Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Ethics? Schmethics!

OK, it's 8.30 p.m. and I'm still in the office (been co-teaching a fantastic MA class), but this caught my eye. Edward Snowden, the man who leaked the NSA surveillance presentation has lost his job:
Booz Allen issued a statement on Tuesday saying that Snowden had been fired for "violations of the firm's code of ethics".
One of the things I teach here is a course called Media and Ethics. We start with Kant and Mill and build up their two ethical notions (ontological and utilitarian) and then examine the behaviour of media, PR firms and readers/audiences through these paradigms.

One of the things we talk about is whether corporate Codes of Conduct such as that espoused by the Chartered Institute for Public Relations practitioners are anything more than propaganda. After all, the various versions of the CIPR code have huge loopholes which silently acknowledge the impossibility of serving your client faithfully and having a rigid moral code. One of my colleagues writes about this in relationship to the discourse of professionalism. Certain jobs are seen as more than paid gigs and require the practitioner to adhere to higher moral codes than the rest of us. Lawyers for instance aren't just answerable to their clients: they have to uphold the law as the impartial arbiter of disputes, which is why they can't deliberately lie in pursuit of their client's case. Doctors swear to 'do no harm' and to treat patients without regard to who they are. Academics have a duty to 'The Truth' (though most of us deny it exists) and a complicated set of values which stop us passing students on the basis that they've paid their fees.

PR operatives aren't professionals in this sense: they have no higher moral code or duty to society, as a group, though of course individuals I'm sure are essentially honest. But the fact remains that the CIPR code is meaningless: you don't need to be a member to be a PR operative; it's full of loopholes, and nobody has ever been sanctioned under it. Not even Max Clifford. But it looks serious and persuades clients that they're in good hands.

Which brings us to Booz Allen and its 'code of ethics'. The one Edward Snowden has been fired for. Luckily, Booz Allen has put it online. If you think this is a shrewd PR move to make them look less like the rapacious henchmen of unrestrained state power, you'd be right. It's even got smiling Asian people, black and several smiling women on the front to show that when it comes to multicultural semiotics, Booz Allen is totally ethical, man. One of them even further down the page looks like he might be a little bit gay! Wow. Booz Allen's like the most swinging total surveillance corporation in the world!

This is such a slick bit of PR. Smiling happy multiracial employees. 'Our' values, like they're central and natural to Booz Allen's soul. And of course it's a Green book. Because green = gentle and harmonious and natural. Actually, this might be a little bit of a teensy error: the other Green Book I can think of is by one Colonel Muammar Gadaffi of Libya. He used to press it on every visitor. You can read it here.

But let's have a look inside. Here's a lovely graphic of their core values:

Sadly, it's prettier than it is honest. Client Service, for instance, is not an ethical concern. In the current case, Booz Allen has helped the US Government spy on all its citizens and most of the rest of the world. Why? Because it was paid for. Is Entrepreneurship an ethic? Most people would struggle to define it, but very few definitions would associate it with multi-billion dollar mega-corps, or find an ethical angle. Respect, Fairness, Integrity, Trust, Professionalism, Excellence and Teamwork are of course like babies and sunshine: hard to oppose in general, though often a bit whiffy and unpleasant when examined closely. After all, all these things might well mean 'spying on millions of citizens industriously and excellently'. It all depends on the context of these terms: to whom does Booz Allen answer? The only operative response is that phrase 'client service'. None of these other terms conflict with Booz Allen taking government money to abolish the privacy of citizens. It is, in fact, a meaningless and evasive list which isn't about ethics at all: it's about evading any discussion of ethics. Neither Kant (who believed that moral choices had to be instinctive and inflexible) nor Mill (who believed moral choices were determined by calculating their outcomes) would recognise this as an enunciation of moral principles.

What words are missing? For me, any commitment to 'honesty' and human rights. Of course they are: Booz Allen wouldn't make any money if its employees applied ethical standards to its daily operations. But let's look at the company's extended definition of these terms (click to enlarge):

The word 'honest' does appear, but only under 'professionalism', and only as a device for improving relationships between employees. There's no recognition of an ethical code beyond operational efficiency. Under 'Integrity', we find 'representing the truth', which sounds promising. It's not culturally relativistic and appears to protect employees - but the context implies strongly that this is about, again, the employees daily conduct. It's more about not phoning in sick when you have a hangover than enabling the oppressive state. Other clauses are so circular that they're meaningless: apparently behaving ethically means to 'adhere to the firm's ethics', which wouldn't test the moral boundaries of Charles Manson as far as I can see. Is 'insisting on excellence' an ethical value? What, I ask you, is 'doing what is right'? To me, Edward Snowden did what is 'right', but this list is clearly about being an obedient and efficient employee, not about adhering to any wider moral code.

The whole thing is subverted by Client Service, which makes it clear that the highest ethic is Doing What You're Told Without Question To Make Money From Your Clients, Whatever They Want.

On the other hand, if I was Edward Snowden's union caseworker, I'd be contesting his dismissal on the grounds that he has completely fulfilled the Entrepreneurship requirements: he has taken risks, engaged in creative thought and action, inspired millions of us with a shared vision, and taken on new responsibilities and skills. Well done Edward!

