan 27, 2012 #1
    Hey everyone,

    I'm wondering on how someone can define where his responsibility starts and ends at the workplace, especially in our highly-connected jobs environments with modern economies. These days I work as an independent freelancer, but I'm considering to work at some companies and I'm concerned about ethical responsibilities. To clarify my question I can provide a specific example:

    A person wants to work at a company, (let's say construction, telecommunications..etc), and later finds out that the top management is landing most of the projects through bribery of government workers (or other companies). That person is not in top management but is responsible for communications about contracts (e.g. a secretary) or responsibility about implementing parts of the projects after the contract is obtained (e.g. an engineer in the construction team). In such cases, to what degree is that person aiding in the corruption? Must the person, from an ethical stand point, quit his job?

    Other examples can be about working in the weapons/defense industries, or in industries that are controversial with regards to exploitation of third world countries or even communities in the developed world.

    How the line or rules can be defined in such situations about the person's responsibility in wrong actions within their company/workplace?

    I value your insights,
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 27, 2012 #2


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    Hey Spirit.

    Many professions have codes of ethics that need to be followed. If one is found to breach these they may face disciplinary action or be forced out of the profession which means that they can not practice in that capacity anymore which is often a legal requirement.

    Also there are certain legal frameworks to aid ethical behaviour. One such law relates to whistleblowing. This is dependent again on the industry but in some government agencies this kind of thing does exist. Whether it has any use or is just 'for show' is another issue entirely.

    Again different industries have different things. For example journalists have places to go if they are are being forced to not report a story that is 'entirely truthful' or 'misleading'. This has happened in the past.

    Apart from the above there are regulators and other similar agencies that were created to deal with this kind of thing. You also have the law which is meant to do something 'after the fact'. The regulation system can be a lot better because it can enforce 'pre-checks' and protocols that do a lot to prevent said activities but things don't always work the way they were intended to.

    For other things though its probably going to be really really hard to make the same kind of impact in getting information out while having some kind of protection. For these kinds of things I guess you will have to make a decision that if you get into a particular field in a particular role that there is going to be that element of corruption or a bad moral compass then you have to have the guts to say 'Thanks but no thanks' and move on.

    The thing is, as much as things are, humans will be human beings. As long as humans are willing to cheat, lie, steal, coverup things and so on, then this won't dissappear even with the best regulatory agencies, legal frameworks, and professional bodies since humans are running them.

    The best you can do if you don't have some protection is to make your own decisions about where your moral compass lies because if you ever get the feeling that something is wrong, or is too good to be true, or that there are things that you are worried about, then you need to deal with yourself just like everyone has to.
  4. Jan 27, 2012 #3
    In the my industry (finance), we constantly get compliance training that we are required to report any corrupt activities to legal and compliance (and they have an anonymous toll free hotline for this thing). It's not only an ethical issue, but rather that it's a violation of FCPA, and it's been made very, very clear to us that if we hide corrupt activities, we could go to jail.

    That makes the decision of whether to report something or not, rather easy, since I don't want to go to jail.

    There's also the self-interest part, since I tend to not like to work with dishonest people, since dishonest people will screw me over when they have the chance.

    On the other hand, the people I know that work in weapons/defense honestly believe that what they are doing is good for the world. Bad things would happen if the US couldn't make hydrogen bombs whereas North Korea would. Exploitation of third world countries also can be problematic for the same reason in that it's not hard to come up with arguments that a particular thing is good.

    What usually happens is that people that feel uncomfortable working in an industry leave, and the people that stay can justify to themselves what they are doing. If you absolutely believe that nuclear weapons are evil, you are not going to be working at Los Alamos, and if you work at Los Alamos, you are going to be surrounded by people that can convince themselves (and convince you) that they are not evil.

    Usually, if you have values that are extremely different from your workplace, it's better if you leave early since they'll kick you out eventually. If they don't kick you out, they eventually you'll get brainwashed into self-justifying whatever is going on. So it's not a matter of responsibility to the company, it's who do you want to be. If you meet yourself + 20 years, would you respect the future you?

    In practice, you have very little input on the way that the workplace is structured, so the question is whether or not you feel comfortable with what is going on. Personally, when legal and compliance gives lectures saying "corporate policy requires you report violations of FCPA and if you violate FCPA, you will go to jail", it makes me feel better that I'm working where I am.
  5. Jan 27, 2012 #4


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    I once worked for a business-owner that engaged in highly unethical practices - some of which could have cost him his license due to illegality. I refused to "go along" and collude with him or lie to clients. He threatened to fire me (in the presence of a consultant) because I refused to lie to a client, and I told him to go ahead. He cleaned up a bit after that, and after hiring a GM that didn't want to go to jail. Still, he was dishonest to the bone, and would rather tell a good lie when the truth would do. I could have ratted him out to his professional organization or to state authorities, but that would have cost about 30 people their jobs.

