Keil Hubert: Ethics in Action

Keil Hubert: Ethics in Action

Our institutions live and die by the credibility and integrity of their leaders. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert suggests that most organisations never truly work out how far into the ethical wilderness they’re willing to venture before a crisis arises.

I spent all weekend brooding over the teaser text that I wrote for my 27th April column (Ethically Questionable Subterfuge): ‘How far are you willing to go in order to protect your company? Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert recommends that every company discusses this problem and decides where they stand.’ I believe strongly that this is one of the most important questions that all of us in the technology business need to address: Who are we? What do we stand for? How far are we willing to go in the righteous pursuit of our objectives? And where is the line over which we dare not cross? When you have administrator level access to all of your company’s information, communications conduits, phone calls, files, and messages, you absolutely have to know where your company has drawn that line… Because if the company has drawn it further down the {virtuous : infernal} spectrum than you, personally, are willing to venture, then you need to either try to reform the organization, or else you need to get the hell out of it.

I’ve kicked this topic around with a lot of co-workers and bosses over the years, and I have yet to meet anyone holding a position of power that really understood what their company’s tolerance for ethnically ambiguous behaviour was. To a person, everyone that I challenged on this idea suggested that their company’s code of conduct, internal regulations, legal advisories, or other such written statements about employee conduct adequately covered the subject. I reject that argument on two grounds: first, I wasn’t asking about illegal conduct (like bringing a firearm to work); I was talking about legal but morally ambiguous behaviour that a simple rulebook doesn’t cover. Second, I wasn’t particularly interested in the values that the company claimed to possess; I was talking about what they’d actually do when they felt threatened. There’s a significant (and sometimes terrifying) delta between those two positions.

Case in point: every person accused of a crime in the USA is supposed to have a legal right to a fair and speedy trial under the Sixth Amendment of the US Constitution; the continued existence of the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp in Cuba incontrovertibly proves that the US Government is willing to ignore our Constitution, our international treaties, and our vaunted national stance on human rights, when those positions become inconvenient. [1] Factor in our use of the ‘extraordinary rendition’ technique to facilitate the illegal torture of so-called ‘enemy combatants’ [2] and our glib abandonment of our country’s longstanding legal prohibition of assassination, [3] and it’s clear that we have a great many rules that are no stronger than the paper they were written on. You can argue about the ‘military necessity’ of employing such tactics as you like; I’m not trying to argue for or against them here. [4] Rather, I’m arguing the point that the USA (as a nation) drew a line at a definite point on the ethical continuum and said that we must not ever cross it, because crossing that line would invalidate who we want to be as a nation. Then, when put under pressure, we crossed that line like it had never existed. Who we claimed that we were turned out to be significantly different from who we actually were. [5]

When we were young, we all wanted to be cowboys and cowgirls. No one that I ever met dreamed of growing up to be a morally-bankrupt warmonger, indelibly stained with the blood of innocent civilians.
When we were young, we all wanted to be cowboys and cowgirls. No one that I ever met dreamed of growing up to be a morally-bankrupt warmonger, indelibly stained with the blood of innocent civilians.

I use these deliberately provocative examples to bolster my point: specifically, that every company doing business today has their own ‘post 9/11’ reality – the actual lengths to which they’ll go when threatened… and that line along the ethical continuum is often different from where the company haughtily claims its corporate values dictate. There’s public posturing, and then there’s gritty reality.

Speaking from experience, let’s be absolutely clear: people running companies do not want to have this discussion. The things you discover when people speak plainly about their tolerance for morally questionable conduct can be severely disquieting. Taking a controversial stand often reveals elements of the speaker’s character that they’re ashamed of, and don’t want revealed. It’s like the best man at a wedding proclaiming his unhealthy lust for the bride during his toast at the reception – it may be honest, but most everyone hearing it said aloud are shocked, and what was said can never be un-said.  Is it any wonder that executives avoid having these discussions at all costs?

Here’s the crux of the problem: assume you’re the CEO of your company. If you go on record stating that your company absolutely will not do something (say, read your employees’ e-mails), and a circumstance arises where that technique may be critical to stopping a potential wrongdoer from causing damage to the company, you then find yourself caught between the horns of a dilemma. You can either do the thing you said that you wouldn’t do (and thereby lose all credibility with your investors, employees and customers) or you can stand fast by your stated principles and potentially watch helplessly while the bad thing happens (thereby getting savaged by investors for having failed to take action to prevent the bad thing). Either way, you’re going to take some damage from the decision you make.

Likewise, remaining silent about what behaviour is and isn’t allowed in your company affords you maximum situational flexibility for when bad things happen… but it also leaves your subordinates bereft of guidance. If they don’t know where your ‘red lines’ are, then it’s inevitable that some enterprising soul is eventually going to cross one or more of them, thinking (in ignorance) that they’re doing what you want them to. People want to succeed. Given an opportunity to advance, most people will evaluate the risk and rewards, and take whatever action gives them the greatest likelihood of victory within the bounds of allowable conduct.

