The Week in Ethics: The Way Forward from Public Shaming

Posted July 15, 2015 by Gael O'Brien
Categories: Community, Ethical Behavior, Plagiarism, Reputation, Trust

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

iPhone April 11, 2014 272 Students in a middle school painted words important to them on rocks placed under a tree. “Patience,” “courage,” “strength,” and “peace” were scattered under the limbs. However the lineup of a yellow heart, “tolerance” and “healing” held my eye during a walk in 2013; they were an antidote to the lack of humanity words as weapons cause.

I thought of those rocks this week after reading So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, a new book by journalist Jon Ronson. He recounts recent examples of how far an online posse of righteous shamers can go condemning others’ ethical failings, judgment errors or offensive attempts at humor. Among the stories of social media shaming that Ronson includes are journalist Jonah Lehrer’s plagiarism, the racist-interpreted “joke” tweet of PR executive Justine Sacco and the obscene gesture in a photograph in Arlington National Cemetery Lindsey Stone posted of herself on Facebook.

Social media has a piranha capacity to feed off self-sabotage. Rationally, authors know plagiarism is an ethical time bomb, just as news anchors understand lying and distorting facts destroy credibility (the problems of Brian Williams erupted after the book was written). And no one should be surprised that Twitter and Facebook accounts don’t guarantee quiet repositories for acting out unfiltered attempts at humor.

However, not understanding the consequences of enraged social media is to be in denial over the potential consequences of losses — in jobs, trust, reputation, safety (as attacks cut more deeply personal) and even one’s life. It is a double-sided ignorance: Not seeing the piranha waits or recognizing if you and the piranha have become one.

Ronson, writing about the impact of the public shaming on Lehrer, explained:

“People were very keen to imagine Jonah as shameless, as lacking in that quality, like he was something not quite human that had adopted human form. I suppose it’s no surprise we feel the need to dehumanize the people we hurt — before, during, or after the hurting occurs….In psychology it’s known as cognitive dissonance. It’s the idea that it feels stressful and painful for us to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time (like the idea that we’re kind people and the idea that we’ve just destroyed someone.)”

Ultimately, shaming, Ronson writes, dehumanizes the onlooker as well as the person being shamed.

Shamers get trapped in feedback reinforcement says documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis , whom Ronson quotes. That process, Curtis points out: “… locks people off in the world they started with and prevents them from finding out anything different.”

A world of instant reaction means what we put out on social media stands alone without context or qualification. And rather than our comments accepted as random orphans of thought by people who know us and make allowances, strangers not in our circle can weigh in. To them, whatever we say or do is seen as a representation of who we are. It creates an accountability we dodge at our peril. Ideally, knowing this allows us to operate with more attention to our emotional intelligence — particularly our self-awareness, self-regulation and empathy.

As for viewers, instant reaction triggers instant judgments, often building off the tone of comments that have gone before. If reaction becomes outrage, are we even aware when it crosses over into shaming, bullying, threatening and deconstructing… fueled by assuming the other person “deserves” whatever we volley at them from behind the net of our anonymity? The irony is that our own thoughtlessness, insensitivity and capacity to injure can occur with the greatest frequency when we are convinced of the rightness of our own point of view.

In Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict, author Donna Hicks writes that while people have to earn respect through behaviors and actions, “dignity is a birthright” that everyone deserves. “Treating people badly because they have done something wrong only perpetuates the cycle of indignity,”she writes. “What is worse,” she continues, “we violate our own dignity in the process. Others’ bad behavior doesn’t give us license to treat them badly in return.”

“Dignity” — honoring one’s own and others –an enduring antidote to support diversity of opinion and our humanity.

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien, July 15, 2015

Gael O’Brien is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine. She is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine where her July column is “Why More Companies Are Speaking Out on Social Issues.”




The Week in Ethics: Project 22

Posted May 25, 2015 by Gael O'Brien
Categories: Community, Social Conscience, Veteran Suicide

Tags: , ,

Memorial Day in the United States is more than remembrance; it is also a catalyst for a discussion that needs to occur throughout the year.

As a day, it is about respect and remembrance honoring those who’ve died in wars or military actions as well as remembering those dead who were also veterans. However, it also raises the ongoing question about respect and support for veterans who are living. Particularly those sent into conflicts or combat in places around the world, returning wounded or with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), where we’ve intervened to protect people, principles or governments without sufficient agreement or understanding at home about whether we should be fighting those battles.

