I’ve been on Hacker News a lot in the past few weeks, and I’ve shared some personal details about companies at which I’ve worked and what I’ve seen them do. I don’t want to talk any more about that. Turning over the past is, in many cases, nothing but an excuse for neglecting the future. It can very easily become a trap. The desire to “get a firm handle” on the past, to assess the causes of social harms and unexpected evils, can be very strong, but it’s ultimately useless. Those people mean nothing now, so discard them from your mind.
What I find more interesting is the degree to which people will protect unethical behavior in the workplace, as if it were a common affair for people to damage careers, other teams, and even entire companies for their own personal benefit. As if it were somehow OK. As if it weren’t even worth talking about when people do obnoxious, harmful, and extremely costly things for their own short-term, personal benefit. As if “office politics” were an invariable fact of life. Perhaps this latter claim is true, but there are major differences in degree. A debate over whether a program’s interface should represent IDs as Longs (64-bit integers) or Strings can be “politics”, but these usually come from well-intentioned disagreements in which both sides are pursuing what they believe to be the project’s (or company’s) benefit. This is orders of magnitude less severe than the backstabbing and outright criminality that people, thinking they’re doing nothing wrong, will engage in when they’re at work.
I try to be a Buddhist. I say “try to be” because I’ve been failing for thousands of years and the process of getting better at it is slow. That’s why I’m still here, dealing with all sorts of weird karmic echoes. I also say “try to be” because I find religious identification to be quite shallow, anyway. In many past lives, I’ve had no religious beliefs at all, expecting death to be the end of me. It wasn’t. I’m here. This is getting divergent, so let me put it in two words: karma’s real. Ethics matter. There is no separation between “work” and “life”. People who would not even think of stealing a steak from the grocery store have no problem with actions that can cause unjust terminations, team-wide or even whole-company underperformance, and general unnecessary strife. How can this be accepted as consistent? It can’t be. It’s not. Wrong is wrong, regardless of how much a person is being paid.
I was brought up with a great work ethic, in all senses of the word. The consequence of this is that I’m an extremely hard working person, and I don’t have much patience for the white-collar social climbing we call “office politics”. It’s useless and evil. I find it disgusting to the point of mysophobic reaction. It has nothing to do with work or the creation of value. Why does it persist? Because the good don’t fight. The good just work. Heads down, they create value, while the bad people get into positions of allocative power in order to capture and distribute it. Most people are fatalistic about this being the “natural order” of the world. Bullshit. Throughout most of human history, murdering one’s brother to improve one’s social or economic status was the “natural order” of the world. Now it often leads to lifetime imprisonment. It may not seem so, but the ethics of our species is improving, although progress feels unbearably slow.
Recently, there’s been a spate of people exposing unethical behaviors at their companies. Greg Smith outed the ethical bankruptcy he observed at Goldman Sachs, while Reginald Braithwaite (Raganwald) issued a fictional resignation letter on the onerous and increasingly common practice of employers requiring Facebook walk-throughs as a condition of employment– a gross and possibly illegal invasion of privacy. Raganwald’s letter wasn’t just about privacy issues, but a commentary on the tendency of executives to wait too long to call attention to unethical behaviors. His protagonist doesn’t leave the company until it hurts him personally and, as Raganwald said of the piece, “this was one of the ideas I was trying to get across, that by shrugging and going along with stuff like this, we’re condoning and supporting it.”
Why is there so much silence and fear? Why are people afraid to call attention to bad actors, until they’ve after they’ve been burned, can be discredited with the “disgruntled” label, and it’s far too late? Is Goldman going to put a stop to bad practices because a resigning employee wrote an essay about bad behavior? Probably not. Are people going to quit their jobs at the bank when they realize that unethical behavior happens within it? Doubtful. Very few people leave jobs for ethical reasons until the misbehaviors affect them personally, at which point they are prone to ad hominem attacks: why did he wait to leave until it hurt him?
Human resources (HR) is supposed to handle everything from benign conflict to outright crimes, but the reality is that they work for a company’s lawyers, and that they’ll almost always side with management. HR, in most companies, is the slutty cheerleader who could upset the male dominance hierarchy if she wanted to, simply by refusing to date brutish men who harm others, but who would rather side with power. One should not count on them to right ethical wrongs in the workplace. They’re far too cozy with management.
Half the solution is obvious. As work becomes more technological, companies need technical talent. Slimy people (office politicians) end up steering most corporations, but we pedal. We can vote with our feet, if we have the information we need.
There’s been an American Spring over the past couple of months in which a number of people, largely in the financial and technological sectors where demand for technical talent is sufficiently high to make it less dangerous than it would usually be, have come out to expose injustices they’ve observed in the workplace. We need more of that. We need bad actors to be named and shamed. We need these sorts of things to happen before people get fired or quit in a huff. We need a corporate-independent HR process that actually works, instead of serving the interests of power and corporate risk-mitigation.
Here’s a concept to consider. We talk about disruption in technology, and this surely qualifies. This country needs a Work Court– an “unofficial” court in which employees can sue unethical managers and companies that defend or promote them. This Court won’t have the authority to collect judgments. It doesn’t need it. Awards will be paid out of advertising revenue, bad actors’ exposure (assuming they are found guilty) will be considered punishment enough, and it will be up to plaintiffs whether they judge it better for their reputations to be identified with the suit, or kept anonymous. What this provides is a niche for people to gain retribution for the low and mid-grade ethical violations that aren’t worth a full-fledged lawsuit (which can take years, be extremely costly, and ruin the plaintiff’s career). It also will remove some of the incentives that currently reward bad actors and keep them in power.
That, unlike another goofy “semantic coupon social-gaming” startup, would be an innovation I’d be interested in seeing happen.