Saturday, March 28, 2009

Tweet, Tweet! Who's Twittering Today?

I am, as you may have guessed by now, a fan of full disclosure. And there's so little of it around that I think I've gotten pretty cynical. And then a story comes along that surprises even me.

Yesterday's New York Times had a piece (online at by Noam Cohen about "ghost Twitterers". Apparently a lot of major people have, well, other people to do their Twittering for them.

Which makes sense for some folks -- I want President Obama to concentrate on the nation's health, not on whether he should be Tweeting now or not -- but I draw the lines at others.... The Times article notes that athletes generally do their own Twittering, but celebrities, not so much: "Britney Spears recently advertised for someone to help, among other things, create content for Twitter and Facebook. Kanye West recently told New York magazine that he has hired two people to update his blog..."

But the one that completely caught me off guard was Guy Kawasaki, chief executive of Former Apple employee, Silicon Valley venture capitalist, and prolific writer and blogger, Kawasaki has two employees who Twitter for him. I was stunned. I admire Kawasaki's work, and often read his blogs. But now I wonder: are those blogs really his? Or does someone do that writing as well? What about his books? How are we to know where his line is, if it's not completely transparent?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Blogging ethics

Is a sponsored blog just as ethical as an unsponsored blog? It'd be nice if it were true (hey, I could use some sponsorship dollars too!). Disclosure is of course the most important element but it's not the only element.

Today's Content Agenda carried a piece by Wailin Wong (full story at, in which several bloggers seemed to think that as long as sponsorship was disclosed, it was OK.

The CEO of was quoted as saying, "Getting stuff doesn't mean you're biased. If it biases you ... you will lose your audience. People will follow you if you're smart and articulate. The minute you lose your authenticity, people know and they will tune out."

That'd be great, if it were true. Sadly, most psychological research indicates that humans are way more impressionable than we think we are, way easier to fool, and way more likely to believe what we want to believe than we believe we are.

The CEO of a company that connects advertisers with bloggers saw nothing wrong with Kmart providing $500 gift cards to bloggers, who then wrote about their shopping experience. According to the CEO, this was just like furnishing a product for review. No, it's not.

Back at the dawn of time, I worked in the automotive industry, and we provided cars all the time to journalists and other car companies for testing and review. How is that different? We got the cars back at the end of the week.

Have a question about whether a "sponsorship" is OK? Listen to that little voice. You know, the one that you sort of wish you didn't hear....

Monday, March 23, 2009

B-School Ethics: A Contradiction in Terms?

A number of articles have appeared recently suggesting that the fault for the current disaster on Wall Street lies with business school curricula. In a recent article in the New York Times, the dean of Thunderbird School of Global Management in Arizona is quoted as saying, "We can look the other way, but come on. The C.E.O.'s of those companies, those are people we used to brag about. We cannot say, 'Well, it wasn't our fault' when there is such a systemic, widespread failure of leadership." (Complete article by Kelley Holland can be found at at

So is the solution requiring ethics at business schools? I don't think so. Which may seem surprising, from someone who cares passionately about business ethics.

But 25-year-old business students either have a moral compass or they don't. I doubt that a for-grade semester-long course will make a real difference.

Not when the Chronicle of Higher Education, in its 20 March issue, carries a piece by Thomas Bartlett on "essay mills", and quotes a college senior, majoring in philosophy and religion, by name, who bought a paper on the parables of Jesus for a New Testament class. The student said that paying someone else to do his academic research was like outsourcing labor.

I believe that these attitudes are the price we are paying for a wider "winner-take-all" culture, where education is all about the credential, and not about the learning, where keeping score is all about doing well and not about doing good -- and "doing well" only in the narrowest possible sense of the term.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Ethics is for Wimps? I don't think so.

The more-macho-than-you culture that flourished on Wall Street apparently believed that ethics was for wimps. Make your own rules. Bite the other guy before he bites you. Winner take all, and winning is the only thing that matters.

Doing the right thing, in other words, is for losers. In the "immortal" words of the late Leona Helmsley, "Only the little people pay taxes."

I would argue the opposite. That it takes strength and self-confidence to consider the moral implications of your actions. All too often the unethical path is the easy way out, the go-along-to-get-along route.

An example: Years ago, when I started a new job at Company X, knowing that I would have to travel extensively for the company, I asked about company credit cards, and was told that there weren't any. Really? I thought -- that seems odd, but okay. How about paying the annual fee on a second card so that I could keep all my business expenses separate from my personal expenses? No, I was told, the company wouldn't do that either.

This just seemed too peculiar to me, so I went down to the benefits department to ask a more senior person about this policy. And here's what I was told: Company X used to have corporate credit cards, but some of the sales force had abused the privilege, so the company had revoked all the cards.

Was that the ethical response? Of course not. The company should have fired the folks who abused the privilege; instead, they punished the honest along with the, um, not-so-honest.

The problem, of course, had been that some of the guilty had friends in very high places....

Monday, March 16, 2009

Manners and Morality

Ethics and Etiquette aren't the same thing, of course, but they share more than those first two letters.

Both work from the premise that we all have a responsibility to treat each other as ends and not as a means to an end.

