Oct 182007

Time to do some reticulating — about corporate behavior and whistleblowing.

First there’s Vinegar Boy by way of Fark. He refused to buckle under when his boss and his boss’s boss told him to apologize to a customer who had lyingly accused him of saying vinegar was OK to drink. He was vindicated in the end, when the boss’s boss’s boss found out what was going on. A heroic whistleblower, you might say.

Then there was Bob Lewis’s Advice Line column at Infoworld, “When your boss tells you to terminate an employee.”

One other point about the termination conversation: When you tell the employee he’s being terminated, tell him “the company” has decided that this is what has to be done. Don’t identify yourself as the decision-maker; don’t identify your manager, either. The company has made the decision and as his manager, your job is to make sure the company handles the termination properly.

If that isn’t corporate behavior, I don’t know what is. People will do things under cover of or on behalf of a corporation that they would never do on their own individual responsibility. I think Lewis is giving good advice in this column, as he almost always does. Read the entire article to see. (Too bad his politics are not informed by all of his observations about corporate life.) But a lot of bad things can be done under that rubric. When people talk about evil corporations, they have a legitimate point about this part.

Of course, the government is the biggest corporation of them all, these days.

Finally, there is Texts for torturers by way of Arts & Letters Daily. It’s about Philip Zimbardo’s famous experiment showing how students assigned the pretend role of prison guards started abusing prisoners. His latest book is about more than that one experiment, though. The reviewer writes:

He is at his best, then, when analysing the current state of our knowledge about the role of situations in eliciting bad behaviour. Research has amply confirmed that people of many different kinds will behave badly under certain types of situational pressure. Through the influence of authority and peer pressure, they do things that they are later amazed at having done, things that most people think in advance they would never themselves do.


Zimbardo’s first plea, appropriately, is for humility: we have no reason to say that atrocities are the work of a few “bad apples”, nor have we reason to think that they are done only by people remote from us in time and place. We should understand that we are all vulnerable, and we should judge individuals, accordingly, in a merciful way, knowing that we don’t really know what we would have done, had we faced similar pressures. His second appropriate plea is that we learn to “blame the system”: namely, to look at how situations are designed, and to criticize people who design them in ways that confront vulnerable individuals with pressures that human beings cope with badly.

The reviewer doesn’t completely buy it, btw. The article is written with the torture at Abu Ghraib, but I say these lessons also apply to things like nationalized health care. I say we should blame the system in advance for the atrocities that will result when people can make life or death decisions for other people on the basis of economic efficiency. And there will be no recourse for people like there was for the one who stood up to his boss in the case of the Vinegar Boy.