In the first of a new series, Miss Conduct - also known as Dr Elaine Sternberg - deals with some tricky ethical dilemmas in the workplace.
Dear Miss Conduct
The major political parties, murdered schoolteachers' widows and the opponents of knives and guns are all urging us to join them in moral crusades.
What is a company chairman to do?
Beleaguered of Brighton
The answer to that is simple: you must fight the temptation to join in.
Crusades are exciting: a break from the daily routine, battles with the infidel ... you might even get to see the Holy Land (though I'm told it looks suspiciously like the Palace of Westminster these days). But you must resist. In your business capacity, joining popular moral crusades is culpable self-indulgence unless it benefits the business. You have been entrusted with company assets to achieve a business purpose; if you divert those assets - including your own energy and attention - to any other end, you cheat your shareholders.
There is only one legitimate moral crusade: making sure that your business is conducted ethically. Contrary to popular belief, being ethical in business does not require sacrificing owner value to promote moral virtue; it requires maximising owner value ethically. All you have to do (though it's easier said than done) is make sure that your business satisfies two straightforward conditions.
First, classical distributive justice: those who contribute most to the business deserve most from the business. Whether you're handing out prizes or rises or responsibilities, productive workers deserve more than shirkers and should be rewarded accordingly.
Second, the business should be conducted with 'ordinary decency'. By this I don't mean generalised niceness, but respecting the conditions of trust that make long-term commitments possible: honesty, fairness, the avoidance of physical coercion and violence, and a presumption in favour of legality. When business ethics is understood as respecting distributive justice and ordinary decency, it can be seen not only to be perfectly possible but positively beneficial.
Making sure that your business satisfies these two basic conditions should be enough of a challenge to engage the most fervent moral crusader.
Dear Miss Conduct
A junior executive has complained that her boss is downloading pornography from the Internet. What should I do?
Puzzled of Putney
First, be glad that at least some of your staff actually know what the Internet is, and how to use it. Too many people are proud of their technological incompetence, and discredit themselves and their organisations as a result.
Second, find out exactly why the woman was bothered. Was it because she felt it was her job to do the downloading? Senior staff should certainly be discouraged from wasting time on tasks that cheaper staff can do adequately.
If she was anxious that the firm's computers might become contaminated with downloaded viruses, that is also reasonable: you should make sure that adequate precautions are available and consistently used.
If, however, her concern was that her boss was enjoying pornography, tread carefully. Staff should certainly be cautioned against pursuing their leisure interests - pornographic or otherwise - in the firm's time.
But unless the boss's alleged interest in pornography is illegal or affects the business's ability to maximise owner value, it is none of her concern or of yours. Tell her to mind her own business!