Here's an example: Company A and Company Z are both looking to hire engineers. They hire recruiting firms, run advertisements at online sites, and so on. So Engineer Ernie, who has been out of work for a few weeks, emails his resume and cover letter to both companies.

Company Z has set up a simple auto-reply that tells Ernie that his resume has been received, and will be reviewed, and that due to the volume of resumes submitted, even if he is called in for an interview, it could take up to two weeks before he is contacted directly.

Company A does nothing, but collects resumes, and contacts candidates on its own schedule.

If Ernie were to get a similar offer from both companies, where do you think he'd prefer to work?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Greed is good. No, really.

I expect you didn't expect an ethicist to say that.

But let me quote Gordon Gekko (in 1987's Wall Street) in full: "Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind."

Gordon is hardly a likeable character, but he is right -- greed is the force behind many of humankind's essential improvements to life.

But of course there's a problem with greed too.

The Wall Street bankers who led us into the current economic crisis were being greedy -- to the nth degree. The problem with greed isn't greed per se: it's with the level of greed, and with the "what" of greed. In other words: just how greedy are you, and what are you greedy for?

Are you greedy to be the wealthiest person on the planet? Why? What is that extra $20 billion (or whatever the sum is) going to do for you? Or are you greedy for the planet as a whole -- you've never suffered from malaria because you can afford the necessary drugs, so why shouldn't everybody in the world be in the same situation?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Granddad's world is gone; does it have to be?

A friend of mine yesterday said, "My dad was a 43-year IBM guy. But that world is gone. I want my kids to understand that they have to be creative, that it's ok to morph yourself over time, and that they need to keep their skills sharp and fresh."

She's right. Up to a point. My father spent forty-some years with one employer, too, and certainly I don't have that kind of life, and I don't expect the next generation will either. But that's not to say that we should simply accept the kind of crazy up-one-second-down-the-next world we're in right now.

Great economic shakeups do cause great disruption to the social fabric. In the nineteenth century, with the Industrial Revolution, thousands of skilled weavers found themselves out of work and their talents valueless. The same sort of upheaval is happening now. But in between those days and the present day, as the new ways of business sorted themselves out, people found a way to balance the needs of the work lives and the needs of their personal lives.

"Work-life balance" is a buzzword these days, but in the middle of a major recession, massive layoffs, declining assets, and the like, it's hard to find any kind of balance. It's hard not to wake up in the middle of the night in a panic. It's hard to think about what kind of a life we'd like to live.

But this is the time to think about that. We have more power to shape the world than we think. My friend's father could stay at IBM for 40 years because of the unwritten contract of loyalty between employer and employee. That contract has been broken by employers -- generally citing the need to be "loyal" to their shareholders -- and we have all suffered for it.

These days, with 401ks and IRAs, most of us are those shareholders. And instead of screaming at our fund managers for not making quite enough money for us this quarter, we need to think about the longer view, about where we want to be in five years, not five months. About what kind of world we will leave to our children, not how many dollars.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Possible or only Preferable?

Another 651,000 Americans out of work, unemployment up to 8.1% (officially, although the real number is certainly much higher), and the Dow is flirting with 6500. What will things be like in the next six months?

The reality is that no one knows. Literally anything is possible, but since most of us skew either to the optimist side or the pessimist side, we tend to read most closely the signs that support our optimism (or pessimism). Gauging the real probabilities should perhaps be left to emotionless computer models. Except that the models are all built by emotional people....

My recommendation is to build a decision tree, with every possible alternative I can think of. I then share it with friends and colleagues, because they'll invariably come up with possibilities that I haven't considered. Especially the possibilities that I don't want to think of.

The hardest part of all is coming up with reasonable probabilities for all these various possibilities -- and not letting the possibilities that are most preferable win out.

And after all that, thank the Lord for the blessings I have, and try to let go of the anxiety about the things I can't control.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The trouble with toilet tissue

Thursday, the New York Times ran an article on the environmental damage related to Americans’ “national obsession” with soft toilet paper. According to Leslie Kaufman’s report, the softest toilet paper can’t be made from recycled paper. Instead, “millions of trees [are] harvested in North America and in Latin American countries, including some percentage of trees from rare old-growth forests in Canada.” (For the complete story:

Oh, great, I thought. Something else to think about when shopping. Here I go, trying to do the right thing, buying organic when I can, shopping the farmers’ market in the summer, buying cage-free organic eggs even though these are all more expensive, replacing the light bulbs with fluorescents even though I hate the blue glow, etc. And now I have to think about toilet paper, too? To coin a phrase (or a word): Oy.

But the more I thought about it, the more I found another message. Every purchasing decision I make is an economic one, of course. And while I was a spendthrift teenager, I gradually learned the value of the dollars I earned, and got to be good at shopping, and pleased with my shopping skills (I can get the very bottle of wine across town at 16% off the case instead of 10% off? SCORE!).

In addition to being an economic decision, a purchase decision is a values decision too. In fact, it’s an ethical decision. I don’t buy sheep’s-milk cheese at the farmers’ market only because it tastes good, but also because I want there to be working farms in Connecticut for the foreseeable future, and if that means I have to drive a little further Saturday morning to get to the market, that’s worth it to me. If I have to read the back of the toilet-paper package now, to see whether it’s made of recycled paper or not, that’s worth it to me too. Even if it is a little less cushy for the tushy.