When is doing the Right Thing the Wrong Thing?

Out of Context

When is doing the Right Thing the Wrong Thing?

paul prescott / Shutterstock.com

Here's the story: She's a recent MBA graduate working as a corporate sustainability consultant. He's a roaming eco-warrior dodging bullets from rhino poachers in Africa and pursuing illegal loggers in the Amazon. Whose job is more treacherous?

To find out, sneak a peek at her front-line communiqués, which have mysteriously fallen into the hands of Context America President Peter T. Knight, who has decided to share them with us. Can our earnest heroine survive in the corporate jungle with her career -- and ideals -- intact? Follow her adventures below — and read her previous missives here.

Hey Jeff!

You always try to do the Right Thing, right? That’s what drives you on in the jungles and the deserts, right? Doing as your mom taught you, always to do the Right Thing.

I suppose I shouldn’t be so naïve when it comes to business, but I’ve discovered that the captains of industry also like to do the Right Thing. (It’s always guys, Jeff -- all the waffle about promoting diversity is just waffle with extra syrup).

I’m writing you from Beijing. This is my first international travel with the Boss (he flew up front) and we’re here to help this car maker get access to the U.S. market. They’re really impressed with how the Koreans have stolen market share and want to do the same. Their social media agency has come up with a campaign that’s built around the slogan: Doing the Right Thing.

I’ve been on my best behavior here and the Boss has had no excuse to kick me. But it went a bit pear-shaped yesterday when we were listening to a long diatribe by the CEO on the company history and ethical standards. 

I had this strong feeling of deja vu from a similar meeting in Mobile, Ala. listening to an all-American CEO give the same speech about his investment firm. They both said:

         • Responsibility has always been in our DNA

         • That’s because we grew from a small business into a mammoth business by keeping our founders’ strong sense of family-based ethics

         • We always did the Right Thing

         • That is why we will always do the Right Thing

And the sub-text is: Trust us to do the Right Thing by you.

I know I shouldn’t have, but I couldn’t help it. I mean, the Chinese company is known for using child labor in Burma and the CEO is ex-military with strong links to the regime. I started to point out that the Right Thing slogan would be a bit problematical in the U.S. because Human Rights Watch would ridicule it and all those Prius-driving celebs would be tweeting wildly.

I got this almighty kick from the Boss and zipped it from then on. After the meeting he gave me this speech about the value of the client and how my bonus was riding on a successful outcome, etc. Then he shifted into his more reasonable tone and told me that morality is relative. 

“What, you mean there are many Right Things?“ I asked.

He did not go as far as to say that some Things are Righter than others, but that was the gist of it.

“Who are we to define the working age in Burma or dictate what the political system should be in China?” he said.

So I asked him about the guys in Mobile who were also doing the Right Thing. Forget for a moment that the original founders of the firm were slave owners (talk about DNA!) -- they were major investors in coal mines where they lopped off the top of a mountain and dumped the rubble in the valley so they could have easy access to the coal.

Is that doing the Right Thing? 

The Boss just looked at me, said, “You’ve really got a lot to learn,” and stalked off.

That’s become his refrain, so I’ve adopted this business school approach of summing up my day in three bullet points before I turn off the lights – it’s a sort of MBA prayer-cum-learning experience. 

So Jeff, here are my bullet prayers from Beijing:

        • Business loves clichés and “in our DNA” and doing the “Right Thing” are chart toppers

        • One guy’s Right Thing is not necessarily the other guy’s Right Thing

        • My Boss is never wrong.



Photo of young boy working in textile factory provided by paul prescott via Shutterstock.