So this begs the question of what additional support is needed? Statistics that 22 veterans commit suicide each day may not give us yet the full context for these deaths, but it makes it harder to ignore a longstanding problem that haunts many veterans.

Daniel Egbert and Doc King, co-founders of Medicinal Missions, are combat-wounded veterans who created Project 22, which started as a 6,500 mile cross-country awareness campaign about veteran suicide; they interviewed researchers, health care providers and veterans. The results of their trip is a just-released, 102-minute documentary, called Project 22, of the stories of loss, survival and hope that Egbert and King heard.

I learned about the film from a student taking an ethics course I taught. Dealing with PTSD after his return from combat duty and taking a full course-load, as well as navigating a part-time job and family responsibilities, he acknowledged that he thought about suicide every day. Support from his family and others kept him going, he said, but the question haunting him is why he survived when so many in his unit were killed. Home a year, he indicated that he hadn’t, as of last month, been able to get an appointment at a Veterans Administration hospital. Revelations about long waits to receive care in the VA Health System received much attention in the last few years, but recent reports indicate not enough has changed.

While a recent poll indicated returning veterans feel much more is needed to help them find jobs and transition to civilian life, companies (including Cisco, General Electric and Starbucks) universities, states and the federal government (including the VA) have stepped up with room for so many more to do so. Pubic recognition is mixed. Goodwill gestures to pay tribute to veterans at sporting events, for example, are often genuine but lose  value when hijacked to be more about promoting others’ brands than the veterans themselves.

The issues of returning home after military service are more complex when the service is not viewed the same way that fighting was in the World Wars. Ways of being grounded by a sense of belonging, feeling valued and sacrifice that mattered need to have a huge internal quotient to compensate for gaps in external validation.

We are a society of huge achievements. That helps guide us in looking at ways to address unmet needs.

A documentary like Project 22 opens wider avenues of conversation and potential collaboration around ways of better understanding and meeting needs.

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien, May 25, 2015

Gael O’Brien is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine. She is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine.



The Week in Ethics: How Market Basket’s Board Misread Employee Engagement

Posted July 26, 2014 by Gael O'Brien
Categories: Culture, Governance, Leadership, Trust

Tags: , , , ,

In a battle of cousin against cousin, how important is the culture of a family owned business?  Thousands of voices among the 25,000 employees and the customers who shop at the 71 New England locations of Market Basket (a supermarket chain with $4 billion in annual sales) have made clear in their rallies and online petitions that culture does trump everything.

They are demanding the reinstatement of former CEO Arthur T. Demoulas ousted last month by his cousin Arthur S. Demoulas and a majority of the board now controlled by him.

It is hard to imagine employees of Goldman Sachs, or most other companies for that matter, taking to the streets and putting their jobs on the line in support of an ousted leader. Or that customers would also stand up to fight for the value they received.

However, employees on a Save Market Basket Facebook page align with customers and vendors saying “Together We are Market Basket.” They took to Facebook to make clear they will refuse to work for anyone beside the ousted Demoulas. While the impact of the protests has huge business implications (reports indicate business was down 70 percent this week), it also demonstrates what employees are willing to risk for jobs they love and a leader who inspired the culture behind it.

As a result of protests this month, store shelves are depleted, deliveries aren’t made, and customers are staying away at the request of employees to put pressure on the board to rehire Arthur T. Demoulas. The drama continues to escalate as the board already hired two co-CEOs to replace him, the new leadership team has fired some employees for their role in the protest, and the ousted CEO made an offer to buy out his cousin and other family members. The board said in a statement July 25, 2014 that it will review Arthur T. Demoulas’ bid and others they receive, but they expect all employees to return to work (promising there will be no retaliation for the protests).

Current and former Massachusetts and New Hampshire state and local elected officials praised the company as a leading corporate citizen with most announcing support for the employees’ position:  The Lowell Sun reported that a statement by a number of officials said in part: “…the leadership of Arthur T. Demoulas is the reason Market Basket has been able to keep prices low while delivering quality products to mainly under served areas. The current actions of the board and officers is one motivated by greed and will only serve to destroy the legacy the Demoulas family has worked generations to establish.”

The “good guy” stories that employees have shared about the former CEO reaffirm what they say it felt like to work for a company where they felt respected — paid more than industry average — and part of a culture where they were seen, heard and cared about. Employees give Arthur T. Demoulas high marks for walking the talk about what it means to be a family business.

