Monday, May 21, 2007

Paul Wolfowitz: ethics 101 for the confused

Most large organizations have codes of ethics. Let us not be cynical, at least for the moment, and say that they are developed in good faith to check the more egregious and self-serving errors of their employees. Nobody likes scandal; even scoundrels want to be counted as just. Along with these codes of ethics comes a list of appropriate punishments for ethics violations. One of those is dismissal from the organization.

Enter Paul Wolfowitz whom violated World Bank ethics by rewarding his girlfriend with outsized compensation and promotions. The World Bank asked that he resign rather than go through the routine firing. My experience in the business world is that this is entirely consistent with standard business codes of ethics. Nothing about this routine case warrants the kind of ink it has gotten.

Yet the defenders of Wolfowitz claim that it is politically motivated. Ethics violations they would not accept in their own organizations they freely accept in the case of Wolfowitz. However, he violated World Bank ethics. That he is the leader of the World Bank makes it even less acceptable since he should embody the ethical standard for his organization.

Either an organization can have a code of ethics that leaders fairly administer and enforce, or it can have a code of ethics that is a sham and mockery of fairness. Those who claim that the World Bank has unfairly castigated and dismissed Wolfowitz might reflect upon the codes of ethics and the standards of fairness they would like to have in their own organization. How would they feel if the leader of their organization passed them over for a promotion and a good raise because the leader gave those rewards to someone with whom he is romantically attached?

Some defenders of Wolfowitz claim to apply an absolute, unqualified, and universal moral standard to everyone while suspending those requirements for cronies or those whose politics and ideology they find agreeable. This is a rank piece of hypocrisy. If there is logic to morals, it is also inconsistent.

In short, either organizations have fair enforceable codes of ethics for all, or they do not. You cannot have it both ways.

A note in passing: Woflowitz is getting a lucrative severance package. World Bank employees are outraged. This happens more often than not. We should not feel sorry for Paul Wolfowitz on this score. He will be able to make ends meet.

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