Taking Care of Business

I’ve been listening to Jerry Springer being interviewed on 5Live  this morning (ah, the joys of working from home…) I was mentally tuning in and out of the interview as my attention was caught on other things, but what came through was his apparent disdain for the output of his own show.  He’d rather be back in politics or hosting a sports show “but that’s not what I’m hired for” (sorry Jerry, I may be paraphrasing, but that was the gist of it)

Now, my opinion of the Jerry Springer show and its  counterpart, Jeremy Kyle, can wait for another day when I feel  in need of  something to vent some rage on (there’s a clue in the link…).  What snagged my attention today was the idea that doing something you seem to despise is OK  if  it’s how you earn a living.  This whole issue has been bubbling round in my head for a while  and has cropped up in some unexpected places recently – the mighty Seth touched on it in his blog just a few days ago.   I’m particularly exercised by it now because I’m currently working for an organisation which has done some things I’ve disagreed with pretty vehemently in the past (I’m OK with the project I’m on at the moment, though).

I can’t be alone in wondering about the ethics of communicating on behalf of organisations I disagree with.  When I was temping years ago I told the agency I was working for that I didn’t want to be considered for a job they had with BAT;  and there are other organisations you can think of that you wouldn’t touch with a barge pole – anybody fancy being press officer for the BNP?      So how bad do organisations have to be before we feel the obligation to walk away?  And in these recessionary times, with alternative jobs pretty thin on the ground,  would the building society accept my righteous glow as part-payment on the mortgage?


8 responses to “Taking Care of Business

  1. Tricky one, that. A few years ago I’d have worked for BAT without a tremor, largely because I used to be an unashamed smoker (now I’m just a wistful non-smoker of just over 3 years). I’d probably work for them even now – I remember with keenness the pleasure to be had from smoking, even if it’s a killer.

    But I’m intrigued about why you work on a project for an organisation that has done much that you vehemently oppose. To use your analogy, would you work for the BNP on a campaign that you agreed with – something innocuous like clearing up dog crap from the streets of Dagenham, say? I know I’d be more uncomfortable working for the general furtherance of an organisation I despise, no matter whether I agreed with their outlook on any one issue.

    I suppose I don’t really care about righteous glows, but I do hate the red faced glow of being ashamed of what I’m doing.

    More than anything, I hate working on stuff that bores me; but that’s a different matter.

    • Thanks for the comment, which highlights how badly I phrased the original post. So here goes again. The BNP is a good example because no, I can’t think of an instance where I would work for them. But not all decisions would be that clear cut. If the BNP are at one end of a scale of organisations I disagree with, and at the other there’s something like, oh I don’t know, Oxfam, for example, there are lots of different shades of grey in between. The thought which has been occupying me is how far up, or down that scale do you go before “it’s my job”, becomes no excuse? My own example isn’t that exciting – I’m working for an outpost of a government department on a strand of policy that I think is A Good Thing. That doesn’t remove the fact that the parent department has on occasion proposed policy which I disagree with. I’m not ashamed of what I’m doing at all (if I was I wouldn’t be doing it), but it did make me idly wonder about where my limit might be. Oh, and the smoking thing? It gets much easier after the first ten years.

  2. Fair point. I’ve no idea where my own limit would be, mind you. Most of my employers are just running businesses that aren’t connected with anything sensitive like politics, clubbing seals or that sort of thing. Not that I would rule out the seal clubbers 😉

  3. Is it ok to work for a company that you despise as long as it pays the money? How many of us can afford to stand on the moral high ground? With the credit crunch beginning to grind us down many of us are forced into communicating on behalf of companies with gritted teeth.

  4. Its a toughie. I have walked away from contracts recently where individuals behaved badly – and I’ve been hurt financially as a result. But the organisation they worked for was OK. I havent been asked to work anywhere I’ve been morally or ethically opposed.
    As Penny says, the moral high ground may only last as long as the mortgage payments keep coming in – but there are lots of good organisations and good people, so lets hope we can work for them!

