Saturday, March 31, 2012

Maternity Leaves

A designer working for a U.S. firm in one of its overseas offices became pregnant and expected to have the same maternity benefits that she would have had in the United States. She discovered, though, that the Family and Medical Leave Act, which grants up to 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave and requires that the employer have an equivalent job for the returning employee, does not apply to workers outside U.S. territory. 

In a global economy, in which people increasingly work in foreign countries, the ethics of employee rights becomes complicated. As this designer discovered when she became pregnant, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) does not cover “extraterritorial” situations, and so she had none of the job protections that the American firm she worked for would have had to provide her in the U.S. Many American companies, of course, extend these laws to all of their employees, but no American law requires them to apply FMLA protections beyond U.S. borders.

Some who advocate for the minimal regulation of the marketplace may see no ethical problem here. Libertarians might argue that this employee made the decision to work for this firm and she has the freedom to walk away and find employment in another one. Or pragmatists might say that she can always make arrangements for childcare so that she can return to work as soon as she is medically able to do so, taking personal responsibility for the consequences of her becoming pregnant.

Such positions, though, do not look very far ahead to the real consequences of such hard-nosed and rather hard-hearted arguments. Consider the effect such behavior has on a firm’s reputation. I heard this story at a dinner party from someone who had heard it from someone else in the city in which this firm has its home office. While such story telling has real value in warning people about which employers to avoid, it can have a devastating effect on the firm in question, making it hard to attract the best employees and, even worse, creating a negative impression of the firm among prospective clients and within the communities in which it practices. A decision that might have given the firm a short-term business advantage – not extending FMLA to its overseas employees – can have terrible long-term implications for its business worldwide.

Inside the firm, employees will not want to work in the firm’s overseas offices if that means a loss of benefits. Firms, instead, should incentivize workers to take posts in foreign countries, given the inconvenience and disruption this can cause in a employee’s private life. Also, having dramatically unequal treatment of staff within the same organization can create all sorts of tensions that lead, in turn, to a discouraged and disgruntled workforce – not a formula for success in an increasingly competitive global economy. If anything, firms with overseas offices should offer as many benefits and perks as possible to find the very best employees as possible, regardless of what the law allows them to avoid.

You could argue that governmental requirements that a firm obey a law like FMLA or marketplace incentives that it does so in order to compete and to protect their reputation both lead to the same outcome, raising the question of whether it matters how we achieve such a goal. But there is a difference: depending on the marketplace alone does not guarantee that a firm will see what is in its best interest. Nor does it prevent a lot of individuals, like this designer, from suffering the unfortunate consequences of a firm’s shortsighted and self-destructive decisions.

Sunday, March 25, 2012


A large firm had a growing amount of turnover in its staff and when the managing partner investigated, he heard many staff members and former employees talk about the bullying behavior of a couple of the other partners in the firm. The managing partner wanted to preserve his good relationships with his partners, but also wanted to stem the turnover and address what many saw as abusive behavior in the firm.

Bullying has reached almost epidemic levels among children and adolescents, especially with the rise of social networks allowing people to spread rumors, slander, and even private photos or videos of those who they don’t like. An often more subtle form of bullying can also occur in the workplace among adults, in which people mock, undermine, or dismiss the efforts of others. Many reasons, no doubt, underlie this behavior, ranging from growing job insecurity to increasing workplace competition to rising levels of rudeness in a fast-paced world. The question is: what to do about it?

The managing partner in this firm knows that he has to do something, given his knowledge of the situation, but what to do isn’t exactly clear. His partners could claim that the comments of disgruntled or former employees simply represent sour grapes. They could also see his confronting them about this issue as, itself, a form of bullying, abusing his role as the managing partner. Therein lies the paradox of bullying. To stop bullying, you have to become a bit of a bully yourself, which can make the real bullies look like victims and start a whole new round of bullying on their part as a result.

