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Can You Be "Too Nice"?

DILEMMA:

I have a peculiar question about business ethics — I think it must be business ethics, but isn’t of the usual sort. Our company has been chronically suffering from a bad case of being “too nice.” I am really getting concerned that it will put us out of business before we get a good perspective of what the fine distinction is between being pushover managers and tyrants.

Case in point: We have a very difficult time enforcing standards. Even when we find out about employee fraud, it is a slap on the wrist and a warning. We’ve kept on certain staff who seem bent on breaking rules that have compromised standard safety, normal business expectations, and productivity. Not that we should have ever let it continue on like this, but in this recession, I am very concerned that it will be our undoing.

I am starting to see this as a business-ethics issue. Certainly it comes down to poor management, but it seems unethical to compromise the viability of the entire company because we don’t enforce standards and manage so badly. We’re trying to turn the business around, and everything is on the table for scrutiny and possible change. But most of the obstacles to real, substantial, and beneficial change have been “morale.”

A West Coast Business Owner

RESPONSE:

Dear West Coast:

You are right to see this problem as both an issue of poor management and one of ethics. In fact, these categories are often conjoined. You are also correct to see this problem as having the potential to lead to the complete meltdown of your organization as failing to demonstrate the courage to enforce stated policies (provided they are reasonable) undermines your ability to lead, period. Lack of enforcement of rules becomes a vicious cycle over time.

Moreover, once a broader group of stakeholders is brought into the picture, the problem you describe does not sound like one of “niceness” at all, but of passive permissiveness. Allowing fraud, safety, and productivity issues to go unchecked is not at all kind to owners/ investors, fellow employees, and to the very employees committing the transgressions.

While the following analogy certainly has limits in its applicability to business, consider parents who make rules, but then fail to enforce them. Most people would conclude that they are not being “nice” to their children (or to those impacted by the actions of the children involved). Nor would most people see parents who make and enforce reasonable rules as tyrants. The distinction between being a pushover and a tyrant is quite consistent with what most employees expect (and respect) in terms of rules: fairness and consistency.

Kenman Wong
Professor of Ethics, School of Business and Economics
Seattle Pacific University

If you have an ethical dilemma at your workplace,
email Ethics at Work (eaw@ethix.org).
We will publish some of these in
Ethix along with our diagnosis.

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