Books: A corporate secretary’s guide to doing the right thing

Worry about yourself, the company and the clients first. Your boss comes last.

(Photo: Anna Lisa Sang)

One December day in 2008, Eleanor Squillari’s boss was arrested for securities fraud. The next day, the secretary arrived at her office to find it a scene of utter chaos: phones ringing, faxes spewing paper, FBI agents strutting around and a couple of dozen red-faced investors in the lobby demanding blood, or at least an explanation.

Squillari didn’t know what to tell the clients of the man for whom she’d worked for 25 years. She also didn’t know if she’d been unintentionally complicit. Even if she’d never once felt that something might have been amiss, in clients’ eyes she was at least guilty by association. So the following year, when the secretary decided to go public in a Vanity Fair article with her account of a quarter-century spent working for Bernie Madoff, it was hard to begrudge her a voice. As one G-man told her, “You need to take care of yourself, because nobody else will.”

No doubt Nan DeMars feels some empathy for Squillari. DeMars spent 20 years as a corporate secretary in Minnesota, and through her leadership role with the International Association of Administrative Professionals, she was responsible for authoring her profession’s first ever code of ethics. Now president of her own consulting firm, DeMars has become a popular media expert on the subject of ethics in the workplace. In You’ve Got to Be Kidding: How to Keep Your Job without Losing Your Integrity (Wiley), DeMars offers a comprehensive guide to navigating the ethical traps found in every workplace.

Of course, the subject of business ethics now sees much more attention than it once did (not least from Saint Mary’s prof Chris MacDonald, whose thoughtful blog on business ethics is published on DeMars observes that in the U.S. alone more than 300 colleges and universities now offer ethics curricula, whereas a decade ago it was fewer than 10. She recognizes that, unlike her first book on this topic in 1998, this one arrives in “a ‘we get it’ climate.” But however widely businesses have adopted codes of ethics to govern behaviour in the workplace, the ideal “ethical office” that DeMars describes isn’t attainable through the enforcement of rules. Not only is it impossible to anticipate in such a code every possible variable or potential dilemma, but always “it is possible to satisfy the letter of the law while still committing an act that most reasonable people would consider unethical or immoral.” Even if accepting a gift from a potential client isn’t explicitly proscribed, does that make it right?

Before this starts to sound like the annual lecture from management—perhaps you’re one of those corporate employees forced to sleepwalk through an intranet quiz once in a while to prove to your higher-ups that you’re familiar with the company’s code of conduct—consider DeMars’s argument for the value of the ethical office from a personal standpoint: “In order to live happily and at peace with ourselves, we have to live in ways that are congruent with our morals,” she argues. (Morals, as DeMars defines them, are the principles of a person’s character, while ethics is a system of moral values, the set of rules or expectations publicly accepted by a group.) “For us to work happily and productively, we need to share common ethical standards with our coworkers,” she writes. If the ethics in your office are at odds with your personal values, it invariably makes you unhappy. “And the larger the gap, the greater your level of stress.” That’s why the onus for ethical behaviour lies so firmly with each employee. A code of conduct is just ink on paper; it’s how the group brings it to life that ultimately matters.

So what to do about it? The bulk of You’ve Got to Be Kidding is a subject-by-subject manual for dealing with the most common office dilemmas. There are chapters on workplace gossip, on the vagaries of loyalty, on expense accounts, whistleblowing, vendor relationships and even pornography. But as DeMars says, a written set of rules will never anticipate every situation—and not every ethical quandary will offer choices in black and white. So the most valuable tool DeMars provides is what she calls an “Ethical Priority Compass.”

The tool’s goal is to provide “a hierarchical approach to resolving ethical dilemmas,” and it’s an incredibly simple one: First, take care of yourself. In every situation that arises, DeMars writes, “you must protect your professional reputation and your financial security—and do so in a way that is aligned with your personal morals and values.” Second, take care of your company and its customers. Worry about your supervisors last.