Interviewed at rallies, employees gave examples of things Arthur T. Demoulas had said or done that mattered: he remembered employee names, knew who had a child or spouse with a health crisis and would seek that employee out in store visits to see how things were going and then remember the conversation the next time.

Customer and employee loyalty is in short supply in most businesses, especially where relationships are simply transactional. When a leader makes it more than that, he or she can inspire trust, allegiance and transform how those who work and shop there experience a business. It can feel like community.

Market Basket under Arthur T. Demoulas apparently demonstrated it was a business that had soul.

In a tug of war of competing visions, Market Basket’s new board majority misread how compelling soul was to employees and customers. Or without it just what it is they will have to sell.

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien, July 26, 2014

Gael O’Brien is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine. She is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine where her July column is “American Apparel: Sex, Power and Terrible Corporate Governance.”

The Week in Ethics: Marathon Runners and Lessons of Resilience

Posted April 22, 2014 by Gael O'Brien
Categories: Leadership

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

photo (26) The 2014 Boston Marathon grew into a symbol. It wasn’t just a race; it was about facing down hate and destruction with community and courage.

It showed how runners, spectators, individuals and families affected by the 2013 bombing at the Marathon finish line handled tragedy and came to embody and teach resilience.

It is also became a story of how a city known for past divisiveness became One Boston.

Tragedies breed choices. A fitting legacy of the April 2013 bombing would be that a city acting as one community feeling a shared sense of loss and purpose in running to help those injured, then in honoring those killed, and then in supporting those grieving and healing would demand of itself that it sustain the spirit of humanity that has characterized much of the last year (with a lapse or two), insisting on nothing less from itself going forward.

Martin Richard Marathon Memorial (326x159)In the weeks after the 2013 bombing, a memorial sprung up a block away in Copley Square for tributes: to eight-year old Martin Richard (see left), 29-year old Krystle Campbell (known for her beauty and kind heart) and Boston University graduate student Lingzi Lu killed by the bombs; MIT police officer Sean Collier murdered the next day by the bombing suspects; and the 264 people seriously injured in the bombings.

In the April 21, 2014 Boston Marathon, many of the 36,000 runners had the names of those who died or were injured on their bibs or in their hearts.

There have been tragedies in all-too many cities and towns: including  places like Sandy Hook Elementary School (Newtown, CT), a movie theater (Aurora, CO), Sikh Temple (Oak Creek, WI), Columbine High School (Littleton, CO),  Oklahoma City, New York City, Boston and any street where drunk drivers, drive-by shootings or other acts of violence claim lives.

In the aftermath, there are families, neighbors, friends, strangers, businesses, runners and others who step in, give voice to values and heart to actions. They offer help and encouragement when acts of man or nature create such pain those impacted are stopped in their tracks.

And when the time is right, there is the metaphor of the marathon, a spirit of humanity that lifts others up, taking them with it, so that in the movement forward the signs of hope that fuel resilience are more evident.

Through it all there is leadership…..servant leaders who act with humility and empathy, holding a belief in what is possible as they quietly lead the way.

And if a city is lucky, there are enough of these leaders so that the spirit of community, the sense of One Boston, One Anyplace, can be sustainable.

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien, April 22, 2014

Gael O’Brien is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine. She is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine where her March column is “How a Culture of Purpose Can Help Business Thrive.”



The Week in Ethics: GM’s New CEO

Posted February 13, 2014 by Gael O'Brien
Categories: Diversity, Leadership

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Update: March 27, 2014, GM CEO Mary Barra will testify before Congress next week, answering questions about consumer safety and the process (a decade before she became CEO) of how GM handled faulty ignitions without recalling cars impacted (which resulted in at least 12 deaths). NYT piece speculating about what in GM culture might have contributed to its ethical failures in behavior here.

This column originally appeared in Business Ethics Magazine, January 30, 2014 entitled “GM’s New CEO: Demonstrating How Less Can Be More.” This week (February 10, 2014) GM Chairman Theodore Solso  announced new CEO Mary Barra’s “total compensation is in line with her peer group and properly weighted so that most is at-risk.” Her salary had originally been reported as lower than her predecessor’s, giving rise to criticism about gender bias.

I’m reminded of a line in the lyrics of a song from the movie My Fair Lady which asks, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” Seeing the film at an impressionable age, the refrain lived in my head for years. Was the message that women needed to be more?

