Biz Ed Reboot Blog

The Problem of Dodginess

The Problem of Dodginess: In a world where bad behavior is rewarded, can anybody keep MBAs honest?

by John Beck and Steve Hodges

When I was an Associate Partner at Accenture, my boss asked me to interview a potential new hire for our think tank. The interviewee was nice enough, but I thought we could do a lot better. I didn’t think he had many new thoughts—and that seemed like a prerequisite for a think tank. I wrote up my assessment and sent it in.

My boss landed on me like a ton of bricks. “How dare you write that? Now there is no chance we can hire him!”

“But do we want to hire him?” was my naïve reply. “I’m sure we can find better people.” 

“I want to hire him and your write up has gone to HR and they won’t hire him based on your interview notes." 

Granted, I had not known that my boss felt that strongly about this candidate. But even if I had, I assumed that the organization as a whole would want my honest appraisal of the candidate.

Apparently no one was really interested in that. (And here I will shift into passive voice to avoid repercussions…) I was directed to rewrite my interview report and avow that I had submitted the wrong report in the first place. I was told that if I didn’t give a glowing review of this candidate, I would be fired—and at that time I had a young family and really needed a job.

I rewrote my evaluation; the guy was hired. As it turned out, I was not wrong in my initial assessment. 

- John

This was one of John’s early, formative experiences with “dodginess.” Most companies say they want everyone to report unethical behavior, but in practice many really mean, “Do what the boss tells you to do.” Speaking out even once can be a job-ending offense. And above all, “play nice.”

So how can business schools prepare students for the realities of organizational life? How can they prepare students for a world where dissembling and blame-avoidance are two surefire ways of getting ahead in almost any organization? Should professors teach about the ideal or the real world of business? And if it is the real world of business that teachers opt to teach, how can they, in good conscience, tell their charges to always be honest?

Professors should definitely prepare students for how to deal with people whose ethics are questionable—or, what the Brits call “dodgy.” We all know people who are dodgy. We may not always have proof that they are actually unethical, but they feel dodgy. There’s just something about them that’s not trustworthy, even if you can’t pinpoint it. So you avoid doing business with them, and you certainly don’t work for them.

Imagine dealing a salesperson you don’t trust. He’s just too smooth, too slick, and you don’t connect with him or believe anything he says. After all, most people are afraid to tell the truth when they’re trying to sell you, or convince you of something. Once upon a time, when the Internet was not so ubiquitous, this was possible. Not anymore. If you want to find out if a product or service is good or bad, it’s easy to find out.

That’s why whenever Steve speaks to prospective students, and they ask him, “What is good and bad about Hult?,” he gives it to them straight. “There’s no point in trying to avoid the bad stuff,” he explains, “because odds are they’ve already heard about it on the Internet. I’ve learned I have to come out before they ask and say, ‘People are going to tell you X about Hult, and here’s why they’re wrong.’”

Most human beings rely on their internal antennas to alert them when people and situations don’t feel right. We rely on our antennas all the time. But it can get tricky when crossing cultural boundaries, because we don’t have the built-in skills that we do in our home culture. Steve reports that he really supplements his own antenna when in a meeting with, say, an American. “In those meetings, I always bring another American along to make sure I’m reading things right. In order to avoid uncertainty on whether someone is dodgy, it’s always good to have a backup measure in place.”

We do everything we can to keep dodginess out of our organizations. Everyone who tries to run an ethical organization has found themselves letting people go for things as “innocent” as padding expense reports. When Steve distributes surveys at Hult, he always asks employees the question, “Do you trust your boss?” And when the answer is “yes,” he has found they are usually stronger performers. People can sense dodginess in others—there’s no denying that antenna—and it affects them in ways they may not anticipate.

When managers score badly on trust, relative to their peer group, Steve always asks, “Why do you think that is?” More often than not, the issue is that respondents perceive their managers are favoring others. Untrustworthy bosses give promotions to a select few, say one thing and do another, or simply break promises—so it’s hardly surprising it affects their non-favored employees negatively.  

But can business schools do anything to keep students from turning into dodgy managers, even hone their sense for it? For the last decade, the “solution” to the business school integrity teaching problem—and it’s not a bad one—has been to punt the problem back to the students themselves. Many schools now ask their graduates to sign an integrity promise. But some MBAs refuse to sign an oath, noting that promises like “I will act with utmost integrity and pursue my work in an ethical manner” may keep them from serving their shareholders well.

In a memorable study more than a decade ago, two professors surveyed minimum-security prisoners and compared their responses to MBA students in 11 different programs around the US. The authors concluded that there was not much difference between the answers given by the two populations—in fact, in many cases, the inmates offered the more “ethical” answers.

We do not believe that every businessperson is a bad egg—not for an instance. However, John does report a particular career pattern among the most integrity-focused of his former students—they drop out of the corporate world. They become entrepreneurs or teachers, or run small, non-profit charities. Some have told him that they cannot make the compromises that seem to be required of large organizations.

Wouldn’t it be nice if business schools could do something important to help their graduates avoid dodginess in their careers? Because if they made that commitment it would require them to create a system where students are held to their promises by their teammates, not by the institution itself. Students would have to enforce the code of conduct amongst each other to show how damaging dodginess can be. They would learn that if you are dodgy as a leader, you’ll lose your team and you’ll never get high performing employees. And likewise, as employees, if you don’t hold your boss to the same standard and call out dodgy behavior, you’ll only encourage it to happen again.

It’s very important for us to note that this takes a lot of courage to do. It’s not easy to call out peers or your boss when they’ve done something wrong; there are many risks involved. But it does pay off in the end, and students will only learn this on their own.

Here is our joint “ethical” solution to the problem. With all the integrity we can muster, here is what we want to say to our students past and present:

Always tell the absolute truth as you see it. Point out when someone else is dissembling. Challenge corner-cutting and solutions that make money at the expense of truth. But know that you may make more enemies than friends in your company; you may have trouble keeping a job; you will be marginalized. Don’t expect bonuses, promotions or “attaboys.” You may not earn quite as much money in your life. But you will earn the respect (sometimes begrudgingly) of many. You will be able to sleep at night. You will end up with something no amount of money in the world can buy: your own self-respect and the satisfaction that you stuck to your guns when those around you were pressuring you to do anything but. And, as very small recompense for all your hardship: we will be proud of you.

Photo from glsims99

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