Telling It Like It is [Directors Cut]

I love technology. It is constantly evolving and improving. I love the companies that create these cutting edge products and I idolize the way they are able to innovate so quickly. This summer I got to be apart of one of those companies, Amazon, and was able to see how the systems that support those products are built and created. It is a very unpolished process. Deadlines are always looming so there is little time to do more than push forward. This creates a big problem for these companies. Sometimes these problems go unnoticed by management, but employees become aware of them. It is at that point the responsibility of the employee to make his observations and concerns known. Employees must take responsibility into their own hands and speak up if they see the company going down the wrong path, according to Kant, it is moral for them to do so.

Even the best of companies can fall prey to laziness and bad habits. Google has used the classic “I’ll do it later” technique when it comes to turning their services into platforms. The only problem is, it never gets done. Also, the longer Google waits to do this, the more value is lost and the more costly it becomes to finally do it. Whenever they finally do release some API’s for their services, they are lackluster and you know they are bad when Google doesn’t even use them itself. These problems are not any one person’s fault, but it is formed by a continual trend of focusing on getting it done, rather than doing it well. It is big overarching problems like this that someone has to stand up against and start a movement of change.

At Google, this problem was not being addressed by the people who had the power to really make changes. Something like this is basically a company wide change and so it really needs to be addressed by the CEO or at least a VP. These people in power need to be “the bad guy” and put their foot down. When Amazon recognized that it needed to move to a service based architecture, it took Jeff Bezos to mandate a change. Of course, everyone was upset because of the effort it would require, but in the end, it was well worth it. However, when the right people aren’t addressing these problems, it falls to brave employees to take a stand.

Finally, at Google, Steve Yegge, an outspoken engineer, wrote a very long rant about the problems and how to fix them. Although he didn’t mean to, he also made this rant public. Immediately a bunch of articles surfaced that focused on this outburst and what it meant for Google. Now everyone in the world knew of Google’s biggest internal problems. This is a great, although unorthodox, way to get your voice heard and convince people that change is needed. A similar tactic was used by one anonymous employee at Research In Motion.

At RIM, an open letter was sent to management discussing many of the problems with the company that the unnamed employee had recognized. This letter was also made public and many people outside of the company got a glimpse of how employees felt about their own company, and it wasn’t good. In this case RIM officially responded to the letter immediately to try and quell some investor fears. The employee clearly wanted RIM to change their ways and improve the company. However, this kind of public revealing of internal problems definitely has a downside.

The first, and most obvious, downside to publicly revealing internal problems is the effects on stock price. If investors hear about these problems, they are less likely to invest in your company and thus stock price goes down. Public companies rely on investors to continue funding operations and keep growing. This is not good for the company and it could be argued that the employee should be punished for it. However, what these employees did, in the end, is morally right, according to Kant, and is best for the company.

Let’s examine the scenario in which an employee, who recognizes big flaws in the company, does nothing about them. First, and most importantly, the company is hurt. The problems will continue to exist and the business will face the consequences of that. In Google’s case, they will continue to have substandard platforms and in RIM’s case, they will continue to be a struggling company. Also, it hurts the employees.
If an employee knows that something big in the company is wrong and does nothing about it, he or she will be disgruntled. They, most likely, will not be able to get behind the company a hundred percent, because they will see the company as flawed. It is also likely that they are not the only employee to recognize these flaws, so other employees will feel the same way. The best way to solve this, make the flaws known. “To whom” is the question.

If an employee just lets management know about his feeling and concerns then there will be no one to back him up. It will be one voice and, if management disagrees with him, then there is not a lot he or she can do about it. Also, this may hurt him in the eyes of his superiors, they will know that he disagrees with the way the company is operating, or managed. In my opinion, these concerns need to be voiced to a bigger audience.
If an employee lets the whole company know of his concerns, as Steve Yegge intended, he is bound to find others that agree with him. This is a good way to get management aware of the problem as well as having some backing behind the idea. However, for the employee, this is a gamble in that he could be punished for his actions, if management doesn’t agree with him or the way he went about it. Or an employee could voice his concerns to the biggest stage of them all, the world.