These discussions – Who are we? What do we stand for? How far is too far? – are critical tools for keeping all of your employees safely inside the bounds of acceptable conduct. You’re never going to get everyone in the company to agree with where those red lines fall, but the majority of workers will abide faithfully within them so long as they understand what’s expected of them… and so long as they believe that leadership is going to faithfully enforce the standards that they claim to hold. There will be deviations, and some corrective action will be necessary. That’s a simple truth of leadership.

Most decent people abhor having to dress down a subordinate. Unfortunately, that’s one of a leader’s required duties when one of their workers is misbehaving.
Most decent people abhor having to dress down a subordinate. Unfortunately, that’s one of a leader’s required duties when one of their workers is misbehaving.

But still… these discussions are excruciating for many people. A terrifying majority of the people that I’ve had this discussion with lacked a coherent basis for their standards of ethical conduct. In charitable terms, they’d never been much for introspection. They didn’t understand why they believed what they believed, and couldn’t articulate the things that guided their actions; they simply held assumptions about wrong and right behaviour that had been inculcated by their family, schools, churches, previous employers, and whatever activities they’d been allowed to get away with in the past. When pressed, they couldn’t rationally defend or even explain their reasoning. Things just ‘were (right or wrong) because…’ [6] At best, they excused their past conduct with tortured rationalization, and claimed that they would hold highly-moral positions in the future based on assumptions of inherent goodness in the present that their own past behaviour couldn’t substantiate.

This sort of disturbing discourse happened to me during a job interview. I’d made it to the final phase of an exciting competition for a highly prestigious director of information security post. I was one of three candidates still under consideration, and was treated to an all-day barrage of interviews with representatives from all different corners of the organisation. During a working lunch interview, I got to chat with a half-dozen representatives of the production departments. Before I could finish my coffee, one of the ‘interviewing’ reps made it clear that she was still furious over something that the previous holder of the office had done to her and her team. [7]

After a few social pleasantries, the Angry Woman asked me what I would do to ‘force’ a contractor to meet their commitments. I replied that what she was asking for can’t be done – you can’t ‘force’ an external agency to do anything. You have a contract with an external company that specifies that you’ll pay them X amount of money in exchange for Y of their labour or product. If the contractor doesn’t deliver, then they’re in violation of their contract and you don’t have to pay them. If you’ve been clever at the start, you can put key penalties into the contract for failure to meet early milestones rather than wait until the end of the contract. Beyond that, your remedy comes in the courts – if a contactor cheats you, you can try to sue them into oblivion. What you cannot do under the law is to ‘force’ an independent party to ‘do’ anything; the fundamental nature of outsourcing is that you surrender some control in exchange for some other factor, like lower cost or faster delivery.

Nigel’s company eliminates the overhead cost of maintaining an office dress code and passes the savings on to you!
Nigel’s company eliminates the overhead cost of maintaining an office dress code and passes the savings on to you!

Angry Woman grew visibly livid at my answer. She told me that I was flatly wrong and demanded to know how I’d ‘force’ a contractor to perform a service. I tried to gently deflect, suggesting that she’d clearly been angered by a past event, and that if I knew more about what had happened, I might be able to suggest ways that the encounter might have been handled better. Angry Woman was having none of it. She insisted that there was a ‘right’ way, and insinuated that I was an idiot because I wouldn’t give her the answer that she wanted.

It’s possible that I simply resented being goaded by a stranger. I clearly remember feeling that the woman’s delivery was uncivil, discourteous, and unprofessional. That tripped over one of my red lines; I loathe bullies, and don’t allow people to treat me in such a fashion if I can help it. It was impolitic of me, to be sure, but I counterattacked: I told Angry Woman that you can, with effort, detect some early warnings of potential future noncompliance from a contract… but doing so depends on how far she was willing to go to get the information. Angry Woman stared at me blankly and said that she didn’t understand me.

I explained (as civilly as I could) that the customer can dedicate employees to actively monitor the contractor’s performance – that’s a normal, healthy, and cost-effective way to stay up-to-the-minute on services delivered, however that tactic is not necessarily going to detect a future betrayal if the contractor truly harbours ill intent. To truly know what the contractor is going to do in the future, you have to put your own agent inside the contractor’s organisation – that is, infiltrate an undercover operative who is loyal to your company within the contractor (ostensibly as one of their employees) so that your agent is privy to the contractor’s secret plans. It’s a devious technique, I said, and it’s expensive. Most important, it’s an ethically questionable tactic (even if it is legal). It might or might not be worth attempting, depending on what’s at stake, and how deep into the ethical fog your company is willing to go. That, I said directly to Angry Woman, is a question that you have to have with your legal department. How far are you willing to go in order to get what you want?

As you’d expect, Angry Woman was not impressed with my response. I hadn’t fed her back the ‘right’ answer that she was looking for. Her approval wasn’t important to me – I knew from our first round of verbal sparring that I couldn’t win her over. Instead, I was watching all of the other people in the room to judge their reactions. As expected, the five other representatives on the board were aghast at where the conversation drifted. They squirmed in their seats when Angry Woman launched her attack on me, cringed when she wouldn’t drop the subject, and blanched in horror when I counter-attacked. Our conversation went from unpleasant to distinctly uncomfortable in less than a minute. The silent witnesses’ reactions suggested to me that I was interviewing with an organisation that hadn’t (yet) wrestled with the problem of where their ethical limits might lie. That didn’t dissuade me from wanting to work with them; it just meant that we would have to have some difficult discussions if or when I was brought on board.

