I am a manager in a large corporation, and a new phase of promotions are on the table. One of my employees (say, AB) is obviously intelligent, a hard worker, and has generated quality work for my group for over a year.  I am allowed to promote 10 people from a list of 15.  Of these, 10 candidates (including AB) have been with the company over a year, and 5 are new hires who have been with the company for less than 4 months.

A few months ago, I spoke to AB about future plans, and AB mentioned the possibility of going to business school to get an MBA but wasn’t sure. Is it ethical for me to exclude AB from the promotion pool and promote a new hire, solely due to the possibility that AB may attend business school in a few months?

Contributed by BP.

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About John Hooker

T. Jerome Holleran Professor of Business Ethics and Social Responsibility Tepper School of Business Carnegie Mellon University

3 responses »

  1. JE says:

    I think it is unethical for the manager not to include AB in the pool. If every manager used every piece of personal information about an employee for consideration then no one would get promoted and no manager would get the outcome they seek. Just as a casual conversation with an employee leads to the discovery of potential plans for future education, a simple observation of an employee’s age or gender or weight may lead the manager to assume they will not be around long enough after the promotion to meaningfully contribute. Because AB did not explicitly state he had already gotten into a program and was actually leaving, I think this fails to satisfy the sentiment of expectation on the part of the manager regarding AB’s actual plan. The employee is disclosing future potential plans in ordinary discourse without his/her knowledge of the manager’s plans for evaluating a promotion. The manager is acting unethically.

  2. John Hooker says:

    I think this is a tricky dilemma. Let’s grant that it would be a better business decision to exclude AB from promotion. True, some other candidates may be contemplating business school, but we know AB is. Based on this, we will grant that excluding AB is the utilitarian choice, presumably because company and customer welfare outweighs his personal welfare.

    The tricky part is mentioned at the end of JE’s comment. You obtained this information from a casual conversation with AB, in which he was trusting enough to tell you about personal plans. Let’s consider two cases.

    (a) AB was forthcoming because the company has an atmosphere of trust and candor, and a practice of exploiting information gained in casual conversation would have a chilling effect. You would never have learned about AB’s plans if the company always exploited information obtained this way. Then exploiting the information is ungeneralizable and unethical.

    (b) There is no such atmosphere in the company, and employees wouldn’t normally discuss personal plans with a supervisor. AB just blurted it out. Then the generalization argument breaks down, and it is ethical to use the information. One might say that this is “unfair” to AB or that it unjustly “punishes” honesty, but these are claims, not arguments.

    Argument (a) may prove too much, however. Suppose you are promoting trainees to pilot aircraft, and AB mentioned in casual conversation that he has a drinking problem. Suppose further that case (a) applies: if the airline had a general policy of using information gained in causal conversation for personnel decisions, AB would never have mentioned his drinking.

    This is a problem of scope. We might say that an airline’s rationale for disqualifying AB is more specific than simply that it bears on his fitness for promotion: promoting him to pilot would have serious (even deadly) consequences. This rationale seems generalizable, and perhaps already generalized. One can presume that airlines would not allow anyone with a drinking problem to fly a plane, and AB talked about it anyway.

    OK, this may work, but now I must ask if a similar restriction of scope can make it generalizable to exclude AB due to school plans. I don’t think so. The company must explain why it would exclude AB for school plans but not due to any other relevant personal information learned in casual conversation. I can’t think of a plausible rationale that would predict company behavior.

    So I conclude that it is unethical to exclude AB if his personal information was obtained only due to an atmosphere of trust that would not exist if such information were routinely exploited in promotion decisions. Otherwise, it is ethical.

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