    I pity the people who still work for him, because they have to be constantly on guard against back-stabbing and skulduggery.
  6. Jan 27, 2012 #5
    Thanks for your reply, Chiro. Where I live these days in my home country many companies are involved in bribes, bid rigging or the "new fashion" by making a non-prof which only exists on paper, located inside their for-profit company, and what you got is one company with two faces: tax-free one in front of government, and lots of profits in-front of the owners. And the rule of law is not strong here and even establishing evidence that is legally accepted is very difficult. Can the "Thanks but no thanks" in this case be that the person must not work there at all? And will there be some difference if working with them as an independent?

    In this kind of global economy it's hard to find jobs sometimes, and this issue is a pressure as well and I'm not sure how to deal with this reality.

    Thanks Twofish-quant. Yep I think some fields are controversial, or some practices within the field. And also it seems to me that there is some wide-spread practices within corporate culture that are unacceptable by law but done "from under the table". And the thing is that switching jobs can be really hard, yet alone switching jobs.

    And yep the respect towards the self is a factor in it, and since I'm confused about the issue I try to play it more safe than sorry, but perhaps it can mean feeling sorry too about much-needed income. Like imagine this example: let's say an engineer at a company saw a bribe deal in his company to land a government project, but he is not involved in the talks or the signing of the deal, and also can't prove that the bribe did happen. Is it ethical to still work on that project? (and the question can be more complicated if he has family responsibilities, debts to pay, can't find another job..etc).

    Yep this is actually another important part of the issue: how about other people working there and can be harmed while they have families to take care of? But again he is also can be harming the clients (or even the country if things like tax-evasions).
  7. Jan 27, 2012 #6
    You actually know the answer better than I do.

    Personally, I've been fortunate enough to have always worked in an environment in which I really could leave and find another job rather than do something that I was uncomfortable with. However, if I really *was* in a situation in which I had to pay off officials or rig bids in order to survive, I wouldn't have any ethical problems in doing that, because I have ethical duties to keep my family fed. If I really *had* to bribe officials to stay alive, I bribe officials and I'd feel good about doing that because I'm fulfilling other ethical duties.

    The hard part is trying to figure out if I'm *really* in this sort of situation or not. It's easy to lie to yourself and say that you have no choice when you really do, but sometimes it's the truth.

    Also, one curious thing is that one reason my company gets a lot of business in foreign countries is that we have a reputation for being "honest" so the governments like us because they know we'll at least try to follow the law and pay our taxes. It's also weird because we are often a "foreign company" that the government will insist on enforcing laws on us that they don't do with the local people.

    It's important to figure out what the reality is. If I had to engage in corruption to keep my family fed, I'd do it, and I wouldn't feel the slightest bit guilty. Now I realize that if everyone does it, it results in a giant social mess, but duty to family overrides that.

    People are surprised that there is very little actually going on that's illegal on Wall Street, and people in US finance react *VERY* badly when something actually illegal happens. However in the US system, big companies don't have to do much "under the table" because they are powerful enough to get the laws changed so that if they have to do something to stay in business it gets on "above the table." For example, US laws on corruption are somewhat flexible so that there are exceptions for customary business practices.

    What happens in a lot of countries is that people have little respect for the law because following the law to the letter means that you can't do business. In the US, if the law is causing problems, you can get some lawyers and lobbyists to get the law changed. If the law causes problems, we have people whose job it is to talk to congresspeople and regulators, explain the problem, and try to get the laws changed, and that happens a lot. However, because the laws are flexible, it means that breaking one will get you in serious, serious, serious trouble.

    Of course, that causes a problem in that you may be asked to do something that is totally 100% legal, but questionable for other reasons. There are people who look at the fact that our big company (and other big companies) can change the laws in the US, and think to themselves "that's *real* corruption."

    The other things is that things are different from industry to industry. In finance, there is surprisingly little blatant illegality, but some people think that's because the companies have so much money that they can make bribery legal when it has to be done. In oil/gas, things are quite different.......

    Why? Personally, if I made a decision that cost me money, oh well. Sometimes I lose money in the stock market for random reasons, so if I lose money for something that makes me feel good about myself, that's a good thing.

    Let me tell you what I'd do. Other people will do things differently.....

    If the project is good for society, I wouldn't have a problem with it. If you build a road or a schoool that creates economic wealth, and someone had to pay a bribe to get it done, oh well.....

    Now if someone paid a bribe so that they could use bad materials or get away with bad construction, then I wouldn't do it.....

