Business Ethics at the Moment of McClellan

Lawyer Stephen Goldman compares the former White House spokesman to employees everywhere

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Whether or not Scott McClellan's new book accurately depicts his time working for President Bush, the former White House press secretary has raised interesting questions about ethical choices at work. For one: How responsible are employees for ethical lapses to which they are compelled to contribute? Stephen Goldman, author of Temptations in the Office: Ethical Choices and Legal Obligations, is a law professor at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and he has also earned his stripes as a business owner. Goldman recently spoke with U.S. News on workplace ethics. Excerpts:

McClellan's book aims to expose his former employer's purported lack of moral compass, but his own role seems to be as both victim and participant. Can victims really be participants?


I think that lots of victims begin life as participants. Something happens, and, you know, it doesn't feel right, they don't like it, but nobody wants to be a crybaby. I talk in the book about how temptations in the office that cause problems are divided into sex, money, and power. Lots of times, the sexual harassment situation starts—a guy does something to a woman in the workplace, which she doesn't like and doesn't think is appropriate. But she doesn't say anything about it, she doesn't do anything about it, and—I'm not saying he's right in doing this—but he may take that as an invitation. And then it accelerates, and then she realizes she's in a situation of being a harassment object. In some of these financial scandals, people start cutting corners, they participate, and before long they're in the cross hairs of the [Securities and Exchange Commission]. I say that abuse of power in the workplace is really the next frontier of business ethics. People sort of thought that people in power can get away with anything they want. I think what happened to McClellan was—at first, there's the power, there's the president, and the vice president and Karl Rove. And all of a sudden, you were first of all helping them; you're now kind of the fall guy.

Do "victims" have an ethical obligation?


Yeah, there is an ethical choice. The ethical choice is either to confront the wrongdoer—sometimes that's just not practicable—or get out. Or unfortunately, there's a third choice, which, in the real world, some people make: They keep quiet about it. I mean, if you're Scott McClellan, you can get another job, but there are lots of people who are hanging on to their jobs for dear life now, and they're not in a position to do more than grin and bear it. Those are the three choices. Ideally, if you can get out or confront them, it's best. But it's not always realistically possible for people. McClellan has said the press didn't ask the tough questions in the run-up to the Iraq war, and members of the press have said they weren't allowed to. Is that passing the buck, or is it unfair to expect people without power to accept responsibility?


I think that not being in a position of leadership doesn't absolve you of taking responsibility for your acts. I mean, that, after all, was the superior-orders defense which the Nazi war criminals used unsuccessfully at Nuremberg after World War II. So I don't think you can get out of taking responsibility. What other ethics lessons do you see in the McClellan episode?


I think that the response of the White House, which is clearly very well orchestrated, is very interesting. What they have, in essence, charged him with doing is breaching his loyalty. And loyalty is an important value. We all owe loyalty to our employers. But what seems to me to be implicit in what the White House is saying is: The duty of loyalty is the highest moral duty—that it should trump anything else. Nobody said that what he said was wrong. They said it was disloyal. Loyalty is a virtue, but it's not more important than honesty.

What compelled you to write a book on business ethics?


Ethics isn't like deciding whether you like strawberry ice cream or you like chocolate ice cream. Ethics requires thinking. And making ethical decisions requires the same kind of hard thinking you do in business whether you decide to open a new branch, or in government if you're deciding whether to launch a war. I wanted to say: People, you can do this thinking, and then you can be more comfortable about your choices.