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Analysis: Conscience Versus Duty

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Many of us feel trapped in the roles assigned to us in our work spheres. This feeling grows gradually. In fact, most of us are like frogs in a well when we are in junior positions. At those levels, our field of view is limited, busy as we are in our attempts to overachieve, driven mostly by adrenaline. Later, as we rise in the hierarchy, we get to see from up close the ‘truth' or the actual DNA of the organisation. By then, one is seen as an ‘establishment' person who has come up from the ranks and one who fully subscribes to and empathises with the company's vision.
Such a situation is very stressful and needs to be addressed urgently and with clarity. Otherwise, the conflict tends to reduce efficiency levels, lowers morale and, ultimately, demotivates the individual.

So, what are the choices available to a person who finds himself in this position?

Quite simply, not many. Either he conforms to the reality or he opts out. There is a third option and sadly, many remain in this ‘twilight zone'. These people begin to live a lie. They are unhappy and feel helpless as they are unable to change the status quo and worse, unable to move out of their comfort zones mostly because of the financial security the job provides. In time, the conflict starts gnawing at their innards and a downward efficiency spiral sets in.

Kapil Shankar, quite clearly does not belong in this ‘twilight zone'. He joined the company enthused by the vision that Aniljeet Daman articulated because it matched well with his core beliefs. As time went on, he started noticing Taffet Group employing questionable means to achieve corporate ends. This was in conflict with the stated aim of bringing an advanced generation product for the common man. While Aniljeet may have been well-meaning and committed to the end, the ethical shift in the company begged the question: does a laudable end justify the questionable means deployed to achieve it?

As the head of HR, it was Kapil's responsibility to nurture a human resource base that is aligned to and capable of delivering Aniljeet's vision. Kapil got immersed in his task but soon saw disturbing trends, which had the potential to alter the trajectory of a company that was ramping up to achieve its owners' vision. Strangely, the owner himself appears to be oblivious to this development. Kapil had Aniljeet's ear and like a responsible senior management member, he boldly brought his concerns to the table, only to be brushed aside by Anil's disparaging comment that Kapil was not adventurous enough. The writing on the wall was clear. Aniljeet was a man in a hurry, not likely to be slowed down by issues that would, in effect, become speed bumps on his highway to success.

Is there such a thing as being too sensitive about issues that have an ethical dimension in a vibrant, innovative and successful company? Or, are business ethics bound to be a casualty in companies that need to survive in a hostile, dynamic and highly competitive market place where almost nobody plays by the rules? These are interesting moral dilemmas even if they reside in a philosophical domain. A surgeon cannot be emotional about losing his patient on the table. He needs to insulate himself from suffering long-term emotional lows if he has to remain effective and continue to help other patients. Similarly, in order to be effective and deliver as per expectation, a soldier must desist from being tentative and squeamish about taking an enemy's life when locked in combat.

So, should the head of HR be concerned only with delivering what is expected of him and leave other corporate strategy issues to be decided by those whose job it is? If an individual is ethical, intelligent, observant and has the courage of his or her convictions, it becomes extremely difficult to let things ride and turn the other way while disturbing trends are visible within ones field of view. Kapil is such a man, and his decision to quit shows it.

And what of vision-driven owners like Aniljeet, who choose to remain disengaged while their hatchet men go to work using questionable means? This approach is myopic and success, so achieved, will not last. As in life, so in business — if ethical conduct is missing, excellence and success will be fleeting. This is why we have two types of business entities: those that flatter to deceive and others that remain successful long after their visionary owners pass on the baton to like-minded professionals.

Corporates must foster a culture that encourages employees to adopt the ‘straight and narrow'. But before it does that, it needs to believe that if a business remains ethical irrespective of the market environment around it, success is assured, even if it is slightly long in coming. There are enough examples of companies that have remained successful through the highs and lows that are part and parcel of the business landscape, worldwide.

Rakesh Sharma (India's first man in space) has retired from active test flying and is now chairman of Automated Workflow Group

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 29-08-2011)