Check out these two clauses:

We can forget about the 'values based, inclusive' bit because they're just boiler-plate, or filler. But Edward has certainly shown 'independent thinking', 'continuous learning and individual initiative'. Perhaps too much for the company's liking. What he's breached is the 'pride in a client-centric organization focused on results'.

Let's look at Booz Allen's case studies. Here's Angela Cole. She's won an award.
With a military background and a husband on active duty, Booz Allen’s value system mirrors my own. My parents ingrained the golden rule in me to treat others as you want to be treated, so I have both a high standard and clear expectations for how I behave and what I expect of others. Most of my colleagues are the same way. That’s powerful, working with so many people so willing to not only do the right thing, but go the extra mile along the way. As a firm, we are quick to own up and step up. 
—Angela Cole, VIP Award Winner 2012 (San Diego, CA) ProfessionaLism 

Sounds promising, doesn't it. She's tied in to American military culture. Couldn't be more honest coughMyLaiGuantanamoBagramcough. She wants to do the 'right thing'. She goes the extra mile, she owns up and she steps up. It sounds exhausting.

It also sounds like utter bollocks. Of course military values aren't inherently ethical. The military take orders and commit crimes. That said, the military have legal and moral constraints in a democracy - such as the Geneva Convention. Angela may move in military circles, but she isn't a public servant in the way that a soldier is. She works for a company and so is free of such constraints: which is the entire reason why the US Government (and the British) are so keen on privatising military activity. No scrutiny, no high standards, no scruples. Just business.
And the fact that all these unspecified 'right things' are listed under the discourse of professionalism means that Angela is protected from serious moral choices. She won't have to decide whether spying on your porn fetish is wrong. She simply has to do 'the right thing' by her fellow employees – not by her fellow humans. It's just a Personnel thing.
Having read the whole document, it's very clear that the philosophical notion of ethics is entirely absent from Booz Allen's code. It has to be. Instead, we get a lot of sometimes sensible, sometimes meaningless rules about how to behave at work - the vast majority of this document is about not cheating on your expenses. The nature of the work is not up for any sort of discussion. Check out this section:
Q: What should I do if my job manager is asking our team to do something that does not violate the laws or our policies, but I do not think it is ethically correct?
A: You should constructively discuss the issue with your manager. don’t be confrontational or assume that your manager knows everything that you do— or that you know everything that he or she does. understand that where no violation of law or policy is involved, you may need to agree to disagree and comply with duly-given instructions. if you are the manager in this situation, consider the employee’s concerns with an open mind and, depending on the situation, respond to the employee, take the matter under further consideration, or raise the concerns to your leadership. As appropriate, explain the final decision to the employee. 

It explains what you should do if you have ethical qualms. What you should do is shut up. The Company Knows. Anything that is legal, is ethical (and let's not forget that the NSA is apparently operating under a secret interpretation of the Constitution, running its requests through a secret court on the occasions it bothers to go to court). You are not capable of moral choices. You must obey. This is entirely contradictory to the fine-sounding words about individual responsibility and growth: it's an explicit warning that the individual is inherently dispensable.

There are more uplifting sections but there's always poison in the rose:
simply because something is lawful does not mean that it is right or would reflect positively on us, individually or as a firm. indeed, upholding our commitment to ethical business means that we will voluntarily refuse to do something— even though it is allowed legally—if it is not consistent with our Core Values.
In another clause, one imagined ethical doubt is:
“This helps only the client—not me or the firm”
Whether or not an action fails to benefit the company is not, as far as I can remember, in either Kant or Mills' texts. Supplying Zyklon B clearly helped its makers but I don't think that selling it to the Nazis to murder millions of Jews, Gypsies, Communists, Jehovah Witnesses and others is quite what we mean by 'ethical'. Clearly Booz Allen just doesn't consider the things they do within any ethical framework: there's nothing in any of the company's statements to suggest they thought twice about the NSA gig, despite this 'commitment to ethical business'. I'm also worried that their concern in this paragraph is not the innate morality of an action, but whether or not it 'would reflect positively on us'. That's not ethics: that's PR.

I wish I was Edward's union caseworker. I'd love to get my teeth into the Non-Retaliation Policy:
Q: What does it mean when we say that there are no “negative consequences” for raising issues or reporting misconduct?
A: it means that we do not tolerate retaliation in any form. Retaliation includes actions such as termination of employment
Sadly, I'd lose. As this document proves time and again, 'ethics' and 'values' don't relate in any way to any concept of universal morality. Ed's broken the rules on internal behaviour, not proper morality. The core values only protect people who blow the whistle through company procedures, which are explicitly drawn up to stop employees developing moral qualms about the company's raison d'être. Complain about sexist comments? You might be protected.
you must act to protect the firm when you observe, or have a good reason to suspect, that someone is violating the law or regulations, our Green Book, or a firm policy.
Complain about industrial spying on innocent people? Guards!
I love this bit:
where we determine illegal conduct related to our business has occurred, we voluntarily disclose it to the appropriate authorities unless disclosure is prohibited by applicable law.
Clear? They'll report themselves for breaking the law, unless it's against the law to confess to breaking the law (and anyway, this doesn't cover Constitution-busting work where the client is the state). 

