Ethics for Bosses

Bosses get special privileges. As a result, writes Bob Stone, they need a simple set of ethics for dealing with these perks.
June 6, 2007
Bob Stone
By Bob Stone  |  Contributor
Bob Stone is a GOVERNING contributor. He consults, teaches ethical leadership and leading change, and serves as a member of the governing council and faculty of the Ukleja Center for Ethical Leadership at California State University, Long Beach.

R.H.I.P.: Rank hath its privilege. This adage has guided the behavior and misbehavior of generations of bosses. The media are full of stories of leaders caught treating their institution's assets as their own. Examples abound from business, government, charities and academia.

But set aside the egregious cases of outright theft and we're still left with a serious question: Just what privilege is rank entitled to?

R.H.I.P. has a simple logic: bosses contribute more than subordinates; therefore not only must they be paid more (often lots more), but in addition their bodies and minds must be nurtured. Their valuable time must be protected at all costs.

On a flight from Washington to Saudi Arabia during the buildup to the first Iraq war, there was a line to get into the bathroom. Since General Norm Schwarzkopf's time was so valuable, he had a major keep a place in line for him. When the major had finally worked his way to the front he stepped aside for the busy general.

Bosses' time must be protected from intrusion, so they can remain free to think. When Disney executives attended a corporate retreat at Walt Disney World, they were given a tour of the park by bus, but the private time of Disney's president, Michael Ovitz, was so valuable that he rode by himself in a limousine.

Bosses need more privacy and more space to work. I once moved an organization into new quarters with a nice corner office. Of course, I took it for myself. The light and the view were an added benefit beyond the space and privacy: they raised my spirits and, no doubt, my productivity. And because I was enlightened I allowed subordinates to eat lunch around my conference table when it wasn't in use.

All these practices meet the needs of the organizations. General Schwarzkopf could plan a war, Ovitz could think Mouse-worthy thoughts, and I could envision a reinvented government. But what are the ethical issues, and how are bosses to deal with them?

First, ethics isn't always, or even often, choosing between right and wrong. It's more often choosing between two different rights. And in organizational settings, it's often about choosing between human needs and organizational ones.

For example, hunger. When I worked as a junior engineer at the Garrett-AiResearch Corporation, CEO Harry Wetzel waited in the same cafeteria line as everybody else, sat at the same picnic benches in the cafeteria, and ate the same food. Wetzel had resolved the conflict between organizational needs (his time was more valuable and costly to the company) and human needs (his hunger was no more important than anybody else's) in favor of human needs. Wetzel's choice was both ethical and practical: Workers felt a commitment to them on the part of the company, and they returned that commitment in the form of high spirit and productivity. And the people who ran the cafeteria made sure that all the food and the ambiance was fit for the CEO.

Today most large employers that provide food service serve everyone in the same place; executive dining rooms in business are out.

Or take soccer practice. Rick Cole, city manager of Ventura, California, works long hours, so he didn't hesitate to leave early occasionally to take his daughters to soccer practice. But he quickly saw that many city workers had to be on the job during working hours to serve the public, and couldn't routinely take off. Cole made an ethical choice: Soccer practice was a human need, not an organizational need. He hired a teenager to get the girls to practice.

Or privacy. Everybody knows bosses need privacy so they can counsel subordinates and hold secret meetings. I did that as a boss, but my private office also made it easy for me to speak to a doctor about personal health issues, and to my wife about some family plans. And bosses have no more need or right to privacy than anybody else when it comes to health and family issues.

The organizational need is sometimes for privacy for the boss; the human need is sometimes privacy for everyone. Is there a conflict?

Not necessarily. I decided that nobody should have a private office -- or, rather, everybody should. Everyone was assigned a workstation, and when privacy was needed, there were four very small unassigned offices. Anyone who wanted privacy, for any reason, went into one of the offices and closed the door. In a similar vein, many CEOs have forsworn private offices, including Paul O'Neill at Alcoa; Michael Bloomberg at Bloomberg LP and then as mayor of New York; Bill Owens at Nortel; and Paul Otellini at Intel.

Beyond the issues involving office arrangements, there is a host of other potential issues of special privileges for the boss: Should the boss have first dibs on the company seats at the ballpark? A free parking space? Time off to do Christmas shopping?

Bosses need a simple formula for dealing with these issues. The best one I've ever seen comes from Jim McConnell , former Navy Seabee commander. His formula was:

o You're there to serve, not to be served

o Command is a privilege in itself

o Don't make a big deal out of other privileges

o It's not your outfit; it's just in your trust

I commend Jim's formula to all bosses.