This is “Plotting a Promotion”, section 6.3 from the book Business Ethics (v. 1.0).
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Two major promotion tracks run through many organizations: one based on accomplishment, the other on competition. Accomplishment promotionsElevations scheduled for workers attaining specific, predetermined goals. are those scheduled for workers attaining specific, predetermined goals. For example, in an office of stockbrokers those who achieve a certain number of clients or reach a level of total investment money under their direction may automatically be elevated. An account executive could become a vice president of accounts after she’s gathered more than ninety-nine clients or has garnered accounts valued at more than a million dollars. Along with the new title, there may come a pay raise and additional benefits.
The ethical questions rising around this system are fairly straightforward and tend to involve transparency—that is, a clear explanation of the rules and rewards from the beginning. Does it count, for instance, if a broker games the system by signing up one hundred clients who each invest only piddling amounts? That could lead to a system where a vice president oversees one hundred clients but only $500 of assets, while a lowly account executive labors with ninety clients and $900,000 in assets.
Every industry and organization will have its quirks and ways of twisting the numbers to make things appear better (or worse) than they really are. Keeping those angles under control is a manager’s concern, however. Establishing a level playing field, that’s the kind of thing managers are paid to take care of, and the dilemmas surrounding this subject will be considered from their perspective in later chapters. From the employee’s perspective, there aren’t many problems: if the goals are set, then you have every right to try to meet them as best as you can to get the step up.
The stickier ethical territory comes with competitive promotionsElevations won when a worker is selected from among peers to receive a higher post.. These are situations where workers within a group aren’t only teammates laboring to reach the organization’s goals but also competitors vying for that one slot that comes open on the hierarchy’s next level up. In this situation, what are the ethics of trying to get the promotion?
Colin Gautrey has written a book with a captivating title: 21 Dirty Tricks at Work. In a short article, he summarizes two of the most commonly used by stealthy promotion seekers to either inflate themselves or sabotage their coworker competitors.
The business of getting a promotion, if Gautrey’s tricks are any indication, can get pretty rough. One way to determine what you’re willing to do is by separating and looking at each one of the ambitious worker’s ethical responsibilities with respect to self-advancement. In broad strokes, those seeking promotion at the cost of others in their work group are located at the center of four responsibilities: those to
What do ambitious employees owe themselves? Most ethical theories encourage those who desire to advance at work to go after the success. Duty-based ethical structures, for example, include the responsibility all of us should have to respect our own skills and dignity, and if professional excellence is among them, then there’s a responsibility to excel, to do well at work. So if getting the promotion requires acting to be sure superiors know when you’ve done a good job—and in competitive environments it does—then there’s a moral imperative there to act, to ensure that credit is received. There’s no shame, in others words, in at least discreetly blowing your own horn. Of course there’ll always be people in the workplace, perhaps this is even the majority, whose ambitions for their lives aren’t about professional success so much as having a fulfilling family life or pursuing an after-five interest. For these individuals, just avoiding the whole career advancement race—even if it means getting less money at the end of the month than others—makes perfect sense.
What do ambitious employees owe their workmates? To begin, the same ethical framework of duties requiring individuals to respect their own ability and dignity also demands that much for others. So while it may be that singing your own praises and advertising your accomplishments as the creative magpie does is respectable, it’s harder to justify obscuring the accomplishments of others. Further, if the respect for yourself is balanced by the same respect for others, it seems like there’s an obligation to actively ensure that superiors are aware of not only your own contributions but also those made by another. There is, in essence, a good sportsmanship rule in effect. (And certainly, any ethics functioning from a base of respect for ourselves and others will prohibit the outright stealing of others’ ideas and accomplishments.) On the other hand, an ethical egoist—someone insisting that individuals are free agents and the world will work out for the best if everyone steadfastly pursues their own interests—will see things somewhat differently. From this point of view, the responsibility to trumpet the accomplishments of others falls to those others. If they want to claim credit for a job well done, they may, but if they don’t, it’s no one else’s responsibility to do it for them. Finally, what’s important to see is that there are different intermediate points between trumpeting your own accomplishments and claiming the accomplishments of others as your own. Acting ethically requires determining which point you’re at and justifying the stance.
The responsibilities workers hold to their superiors start with honesty. The basic problem with the creative magpie strategy on this ethical front is that it means passing on to managers misleading or false information about who contributed how much to a project. This affects managers negatively—potentially very negatively—because next time something needs to get done urgently and at the highest possible level, they may not aim the assignment at those employees most apt to produce the best results. Their performance as a manager, it follows, will be adversely affected when the work performed under their direction comes in at a quality level below expectations. The career prospects of a manager, finally, will be hindered when a subordinate sacrifices honesty in the attempt to advance his or her own career.
The last responsibility that employees looking to be promoted ought to consider is their obligation to the organization in general. Here, both the magpie strategy and the e-mail to the gods trick raise serious questions. The worker’s central obligation to the organization is to help it flourish: they’re being paid to help the enterprise reach its goals. The problem with the magpie strategy on this front is the same as the problem experienced by managers. When workers who do the best work see the credit stolen by others, the organization loses some of its ability to produce at the highest possible level. Moving on to the e-mail to the gods strategy (the appending of harmful information about other workers to e-mails and then seeing that clients receive the information), this is especially damaging. Even if the information is true, and should perhaps be shared with managers inside the organization, it’s nearly impossible to see how any organization can benefit when clients find out the work being done is substandard.
Conclusion. For ambitious employees looking to advance quickly in a situation where they’re competing against their own coworkers, the recipe for success is obvious: get credit for doing better work than the others. One way to accomplish that is to actually do better work and make sure superiors know about it. There are other ways too. Navigating the ethics of those ways requires workers to carefully evaluate their obligations to themselves, their coworkers, their managers, and their organization.