Analyzing the Ethics

By the time this is published, it will be old news Time Magazine chose “The Whistleblowers” as Persons of the Year. As I read, my thoughts ran from admiring those women’s courage in speaking out to correct a wrong to thinking they were crazy and committing career suicide.

I recalled finding myself in business situations that put me in the uncomfortable position of choosing between what I believed right and what I was asked to do. Often, particularly earlier, my discomfort was based on a lack of experience and understanding. There have been times I was asked to do something I knew was wrong. I’m sorry to say I’ve not always chosen the righteous path.

If you’re an analyst of any kind, you’ve probably been asked at some point in your career to present findings, forecast trends, or skew results in a way you disagreed with. It happens all the time. Just because you disagree doesn’t mean a request is unethical. Legal and ethical guidelines exist for the financial professions, but none I’m aware of exist for analysts of the marketing persuasion.

How do you know what to do — speak up or shut up? Put your foot down or keep your head down? Job security is a powerful motivator!

Most of us will never find ourselves working for a company with so many skeletons that whistles must be blown. We’re used to hearing, “Find some positive trends I can use at the board meeting,” and, “Roll the numbers up differently so it won’t be obvious I’m over budget on research.” No real harm done. But even simple compromises can degenerate into embarrassing missteps.

How many of you developed revenue goals based squarely on historical performance, future marketing plans, and realistic growth, only to have the CEO tell you to increase the goal to a level that’s no longer realistic (in your opinion)? You probably voiced your concern, then made the changes.

What if you were then asked to present and vouch for those revised numbers? The discomfort level increases. Maybe you’ve audibly gasped at the quarterly meeting when your data and findings were spun to the point they’re no longer grounded in reality? How did you feel when your colleagues approached you and asked what drugs you were on when you prepared the report?

My approach when facing uncomfortable situations such as these is to evaluate potential harm, voice concern if warranted, and assume my responsibility is over beyond that point. I’m not always proud of the approach, but the mind is amazing in justifying its behavior. The only time I took a real risk was when asked to blatantly lie during due diligence — and to attach my name to the lie. I refused. (I got out of Dodge, too.)

I assume I was on the endangered species list at that point. Even if I wasn’t, I didn’t want to associate with that company any longer. In retrospect, I’m not sure the lie would have done material harm to the transaction, although it was unethical. It gave me pause to think someone believed he could ask me to lie — and that I’d do it.

It’s worth taking a moment to ponder the types of compromises we analysts make at work. Pressures don’t always come from outside. It’s so tempting to take the easy route, however gray, over the right path. We’re often asked to evaluate and report on our own decisions. Surely, at some point you found yourself grasping at straws to justify a decision you made, searching high and low for a trend to back you up. The more you want a certain outcome, the more cautious you must be to maintain your analytic objectivity.

It’s easy to read whistleblower articles and imagine yourself in that position. Ever imagined yourself in the position of the guilty parties? Did they start out thinking rules didn’t apply to them? Thinking, “Success at any cost!” Perhaps some did, but surely not all of them.

In many cases, a series of small ethical compromises likely started early in their careers, leading to ever larger “compromises” as stakes were raised. Many midlife crises seem to begin with the realization you’re no longer the person you thought you were. In reality, the crisis began long before the realization.

The same can apply to your career. Be honest with yourself. A periodic gut-check helps prevent that gradual decline in judgment that can snowball into something very serious indeed.

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