Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Ethics, Business and the Economy of Principles

How big of a factor do your values and principles play in your career choices? Do you 'make a difference' through your job? Are there certain jobs or activities that you simply won't do, no matter how much you might be paid?

How much of your own personal values are you willing to give up for a chance to grab some great prize? The torturous life of the trade-offs -- it's a classic literary theme and a heroic myth that we carry along in our day-to-day lives, shaping our decisions and our struggles. What character are we playing, the heroic rebel, the principled sage, the idealistic fool, or the spineless corporate sycophant?

By it's very nature, work is a choice with a host of implications and moral ambiguities. We all have to make choices. Each choice has consequences, and we all have to measure our choices against our ability to endure the consequences, good or bad.

Taking A Stand
Myself, I've tried to follow a core set of principles and values throughout my career. There was a time when an employer could require an employee to take a polygraph test just to be considered for a job. There was this record store that I thought would be cool to work for, but they required a polygraph test. While I found myself tortured by the 'potential' of work, my principles told me that any employer that required a polygraph was not a place that I wanted to work.

Principled decisions are easier when they aren't life threatening. When you aren't starving or cold, and when the decision won't put your loved ones in jeopardy, it's easy to be selective. But as we gain responsibilities, the weight of saying 'take this job and shove it' becomes increasingly heavy. Got a spouse and kids who depend on your salary to provide food and shelter? It can transform you into a virtual indentured servant.

In the past, our moral choices might have centered on things like whether or not to work for a tobacco company or in the defense industry. These days, moral decisions may be taking a McJob with no health care benefits versus holding out for something with some semblance of a living wage. Or, if your lucky, whether to put up with the demands of an over-reaching work environment or desperately search with hopes of something better.

In Silicon Valley, you get used to the idea of living with your career head in the corporate guillotine, but our ecosystem depends upon being able to easily shuffle from one unstable opportunity to the next. Making great products requires a moral commitment from the people involved, a passion and a desire to do what's necessary to make it great. That moral commitment goes hand-in-hand with the flexibility to become disenchanted, pick up your toys, and go. When people lose that freedom or are forced into unpleasant resolutions of those moral choices, sucky products follow.

If work is a contractual agreement between you as a laborer and the business you work for, then fundamentally, your power as a cog in the labor force is the ability to interrupt or cancel that agreement. Whether as an individual or a collective group, this is your leverage in the relationship -- to say that the situation isn't acceptable and that you won't participate. It's an axiomatic component of our free market system, the basic check and balance that says, "you have other alternatives."
Some of the most talented, capable people I've known were people who, in the midst of watching the march to an IPO, looked at the direction that the company was going and said, "nope, this is no longer the kind of business I want to be a part of. I'm done." For some, ethics and values are can be more important than easy money.

Today's Ethics
How much does ethics affect your choices these days? Would you work for a company that makes military tech? What about a company like Palantir that provides 'surveillance' networking tech? Would you work for a company like Uber? Do you speak out in your company about improper use of private customer data? Does your company use aggressive electronic tracking techniques to obtain data on customers, or, would you work for a business that practiced these kinds of behaviors? Where is your line that you won't cross?

Or, on the other side of all of that, does none of it matter? Are you dreaming of your opportunity to get Zuckerberg money? Do you imagine the day when you can be Travis Kalanick and run your business as an extension of your philosophy? What would your TED Talk be about?

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