Sunday, May 6, 2012

Fulfilling an Obligation

An architectural firm prepared a master plan for a suburban civic center and yet struggled with the city and its selected contractor in completing the city hall on schedule and with the desired quality of construction. The city, with the same contractor, wants the firm to design the buildings in the second phase of the master plan, but the firm, having lost money on the first phase, wonders if it should do so.

Do we have an obligation to finish what we started? It depends. Duty ethics would have us do our duty and fulfill our obligations regardless of the inconvenience or possible negative consequences in doing so. But does that extend beyond our contractual duties? Do we really have to follow through on something over which we have choice, with no requirement to carry it forward and especially when we have had a previous bad experience?

The architects here had reasons for wanting to do the second phase of the work: to see their master plan for the civic center completed as they envisioned, to complement the existing city hall with compatible buildings, and to continue the relationship that they had developed with the city. The firm, though, also had reasons to walk away. The city had decided on the contractor – a politically well-connected company – without giving the architects a say in the matter, and while the building had come in on budget, making that happen had led the architects to spend far more time on the project than what their fee had covered.

The firm might want to do the next phase of the work in order to recoup its losses on the first part of the project, although it also risked the possibility that this client and contractor represented a financial black hole for the firm, in which only further losses could follow those already endured. Clearly the duty to follow through on what one has started must get weighed against the duty to look after the financial health of the operation. And contrary to the tendency in ethics to seeing duty as an absolute, the reality of practice requires that we balance our duty to our clients with the our duty to our employees and partners, bringing to situations like this virtues such as the prudence to know when to say no and the courage to stand up to the contrary expectations of others.

A situation like this also raises a virtue rarely thought of as such: the virtue of creativity in seeking out a way to accomplish seemingly contradictory goals. How might this firm ensure the proper completion of its master plan while insulating itself from further losses? One option might involve charging more to do the second phase of the work, based on the firm’s knowledge of what the first phase actually cost them, and letting the client decide if it wants to pay those fees. That option allows the firm to remain open to continuing to do the work, while ensuring that it won’t expose itself to another loss if the client decides not agree to the higher price for services.

Another option might involve playing more of a consulting role, enabling the city to hire another architect to do the work, but within the guidelines and oversight established by the master plan. That maintains the relationship, ensures compliance with the master plan, and protects the first firm from financial exposure. One of the paradoxes of duty ethics is that our greatest duty is to ourselves, for without that, we will not be around to do our duty to others. 

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Deceptive Job Searches

In the world of academic job searches, especially for well-known faculty and experienced administrators, there remain more posts than people, which in turn can lead some to engage in job searches without any intention of taking the position if offered. There is nothing illegal about this, but is it ethical?

Colleges and universities go to considerable expense in searching for people to fill their leadership positions. This may odd in locations where unemployment remains relatively high and in fields like architecture and design, which have felt the impact of recessions more than some other disciplines. Economists might say of such a situation that it simply reflects supply and demand. In parts of the economy where the supply of people outstrips the demand, unemployment will stay high and compensation low. And where demand outstrips supply, as often happens in the area of academic leadership, the opposite occurs.

Even in high-demand parts of the job market, however, it remains relatively rare for people to go through the effort of pursuing a position, especially when that involves traveling and often-grueling two-day interview processes during the search for academic leaders, without intending to take the job if offered. What accounts for the surprising frequency of this? To outsiders, such insincere job applicants can seem selfish, as if they go through this process to stoke their egos rather than to seek new employment. And to critics of the cost of higher education, it certainly represents a waste of time and money on the part of both the institutions seeking new leadership and those whose existing leaders engage in such deceptive job searches.

This seems especially true when the process leads to a failed search. A lot of time and money gets spent on all sides only to have the best candidates decline the job offers, leaving the institution to start over again. Of course, no employer wants a reluctant leader, someone who really doesn’t want the position or who feels forced to take it out of a sense of obligation because of the effort taken by the institution to fill the post. But why, then, do prospective academic leaders start the process to begin with?

The economic reasons remain clear. In many institutions, the salaries of the faculty and staff often increase slowly. And so often the only way to beat the system – particularly among those who have a national reputation, a track record of effective leadership, or a demonstrated ability to attract research dollars – involves getting job offers from other places, which can trigger a “retention” pay raise if the current employer wants to keep a valued employee from leaving. This also involves risk, of course. An institution might not make a retention offer, at which point the people who engage in such deceptive practices might find themselves either having to take a position they don’t really want or to stay with their existing employer who didn’t care to retain them and so doesn’t really want them all that much either.

Ethics has long argued that deception or a lack of honesty in dealing with others doesn’t pay. In the case of academics deceptively seeking jobs in order to get retention offers, however, that doesn’t seem true. It clearly pays for at some, given the number of academic leaders who have successfully secured job offers and had salary increases or received other perks from their existing employers as a result. But word gets out if done too often, and eventually such deception no longer works. The job offers and the retention packages stop coming when neither side believes a person’s sincerity.