June 07, 2002
Backlog I : Corporate Ethics

I've got some items in backlog which, given the paucity of postings lately, I need to get off my plate. These are largely unformed, but may or may not be of interest.

This first item was scrawled down in mid-May, at the time Iambic had registered a couple domain names that just as legitimately belonged to a competitor product. It got me thinking about how corporations large and small should act, and if they can act, ethically. The topic of how Iambix should have performed has been beaten to death, and they've already made stes to rectify their behavior. The larger question remains, including the disclosed activities this week of Tyco's (now) former CEO.

- time travel -

I've been thinking this moring about the concept of corporate ethics. Recently Iambic, makers of ActionNames for the Palm among other apps, registered a pair of domains that - by name at last - were tightly assoiated with a competitor. In a recent recusal of the action, the heasd of Iambic said that this action did not meet the standards of his company.

But what does that really mean? Without wandering ito the thicket of ideas that is whether a company can be considered a person - and when a company can be treated as a person under the law - can a company act "ethically"? Obviously there's a lot of fooforaw about this from the Enron situation, and it may be clear that the goals of proper behavior didn't align with other corporate goals. I'd argue that it is in some ways harder for a company to act purely ethically when that company is small - I don't have facts, but I imagine Iambic doesn't have more than a dozen employees, some of whom are contract. They may even outsource their PR and Marketing, which could easily have led to this minor debacle.

In a large company of course, it is the actions of a large number of people, small parts each in the whole but large in the aggregate, which makes the company ethics balance. Even the company I work for, which is certainly under the strong constraints of fiscal pressure, has acted in what I would consider good ways - from the beginning they spun off an online charitable giving arm, and in the case of our company giving an employee above-and-beyond assistance when a family member died and arrangements crossed not time zones but continents. Does that make us an ethical company? No.

Every individual in the company makes dozens of decisions each day, decisions that affect themselves first and usually the company second. If I speak with less than true character, but get the sale and the commission, is that a good thing? If I shorcut the code here, but save a half hour to flesh out another feature, is that a good thing? How doe the aggregations of these small decisions become an ethical one? But every time we do make the right decision in a larger picture, or at least weigh the balance judiciously, it does make us a company that has shown we know we can do the right thing.

Iambic knows how to do the right thing also - I use and appreciate their software daily. But they also showed that everyone slips.

If ethical behavior is in the many small steps, a slip is uavoidable. A constant careful stepping is even more wise.

- return from time travel -

Posted by esinclai at June 07, 2002 05:41 AM |