In my experience, the more unsettling a subject is, the more likely it is that someone involved will react violently. Best to get it over with swiftly so that the rest of the team can get on with things.
In my experience, the more unsettling a subject is, the more likely it is that someone involved will react violently. Best to get it over with swiftly so that the rest of the team can get on with things.

I believe strongly that everyone involved in business, government, and community service needs formal, practical, applied training on ethical decision-making. People with power need to understand the ramifications of their actions and of their inaction. People need to be able to articulate what is and is not acceptable to them under routine circumstances, and also under extreme duress. They need to be able to articulate what their principles are, how strongly they hold them, and under what conditions they’re willing to bend or break a given ethical principle.

In the USA, we try teach these principles to older scouts as part of the Venturing program using a tool called ‘ethics in action’. At its heart, it’s about exposing soon-to-be adults to complex scenarios where there may not be a single, pat answer. The adults facilitate a group discussion about what imperatives are in-play, what the consequences might be for any advocated course of action, and which ‘right’ principle takes precedence over others. [8] The adults’ responsibility is to help the scouts engage in introspection, dispassionate analysis, and logical reasoning without judging them for the positions that they advocate for or against. As Venture Scouts grow in the program, they learn how to examine nuances and principles, and how to make sound, rational decisions. When they take up their adult lives, they should (if we adults played our parts well) be able to wrestle with thorny issues head-on, rather than shirking from them like their peers.

Similarly, we went through extensive ethical training as military officer cadets: experienced instructors used real-world examples of well-intended but disastrous military decisions to teach us cadets how to recognize and defend against our own logical fallacies and ethical blind spots. Back when I went through the program, the prevailing sentiment in Military Science was that you couldn’t be commissioned if you were a man or woman of unsound moral character. [9]

My point is that effective training programs and methodologies exist to teach people the critical skills that they need in order to understand these difficult and uncomfortable concepts. We know that people with power need to be trustworthy with said power. For our businesses and institutions to function reliably, we the people need to have reasonable faith that the people running our institutions and businesses will wilfully and consistently abide by their respective codes of ethical conduct. If we’re going to create and maintain such organizations, then it’s our responsibility to train our leaders how to make the best decisions possible. If those leaders didn’t receive such decision-making education as a scout, a soldier, or a scholar, then we owe it to them (and to ourselves, and to our community) to train our leaders as best we can, and to do it immediately.

The best way to get started is to force the conversation to happen: Who are we now? Who do we want to be? What do we stand for and why? How far is too far? And under what circumstances will we abandon our principles? If no one else is asking these difficult questions at your office, then it’s your responsibility to initiate that discussion. It won’t be pleasant, especially not if you’re doing it well. It is, however, indispensible. Get to it.


[1] ‘Because terrorism.’ It’s the get-out-Hell-free answer to everything in America these days.

[2] Again, ‘because terrorism’. See how easy that makes it? ‘Yes, your honour; I broke into my neighbour’s flat, shot his dog, and stole his stereo… because terrorism!’ ‘Oh! Well, that’s all right then. You’re free to go.’

[3] Specifically, see Article 148 of General Order 100 signed by President Lincoln in 1863: The law of war does not allow proclaiming either an individual belonging to the hostile army, or a citizen, or a subject of the hostile government, an outlaw, who may be slain without trial by any captor, any more than the modern law of peace allows such intentional outlawry; on the contrary, it abhors such outrage. The sternest retaliation should follow the murder committed in consequence of such proclamation, made by whatever authority. Civilized nations look with horror upon offers of rewards for the assassination of enemies as relapses into barbarism.

[4] For the record: AGAINST.

[5] For which history will condemn us.

[6] And not even ‘because terrorism’, which is somehow more depressing.

[7] At the time we spoke, I was under the impression that I was still a viable candidate. In between this discussion and the next one, I overheard two staff members talking in the hallway – the CEO, who I was due to meet with next, wasn’t going to bother with me. He only intended, so they said, to speak to the other two contenders – the minions had been told to simply go through the motions with me.

[8] A simple ethical conundrum would be the expressed suicidal ideation problem: if a friend tells you that she’s considering taking her own life but demands that you keep it secret, does the ethical imperative to get help before the suicide attempt take precedence over your duty to keep your word to your friend not to disclose her secret? What options might there be to allow you to comply with both contradictory demands?

[9] On the other hand, you also couldn’t be commissioned if you were gay, so… it wasn’t a perfect system. Probably ‘because *#&% terrorism’.


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com
Follow him on twitter at @keilhubert.
You can buy his books on IT leadership and IT interviewing at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil-Hubert-featuredKeil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).

Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.

Keil Hubert

Keil Hubert

POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert. You can buy his books on IT leadership, IT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store. Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant. Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Amazon.com. Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.

© Business Reporter 2021

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