But let's get to the exciting stuff: p. 27 and Confidentiality of Client and Third Party Information. This should be good!
The best way to protect client information is to not take possession of it. Each of us must restrict receipt of client information to only information that is reasonably necessary to propose or conduct an engagement even if greater information access is offered.
How does this relate to the wholesale theft of billions of people's phone calls Tweets, sexts and so on? Er… it doesn't. You and I aren't clients. The US Government is. We're the product. Though they're very keen to stress that they really don't want identifiable details of medical patients:
unless contractually required for our work, we do not accept personally identifiable information from our clients.
'Unless contractually required', that is. And that, my friends, is why these words, and your visit to this site, have been noted and recorded by Ed's successors and colleagues.
And of course Booz Allen is very keen to protect the privacy of its own employees (except for when they use the phone, web, iTunes etc.):
Booz Allen employees may not disclose any non-public firm information (including personal data regarding employees) to any third- party except as authorized by the firm. each of us must exercise extra caution when handling an employee’s personal data. We do not disclose current or former employees’ personal data to third-parties other than confirmation of employment dates and position without prior written consent from the employee or former employee unless the information is required to fulfill a legitimate business need—such as employee benefits—or as required by law.

Er… within very vaguely drawn limits:
No expectation of Privacy: You have no expectation of privacy regarding your use of any firm or client-issued IT assets. We reserve the right to monitor and inspect your use of firm IT assets at any time without notice to you and without your consent. Clients may also perform similar inspection or monitoring in connection with the use of their IT assets. Also, remember that all data stored on a firm IT asset is owned by, or licensed to, the firm, and clients may have similar ownership rights to data stored on their IT assets.
Next time you read a Booz Allen statement to the press about this affair, think about this:
in communicating via any public channel, Booz Allen truthfully and accurately represents itself while respecting its confidentiality commitments to its clients, employees, suppliers, and others. We do not make statements to any third party that are untrue, inaccurate, or omit relevant information that make the statements misleading.
Yeah. Right. And the consequences of any breach are?

 It couldn't be clearer. Lawyers, doctors, teachers are professions because they have a duty which transcends the client. Booz Allen doesn't. It was paid to breach the human rights of millions of Americans and it did so. Yet Edward Snowden is the one who gets fired for breaching 'ethical codes'.
I'm angry (though not remotely surprised) about the NSA activities: all our governments and many corporations do it, or want to. But I think this is also an instructive event for all of us. We're surrounded by Codes of Conduct, Ethical Values, Mission Statements etc. etc. etc. We never read them, even when we sign them. We think they mean something. They don't. They're carefully constructed to persuade us that we can relax: our morality is outsourced and we never have to examine our conduct again - our employers have taken on the responsibility for us. And when we engage with other organisations, we assume their codes mean something. They don't. They're just diversionary tactics. All that matters is the law (which is easily circumvented) and our own values, a muscle deeply in need of more and frequent exercise. 

Your thoughts?
(Apologies for the scruffy formatting: Blogger won't save any of my edits and keeps messing up the presentation).


Shackleford Hurtmore said...

I was once a consultant for one of the big firms. They are indeed full of duplicitous doublethink on a daily basis.

But, I remember my introduction to Ethics concentrated on one acid test for if something was ethical: how would you feel if what you did/said/emailed ended up on the front of a national newspaper? If you would feel embarrassed or ashamed, then it was unethical.

In this case, I think Edward Snowden passed that ethics test with flying colours.

Shackleford Hurtmore said...

That "introduction to Ethics" was a mandatory self-study course that had to be completed within several weeks of joining the consultancy firm...

philturner78 said...

What concerns me most is whether 'Booz Allen'is even a real name. Who on Earth monickers their offspring 'Booz'??! I mean, I know there's a post-Beckham trend to choose your child's name using an association to it's conception, but seriously...

...Oh actually, thinking about it, there IS 'Booz of Rachab' from Matthew 1:5 from off of the Bible of course. Surely you know him? He was the one what got 'begated' by Salmon. (ref: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matthew_1:5)

Ergo, everything he says MUST be gospel. Sorry Vole.

Anonymous said...

Sentances should start with capitals - many of theirs don't. 1st time ever, I agree with Gove - if you can't get your grammar right, people won't want to employ you!

The Plashing Vole said...

Shackleford: that sounds fairly reasonable, though I'd have my doubts about exporting my ethical stances to the Mail or the Sun.

Phil: Edwin G Booz was, I believe, the object of the Family Guy song 'Mr Booz', which extolled the delights of behaving badly while under the influence. It all adds up.


Jake said...

I can see at least three items under the "Trust" sub-heading that could be argued as not only permitting but requiring Snowden to take the action he did.

This should make for an employment tribunal hearing that none of the participants will ever forget, should he decide to sue them.