It’s the relationship with our supervisors that often leads us onto the most treacherous terrain, and DeMars devotes plenty of words to the subject. By her reckoning, your boss is the first person you should go to if confronted with an ethical dilemma—even if your boss is the source of the problem. You should be careful not to “immediately leap to the conclusion that he or she is the enemy.” It’s always worth making the effort to preserve that relationship, even if you’re uncomfortable with some of the person’s behaviour. Despite its unequal power dynamic, the relationship, DeMars argues, can be more elastic than is apparent, and she offers a 20-step method to ethically manage up. “You have more power than you think you do to affect your boss’s ethical (or unethical) decisions,” she says.

Those decisions may draw you in actively—“Do me a favour and shred everything in that cabinet, would you?”—or passively, in the expectation that you’ll turn a blind eye if you see something amiss. DeMars’s ethical priority compass will help you audit your decisions about how to respond to situations that seem ethically questionable, whether with a co-worker or a manager. If your boss is a Madoff—or just misguided—no code of conduct will steer you right except your own.


Executive summaries

The Penguin and the Leviathan: How Cooperation Triumphs Over Self-Interest (Crown Business)
Yochai Benkler

For magpie management types, the notion that we’re hard-wired for co-operation is the current trendy takeaway from evolutionary science. The latest book in this vein, by Harvard professor and The Wealth of Networks author Benkler, is a worthy addition. Contrary to the received wisdom that self-interest is in our DNA (a belief that’s led to no end of faulty assumptions about how homo economicus will respond in any given situation), Benkler adopts the research suggesting that altruism is passed down both culturally and genetically.

Examining modern campaign politics, the open-source movement and some of the few recent bright spots in the traditional music business, Benkler isolates a handful of “design levers”—“elements of successful cooperative human systems that we can employ to motivate [people]…to contribute to the collective effort rather than exclusively pursue their own interests (at the expense of those of the group).” In other words, he’s looking at ways in which we can use and tailor concepts like reward and punishment to encourage people to work collaboratively rather than self-interestedly. If you believe the science, the result is a happier, more productive—and more natural—environment. –J.T.

Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures & What We Can Do About It (Crown)
Don Peck

Technically, the Great Recession ended in June 2009. But for many Americans, Peck argues, the recession continues—and may never end. He goes beyond the metrics (a stubbornly high unemployment rate, a housing market showing no sign of breaking out of the doldrums) to the “heavy trauma” that has changed not just individual lives but the culture. “The problems created by the most severe recessions,” he writes, “are typically bigger and longer-lasting than they first appear.”

A features editor at The Atlantic, Peck explores the ways in which the recession has accelerated economic shifts already underway in the U.S. Arguably the most important of these, he writes, “has been the ever-more-distinct sorting of Americans into winners and losers, and the slow hollowing of the middle class,” the result of the housing bubble collapse and the increasingly pronounced polarization of the employment market into low-skill and high-skill. You can see the effects in the country’s politics, but at least as important, on youth struggling to begin their careers. He offers prescriptions—a whopping great public infrastructure spend, for example—that will strike some as too interventionist. But Peck effectively makes the case that something will need to be done. –J.T.

Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America (Portfolio Penguin)
Jeff Ryan

The Japanese gaming giant’s struggle to find an audience for its costly new hand-held 3DS system—Nintendo has just slashed both the price of its new entry and dropped by more than 80% its profit forecast for the year—casts an unmistakable shadow across professional game geek Ryan’s look back at how Nintendo’s American division went from also-ran to stateside titan. Ryan’s history is very much told from within the console—that is, it’s as much a history of the evolution of games as of Nintendo. As such, readers looking for a business case study may end up doing a lot of skimming. But the games­ themselves—Mario and its sequels, most crucially—are what built Nintendo’s formidable brand power, so they’re key to the corporate story.

Exploring how Nintendo tried to differentiate itself from competitors Sony and Microsoft, Ryan explains the “everything-box syndrome” that Nintendo always deliberately avoided: its products are for gaming alone, not watching DVDs or making phone calls. That’s worked to a point. But as the 3DS struggles to gain market share against smartphones whose power increasingly approaches that of dedicated portable gaming devices, it’s worth questioning whether it’s a strategy with a future. –J.T.