The very small number of women who’ve made it into the CEO pipeline has given rise to ongoing articles analyzing why so few, and research by Catalyst and others making the case for diversity. Currently, less than 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies and less than 10 percent of the Fortune 1000 are led by women.

In January 2014, Mary Barra, an engineer and General Motors (GM) veteran became its first woman CEO. In spite of a number of talented women in leadership positions at GM, a woman leading GM or any global automotive company is a well-heralded first. Also in January, with far less media acclaim, another woman engineer from another field considered traditionally-male become CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Jacqueline Hinman was promoted after a long career at CH2M Hill, a global engineering firm.

The start of the new year brings the total of women heading Fortune 500 companies to 23 or 4.6 percent. In cross referencing their backgrounds, 16 were promoted internally after being tested in many roles. Of the seven brought in from the outside, four have been CEOs five to ten years so far, and the remaining three (HP’s  Meg Whitman (2011), Avon’s  Sherilyn McCoy (2012) and Yahoo’s  Melissa Mayer (2013) held long-term senior positions at their previous companies. Whether an insider or outsider is a good CEO fit depends on factors like personal attributes, strategy, execution, support, culture, and how they engage others to work for the company’s success.

Given the tiny pool of women CEOs, there is the understandable lament of the loss to organizations of not having more senior women. And beyond diversity of gender and ethnicity, the critical need to have more diversity of thought, approach to problems, and ways of leading that bring out the best from stakeholders. Because there are so few women CEOs, there is also a danger that in celebrating them we can go too far — celebrity status conferred on, cultivated or accepted creates a rock star status which when associated with leadership has real risks.

Barra has had a low key reaction to the considerable attention about her heading the 7th ranked Fortune 500 company. When asked about being an inspiration to women, she replied  she hoped her credentials as an engineer make her a role model to inspire young men and women to go into science.

She has deflected focus from herself to GM’s products and team, which suggests she will successfully resist rock star celebrity, something that characterized much of Carly Fiorina’s tenure at Hewlett Packard (HP) 15 years ago when she became the first woman to lead a Fortune 20 company. (There were only eight other women CEOs on the Fortune 500 list when she was ousted in 2005 when her approach didn’t yield expected results.) Yahoo’s Mayer in her first year continues to attract significant visibility as a CEO, mom and geek fashionista, with a personal brand “hotter” than her company’s.

Celebrity and leadership generally aren’t a sustainable combination because when the focus is allowed to stay on the leader and not redirected back to the organization, it becomes a story of “I” and not “we” which leaves the company and employees behind. While there may be short-term publicity value if a CEO becomes a darling,  as JP Morgan’s Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon did after the financial crisis, attention allowed to stay too long on the leader backfires, especially when a company makes mistakes.

It has only been four years since GM emerged from reorganization and bankruptcy after a federal government bailout. Expectations for Barra’s leadership are enormous against the backdrop of a turnaround occurring in an unpredictable, constantly changing global environment. However, by not letting it be about her, the entire company is called to meet the challenge.

In interviews about her leadership attributes, colleagues have volunteered Barra has a passion for GM and its products, focuses on team building, seeks consensus, is fact-based and decisive, “an outstanding listener,” challenges thinking about assumptions and is very methodical, logical and fair. Others have pointed to her openness and inclusiveness, active seeking of others’ opinions, lack of big ego and “the self-described ‘nerd’ qualities that guide her gut.”

Many of these qualities are also reflected in general in women’s leadership styles. “What Women Bring to the Exercise of Leadership”  cites a 2008 Pew Research Center study where 2,250 adults (almost equally split between men and women) “ranked women better than or equal to men in seven of eight primary leadership traits.”

And yet, how hard it continues to be in many organizations for women to be given opportunities that allow them to be considered for the top jobs. Time and experience teach us that no gender, male or female, should be THE standard in leadership. To the degree that has been ignored in an organization, women have had to work much harder to do and be “more.”

“More” is an archaic standard that only fuels more and higher expectations that can cause good people to bow out because leadership seem too great a sacrifice. Or can self-justify why the story is about “I” not “we.” The more the expectations, compensation and hype are ratcheted up and accepted, the greater the chance of failure for all concerned.

Photo: © General Motors

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien, February 13, 2014

Gael O’Brien is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine. She is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine where this column was originally published.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 532 other followers