  5. Some forty years ago I was a post graduate student at one of the world’s most famous business schools. The method of teaching there was the so called ‘Case Study’ method where, under the guidance of the professor, actual, live business situations were carefully studied, disected and by means of the cut and thrust of fierce argument and debate the students came up with their proposed methods of overcoming the problems exposed or improving the future efficiency or profitability of the business described.
    One of these cases was a marketing problem experienced by a major brewery. The class presented their arguments and reasoning behind their improvement proposals in great detail. Unusually I had not joined in the discussion and when asked why I replied rather priggishly ‘This is not the way I would wish to earn my living’ and backed up my statement with the well known evils of drink, a slight knowledge of Dickens and my childhood memories of living opposite a pub where I saw at first hand the results of excessive drink on the adults and their waiting children. My comments caused more than the usual uproar especially as more than one of my classmates actually earned their living in making or selling alcohol. Having defended the purity of their own conscience they started to attack mine. ‘What do you do for a living?’ I was asked and I explained that I worked in the foundry industry. They were not experienced enough to realise that the foundry industry too has its Achilles Heels and at the time neither was I, so that I could easily defend my stance and my conscience remained more or less unsullied. But later in my career I learned otherwise. I had to visit and counsel foundries – and not only in this country – who manufactured inter alia tank turrets, bomb casings, and components for nuclear submarines and weapons. Who was I to have been so high and mighty and criticise those who earned their living by making or selling merely alcohol? From the haven now of many years of retirement I can safely say that stones and glass houses are a useful aide mémoire.

  6. Richard Lambert

    This is a dilemma which most public servants have to face some time in their career. I worked in the House of Commons service twenty years ago and found that I came to loathe and then despise the Thatcher governments. I was particularly uncomfortable with the poll tax legislation, and as it passed through Parliament, found myself asking at what point my conscience could no longer tolerate being a party to this. I was never required to work directly on the legislation, so there was no direct moment of crisis in which I had to decide.

    In the end, the accommodation I made with myself was that, however much I might dislike what they were doing, they were the duly elected government, acting to implement their manifesto, and the proper workings of the British constitution were more important than my personal politics. I remembered one of my senior colleagues remarking that history had shown that parliamentary officials should be able to accept any action, even the beheading of the monarch, as long as it is enacted using the correct procedures, and in the end, I believed that more strongly than anything else.

    That approach is harder to sustain when you are also aware that the Government is not playing by the spirit of the constitution’s rules. Time and again during this period, I watched as my senior colleagues were asked by the Whips’ Office to build bridges across the usual rules using procedural motions – effectively asking the House of Commons to agree to re-write its own rules for a specific occasions to suit the Government’s purpose. These resolutions were the procedural formalisation of stitch-ups between the two front-benches so that in the words of one Leader of the House, “the legislation is scrutinised, the opposition can make its point and the government can get its business”. No thought to the rights of the other parties or of backbenchers, or to the quality of the legislation that was enacted as a result.

    There were other things that went on, such as the tactic of ministers speaking at length in the early stages of standing committees, so that they could rack up the hours in order to justify guillotining the remaining stages of the bill to get it through, which all contributed to a sense of a goverment which believed it would be in power for perpetuity and was content to pay lip-service to the constitutional niceties, while riding roughshod over the reality.

    It’s a subject which has gone largely unremarked, mainly because few understood it and those who did outside the parliamentary service weren’t that interested. I think the only comment I am aware of is in Andrew Marr’s book “The Hidden Wiring”, where he tries to explain some of the less-seen parts of the British constitution, but someone, someday is going to stumble across this as a fascinating PhD thesis. Within the Palace of Westminster, we would often mutter that “This House has its rules and procedures, its practices and its privileges, and the Government has a majority and can do what the hell it likes.”

    Was this reason enough to leave a job that I loved and (as modestly as I can) realised that I was good enough to build a serious career? Answer, obviously not, because when I did leave, it wasn’t for this reason, but I was always aware that I knew there was a point beyond which I couldn’t go. When people used to ask me how I could work with politicians with whom I disagreed, I used to answer “You work with who you’re given.” But if you don’t like who you are given, you have to do something else.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s