Management Ethics in a Global Company

by Colin Berkshire

Colin here.

Most employees can sidestep ethics questions because they have limited latitude to make decisions. A soldier cannot make any ethical decisions about those who he kills as that decision rests with higher ups.

But if you are a manager you will be faced with ethics questions. How can we managers handle the contradictions and double standards?

Many folks bash Walmart over their only paying minimum wage. I see two things here: First is that they are following the law, so why should they do more? Second is that most of those who bash Walmart confess that they “occasionally” shop there. Frankly, the whole Walmart argument confuses me greatly. When should a company be chastised for following the law? Change the law.

Apple takes it especially hard. They get crucified when it is discovered that the workers at their contract manufacturers are working more than 40 hours a week. I have met quite a lot of those workers, and I can tell you: they want to work 60 hours a week. They are away from their families, living in dormitories so that they can make money to support their families. More hours is more money and the sooner they can get back home. But the “do-gooders” back in America are keeping them from seeing their loved ones.

We don’t hold the same standards equally. A cruise company like Princess Cruises or Carnival works their employees 7 days a week, 10~12 hours a day, for 60~90 hour workweeks. They get no days off for months. Somehow, we Americans have no problem with this while getting outraged when Apple contractors let employees work 60 paid hours.

But it gets worse:

Cruise line companies pay their workers about $3.50 an hour—some much less. This $3.50 an hour applies even when inside the United States, between US ports, serving a customer base that is 90% American. They have complete disregard for US law, claiming to be subject to international law only.

Not outraged yet:

If a company paid its US-based workers differently, it would be an outrage. Imagine that Apple stores paid their US workers of Mexican nationality $5 an hour and Germans $15 an hour, Africans $3 an hour, and Chinese $22 an hour. This would be illegal. Managers would go to jail. But this is exactly what happens with the cruise lines. They pay workers on the very same ship doing the very same job differently solely based upon national origin. It’s common for a manager to make less than his subordinates, simply because of race and nationality. Nobody is outraged.

So you, as a manager in a global economy, have a challenge. How do you justify different wages, working conditions, and safety standards across your company?

It is difficult. I have never found a “clean” answer.

So the next time you get upset at Walmart, remember that they are following the law. The next time you get upset at Apple’s contract workers, remember that they want to work more and you are hindering them. And, the next time you take a cruise, remember that you are supporting racial discrimination.

Ethics are tough in a global economy.