    One thing that you have to be careful here. When you work on a project or do something, it's very easy to find someone to tell you that what you are doing is right and you shouldn't feel guilty about it, so if you feel guilty and you don't want to feel guilty, that's an easy problem to fix. Once you work in the same place for five to ten years, you won't feel guilty about what's going on. That may not be a good thing.

    The philosophy that I was raised up with says that if people take care of their own families, then everything else will work out. Sometimes I wonder if this is true, but it seems that it works well enough so that I'll go with that.
  8. Jan 27, 2012 #7
    One thing that you have to realize is that once you work with people, you are going to adopt their world view, so after five to ten years you'll think the same way that they do. I know people that work on engineering projects in places of the world where payoffs/bribery are routine. I also know lots of people that work on defense related projects include hydrogen bombs.

    I work in an industry (finance) that disgusts a lot of people. Legality is important in finance, but a lot of people would argue that "legal over the table bribery" is even more disgusting than illegal bribery. They may have a point, but none of my co-workers believes this, because anyone that believes that it is morally wrong to give millions of dollars in legal campaign contributions to politicians is not going to last very long.


    Once you work in those environments for a few years, you will adopt the "moral code" of whoever you work with, and you'll accept whatever the standard practices are. They may brainwash you well enough so that not only do you tolerate what goes on, but you become an enthusiastic supporter of what happens.

    So if your goal is not to feel guilty, don't worry, you won't. If there is something that you feel so strongly about that you'd be disgusted to find out how you've changed, then you have to make some decisions now. Don't underestimate the power of socialization (i.e. brainwashing). Once you get into an environment, you will eventually accept the moral code of that environment.
  9. Jan 28, 2012 #8


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    Twofish-quant you have made many great points of which all are true.

    But with your family post, I just want to remind you that the mafia have exactly the same policy ;)
  10. Feb 10, 2012 #9
    Yep for me in general life was going excellent as a "norm" in terms of academics and future jobs prospects, but then things were going downhill from year to another due to various reasons. And now I am trying to adapt to the drastic changes. And I agree this is the hard part: Sometimes I have difficulty to define what an emergency is. As in, sometimes I think I have the skills to pick myself and deal with lots of debt problems my family have (I personally have no debt, but my parents do, and I try to help them out of it). But other times I think I may have too much self-confidence and too much wishful thinking that I need to face the reality about the economy and the business world for people in my situation.

    Perhaps it's like if you are waiting for someone at a place and they didn't show up, after how many minutes you do to leave the place? Sometimes its hard to draw a line or decide the principles on how to draw it.

    Yep I do agree. I prefer feel internal peace than to make extra income against my values any given day. But sometimes reality is so complicated that I am not sure if I am doing things against my own values or not.

    Yep I think this is at the core of the issue too: its hard sometimes to distinguish between seeing things from a philosophical/scientific perspective or following trends of conventional social norms about something which may make sense at the surface but they may not be so in reality.

    Let me give an example: let's say someone works in the finance industry, and part of his job is dealing with stocks of an international company that is mistreating its labor badly in China. To what degree is he contributing to the suffering of that company's workers? This example can be taken to the extreme by saying that the company is involving in civil wars in Africa over resources (e.g. oil in west Africa, diamonds..etc). In this case is he a part of a killing machine?

    Perhaps my questions sounds a bit weird and naive about how the real world works, but I think in University they should have given us more interactive classes with the real world or something.
  11. Feb 12, 2012 #10
    You have to decide what your values are. If I have to pay a bribe to a corrupt official to keep my family from starving, I'd do it, and I wouldn't feel the slightest bit guilty doing it. It gets more difficult once you move from "starving" to "get rich."

    But then you end up with trying to figure out what the facts are.....

    But then you have to ask *are* the workers being mistreated? I have first hand experience with Chinese factories, and personally, I'm more annoyed at so-called "labor activists" than I am at the people that run the factories. From my point of view labor activists are doing a lot more social harm than people that run the factories ever did.

    One thing that you should find interesting is that no one in China is talking about boycotting Apple, because they know what goes on an the factories, and the work conditions are pretty good and the pay is excellent, and on the weekends people go off to shop at the local mall and buy frozen yogurt, bling-bling for their cell phones, before getting a latte at Starbucks.

    Something that causes difficulty is that in trying to do good, you may be doing a lot of harm. Then again, you don't know who I am. I could be lying about worker conditions in China. But then again, maybe I'm not.

    But then it gets complicated. In the case of oil, ultimately, you have to blame yourself for whatever happens in the name of oil since it's you that fills up the gas tank. As far as diamonds go, it's interesting that some of the prime movers behind conflict diamonds are diamond companies that want to keep their monopoly.

    One thing that I have figured out is that except in rare cases, there are no actions that are purely good or purely evil. It's a matter of trying to get more good done than evil.
    Last edited: Feb 12, 2012
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