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Online Edition — March 2003

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Walking the Talk: An Interview with Chris Richardson
Looking Toward the Future
Ask the PowerPhrase® Expert



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The Good, the Bad & the Difference:
How to Tell Right From Wrong in Everyday Situations
by Randy Cohen
Doubleday, 2002
ISBN: 0385502737
Hardcover, 256 pages.
Price $16.77
Overall Rating: ** Is it at the library?



Whistleblowers: Broken Lives and Organizational Power
by C. Fred Alford
Cornell University Press, 2002
ISBN: 0801487803
Paperback, 192 pages.
Price $16.95
Overall Rating: ** Is it at the library?



Not every book that is interesting to read is worth purchasing. At a time when many of us are trying to be frugal, it makes sense to be critical about what to add to a home or office library. A nonfiction book deserving of purchase should not only be interesting, but it also should provide useful knowledge to which one may wish to refer in the future. Alas, neither of this month’s books meets both criteria; they prove to be interesting but not particularly useful. So, dust off your library card, check out one or both of them, and settle in for a good read.

Our first book is by Randy Cohen, author of the popular New York Times Magazine column, “The Ethicist.” This column is to ethics what Miss Manners is to etiquette. In The Good, the Bad & the Difference, he has selected over 100 of the most interesting questions from his column along with his answers. They are organized into chapters on different aspects of life: commerce, work, civics, society, family, school, and medicine. Complementing the questions, each chapter includes an “Ethics Pop Quiz”—four interesting and provocative questions to stimulate your thinking—and sections titled “Guest Ethicist,” “Arguing with The Ethicist,” and “A Postscript” (where the writer of the original question responds to the advice given).

The most interesting (and useful) portions of the book are the purely expository sections of each chapter. In these, Cohen talks about the nature of ethics and discusses the aspects of ethical dilemmas in different settings. He places ethics within the larger context of a continuum of right behavior beginning on a small scale with etiquette, progressing to ethics, and ending with politics. He also admits that “Any discussion of ethics will come down to the values of the writer and how clearly and persuasively he can articulate those values and apply them to the particular scenario under discussion.” (p. 4) For the most part, Cohen succeeds at this task, answering a wide variety of questions—from the many variations of “Do you tell?” which counterpoise minding one’s own business with the effects of ignoring wrongdoing, to people who describe “behavior they almost certainly know is wrong” hoping that The Ethicist will “endorse their bad behavior, thereby absolvingthem.” (p. 7)

Cohen does not pull his punches when he answers the questions presented to him. Unfortunately, he sometimes fails to follow his own advice that “Sarcasm is a temptation that those in my line of work ought to resist.” (p. 160) He frequently lapses into sarcastic and belittling responses, such as “Alas, his being an unpleasant fellow does not justify your being a thief. Too bad, I admit. We would all feel better if we had to behave honorably only to people we liked. But there you are….” (p. 155) I suspect that this is a holdover from Cohen’s days as a writer for “Late Night With David Letterman,” but that really doesn’t justify a mean-spirited answer—even if the question sounded something less than serious. This sarcasm eventually grates on the reader’s nerves, more so because of the book’s topic of ethical behavior. Ultimately, this makes the book somewhat less effective in its message, although more entertaining.

Among Cohen’s wide-ranging comments, he has little to say about the ethical phenomenon known as whistle-blowing—even though the topic has received quite a bit of press over the past year. He merely states, “Much as we admire the whistleblower, we hate the squealer, the rat.” (p. 7) This echoes the message in our second book.

Whistleblowers will not be an easy book for most people to read. Its language is that of sociology, psychology, and psychiatry; its stories disturbing; and its message contains little hope. Yet, this is an important book about making ethical decisions. It seeks to understand the motivation behind the whistleblower and how the organization responds.

Alford talks about what it really means to be a whistleblower: “In theory, anyone who speaks out in the name of the public good within the organization is a whistleblower. In practice, the whistleblower is defined by the retaliation he or she receives…. If there is no retaliation, she is just a responsible employee doing her job to protect the company’s interest.” (p. 18)

He also discloses the typical nature of the retaliation, which leaves half to two-thirds of the whistleblowers without jobs: “The key organizational strategy is to transform an act of whistle-blowing from an issue of policy and principle to an act of private disobedience and psychological disturbance.” (p. 32)

Whistle-blowing and the subsequent organizational response is explained using several metaphors, including:

  • A “space-walking astronaut who had cut his lifeline to the mother ship.” (p. 5)
  • A feudal society: “To say that the whistleblower experiences his or her world as feudal is to point out that this is how power looks from the bottom up.” (p. 102)
  • The ancient Hebrew ritual of the scapegoat: “He represents what we all have learned about the organization but cannot bear to know: that it will destroy us if we think about what we are doing and what is happening to us.” (p. 126)

Alford brings together the results from a variety of research studies to help the reader understand whistleblower motivation. He concludes that, “Whistleblowers blow the whistle because they dread living with a corrupted self more than they dread isolation from others. It is as simple and complicated as that.” (p. 90) It is an inability or an unwillingness to “double”—to have a “work self” and a “family self” that embrace conflicting values.

As for the organization’s need to retaliate, he says, “The whistleblower is so threatening because he or she brings the values of the home and church—the larger world—into the organization.” (p. 130)

The message from this short book probably will remain in your thoughts long after the book has been returned to the library. It asks us to confront our own behavior and ask, “Could I do that? Would I do that? Or, would I side with the organization, instead?”

CHRISTINE ROBINSON has more than 25 years of leadership experience in quality systems for the process industries. She has a master’s degree in quality, values, and leadership from Marian College. An avid reader, she spends a significant amount of her time with her nose in books and her body at the library.

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