The fastest way to ensure changes are brought about is for an employee to let the whole world know of his concerns. Doing this forces management to act because, odds are there are people in the public that agree with the employee and thus are interested in how and when the problems addressed are going to be fixed. Many of these people, like I said earlier, can be stockholders (or stakeholders). The employee may face severe punishment for this, but is it justified.

Should management punish an employee for voicing concerns in such a big way, I think they should. Letting employees do this is just too risky for the company. However, the idea behind employees recognizing problems is a good one. If everyone in the company is looking for problems and solutions, there is a better chance they will be recognized, as opposed to just a handful of people doing it. So, in order to remedy this, there needs to be a better way for employees to voice concerns and management needs to take these seriously.

If you give employees an easy, but safe (for the company), way to voice concerns then we get the best of both worlds. Employees get to recognize problems and the company isn’t harmed in the process. However, the only way a system like this can work is if managers make it clear that they take all the suggestions/concerns seriously. The reason these Google and RIM employees did what they did is because just telling a couple management wouldn’t be enough. That is why a system like this needs to be shown to be an effective way for employees to be heard.

Let’s examine this situation from a Kantian perspective. At first glance one would say that this is a violation of the first formulation of the categorical imperative, “Act only on maxims which you can will to be universal laws of nature.” If everyone in a company were to write a long rant about the problems of a company and publish them publicly the company would basically die. No investors would want to touch it and no new employees would want to join the company. However, we are missing the central tenet of Kant’s moral philosophy, that an action is only truly moral if it is morally motivated. Truly moral actions cannot be contaminated by motives of self-interest. I would argue that these employees actions are definitely not motivated by self-interest and therefore are purely motivated.

Dissenting opinions of this analysis may argue the morality of this situation from a utilitarian perspective. From a utilitarian perspective, it is not clear whether this action is moral or not. It all depends on how much this hurts (or benefits) the company. Also it is possible that this action has more overall utility in the long run so that could make it moral. In the end it is not clear if it maximizes utility or not.

Sometimes companies slowly develop bad habits. It falls on upper management to recognize and solve these problems. When it doesn’t employees must take steps to make them known. However sometimes an employees is forced to do this in an extreme matter. Company’s must put in place systems for employees to do so safely and effectively. Because employees must take responsibility into their own hands and speak up if they see the company going down the wrong path. And, managers need to empower that.

Works Cited

Bissram, Veena. “Google Engineer Apologizes for “Great-Granddaddy of Reply-All Screwups”” Social Media News and Web Tips – Mashable – The Social Media Guide. Mashable, 21 Oct. 2011. Web. 04 Nov. 2011. <;.

Frederick, Robert E. “A Kantian Approach to Business Ethics.” A Companion to Business Ethics. Malden, Mass. [u.a.: Blackwell, 2010. 3-16. Print.

Geller, Jonathan S. “Open Letter to BlackBerry Bosses: Senior RIM Exec Tells All as Company Crumbles around Him.” BGR: The Three Biggest Letters In Tech. Boy Genius Report, 30 June 2011. Web. 04 Nov. 2011. <;.

Lardinois, Frederic. “Google Engineer: “Google Is a Prime Example of Our Complete Failure to Understand Platforms” — SiliconFilter.” Silicon Filter, 12 Oct. 2011. Web. 04 Nov. 2011. <;.

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One Response to Telling It Like It is [Directors Cut]

  1. Jordi says:

    I was surprised you didn’t take Kant’s first dictum and turn it around and apply it to managers too. You seem to suggest the duty to act morally only falls to employees. What would Kant’s first dictum suggest about how to handle internal dissent?

    Second, I need to double check, but you presume that current share price is relevant for a firm’s financial well-being. It is not that clear. If a firm uses its share price to get financing for investment, than sure. But traded shares do not create money for a firm; only newly issued ones would. But the effect of changes on share price may matter to the personal wealth of higher managers or other employees vested in the firm. The Kantian perspective on short-term alignment versus long-term alignment would be an interesting addition.

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