Is the term "ethical management" an oxymoron? Those of the Machiavellian school of management would think so, believing that the only way to climb to the top of the greasy pole and boost the bottom line is to regard everyone - from staff to customers - as exploitable suckers, writes Julia Vowler.
So, is ethical management just for wimps? Definitely not. In any society where motivation is an issue and staff can vote with their feet - especially at a time of acute skills shortages - behaving badly is not sustainable in the long term. Unethical management is short-sighted and short-lived.
Smart versus dumb
Brinley Platts of top IT directors' club Impact spells it out. "It's a question of smart versus dumb rather than good versus bad," he says. "Because a dumb manager will destroy a team."
It is not just a question of not being a complete pig for whom no one will work without a gun to their heads; yet managers should not think they can go for the "smile and be a villain" option either.
"Staff can smell insincerity like a rat," warns Platts. "They can very swiftly tell when they are being manipulated or lied to. You can think you're being very subtle and getting away with it, but people read your hidden signals. It's impossible not to be caught out eventually."
If you have got bad news to impart, shoot from the hip, he advises. "People accept bad news if it's given straight and sincerely. Often, the delivery of the bad news can cause more damage than the news itself."
But is it enough just to be a manager wearing a white hat you bought yourself? Or should the white hats be handed out by the company?
Definitely the latter. The do-it-yourself ethical manager needs to be able to operate within a corporate culture that explicitly recognises the value of ethical management.
"Managers don't operate in a vacuum," says Craig Smith, associate professor of marketing and ethics at the London School of Business. "Our values are our starting point, but managers want a code of conduct provided by their organisation."
Such codes should be explicit and communicated, not only because merely drawing one up can focus minds on the whole idea of ethical management and expose areas where moral conflict may occur in practice, but also because they provide both a backbone and a rod with which to support or chastise managers as they operate with their staff.
Out on a limb
No manager should have to go out on a limb to make an ethical decision; he should have the explicit support of his company's code of conduct. That should be reinforced, advises Smith, by his professional association which should have a clear code for its members.
However, Jane Fiona Cumming, director of ethical consultancy Article13, points out, "Not all companies have an ethics policy. Quite a few include it in their employee handbook and new recruits have to sign that they have read it, and this can be included in their appraisals; it becomes an overall part of management.
"It may sound all high falutin' and nebulous, but it can be incredibly practical."
Even when the principles of ethical management have soaked into the fabric of a organisation, the practice still needs spelling out.
"People get very concerned about the actual process [of ethical management]," comments Cumming. "They want to know if they are going to be trained to handle ethical issues."
Can they expect, for example, that they will be applauded if they admit a project is late? Because if not, then the incentive will be to bury cans of worms as deep as possible, whatever the detriment to the project outcome. Blame cultures do not work towards the greater good, only personal exoneration.
But with all the good intentions in the world, managers will still have to face up to the fact that sometimes there is just no obvious ethical path to tread. The toughest call to make, warns Smith, is not when the issues are good versus bad, "it's when he has two course of [possible] action, both of which have potentially adverse effects".
Making the change
This was first published in October 2000