Although the question of how to deal with bullying can be confusing, the ethics of the situation remain clear. Bullying almost always represents an abuse of power, with the bullies usually more senior or of higher rank than their victims. As such, bullying violates the most fundamental rule in ethics, that of reciprocity, which would have us do to others as we would want them to do to us, as the Bible puts it, or to treat others as ends in themselves and not means to our ends, as Kant phrased it. Ethics serves us best as a decision-making tool, guiding us to do the right thing in situations like this. And that notion of reciprocity offers perhaps the best advice on how to deal with bullies.

You should treat bullies, in other words, as you would want them to treat you. Don’t bully them, but speak to them about their behavior calmly and directly, conveying the facts about how others see them as bullies and asking them how they plan to change their behavior accordingly. Some bullies do not see themselves as such and so they have the right to know how others see them and to have a chance to alter their behavior. Bullies, of course, may try to bully the conveyor of this message, which no one wants to endure. But if that happens, it offers an excellent opportunity to point out to them the very behavior under discussion.

If the bullying doesn’t stop, then the reciprocity has to take another form. Do for the victims what you would want them to do for you if you were in their place. That might take a variety of forms, from withholding compensation increases to bullies until they stop, isolating them in ways that minimizes their ability to abuse others, and even looking for ways to force them out of the organization. Unfortunately, bullies sometimes only respond to the bullying of others, the ultimate in reciprocity.

Sunday, March 4, 2012


A client of a high-rise building in a country with hostile neighbors asked the architect to design a disguised anti-missile installation at the top of the tower. While the architect felt obliged to accommodate the client – and the country’s – request, it raised questions about whether or not the inhabitants of the building should know about the installation and about how people would feel working in what would become a possible military target.

Safety ranks, along health and welfare, as one of the primary responsibilities of architects. While design professionals often think of safety in terms of ensuring the stability of a structure, the accessibility of fire exits, and the security of every element in a building, the concept can extend to the protection of a facility from attack.

Since 9/11, the possibility of an air-borne strike at a building has become a definite possibility, particularly if the structure carries symbolic importance to an enemy. As a result, the design of especially high-rise or high-security structures now often includes a simulation of how the building would withstand a direct hit by, say, an airplane fully loaded with fuel.

Installing anti-missile devices in a building that doesn’t otherwise have a military purpose seems to take this to another level, however. The architect here has gone from ensuring the safety of the building’s inhabitants to engaging in defensive tactics, which could possibly increase the security of the occupants should the structure come under attack or just as likely decrease it by making the structure a target.

Such an extreme case highlights a common dilemma in the production of architecture. The architect has a professional duty to accommodate the needs of a client as long as those programmatic requirements lie within the law and do not endanger occupants or passersby. At the same time, the architect has an obligation to protect people’s health, safety, and welfare, even if they never know how the architect has done so.

But does the architect also have an obligation to inform the inhabitants of a building about aspects of it that could endanger them? That certainly happens with signage that, for instance, warns people not to leave fire doors ajar, not to lean over railings in high-up locations, or not to access spaces that contain potentially hazardous materials. Such warnings constitute reasonable safety precautions intended to protect people and most of us no doubt welcome such advice. However, there remain myriad examples of architects protecting people’s safety that go unstated: preventing falls on stair with slip-proof treads and readily accessible handrails, for example, or protecting against electrical shock with grounded outlets and switches.

Should an architect stay equally quite about a less imminent and yet gravely serious threat, such as a missile attack? The client likely does not want to alarm or scare away tenants and the country, just as likely, might not want others to know of the installation, evident in the request that the architect disguised it. But does an architect have a duty to inform people of the potential danger and the precautions taken to protect them?

Utilitarian ethics can help answer such questions. What constitutes the greatest good for the greatest number? The citizens of the country certainly know of their hostile neighbors and of the possibility of missile attacks, so the architect has no need to inform them of that. But the architect does have an obligation to not only do as the client asks, but also to lay out the pros and cons of informing the building’s occupants and to say what he or she would do. Honesty is the safest bet.