Should a CEO give work experience to the son of one of her executive team?
A friend, who also happened to be new to her CEO role, received a request from one of her direct reports for his son to complete work experience in the company.
Although the senior executive was happy for his son to be placed with anyone senior within the company, the hope was that the CEO herself would employ the son in her office and act as a mentor.
The CEO said that the request had made her uncomfortable on two grounds. The first was a practical consideration; that her team would see her actions as favouring the executive who had made the request. The second source of discomfort involved a deeper set of considerations and was the one that concerned her more.
As an ethical leader she wanted to provide opportunities and help others wherever she could, but she was concerned that in granting the executive his request she would be accommodating one individual based on his access to networks, and disregarding merit and opportunity.
She could take the opportunity to help out the executive and his son. As a leader, she would be helping to educate a potential future leader. The vast majority of work experience positions are acquired through contacts, and this is what people in Australia expect anyway.
The second option was to work with her executive team to develop a few basic guidelines on how to handle such requests. Why? The appointment of an executive’s son – or daughter – in this fashion ignores the principle of merit.
The CEO would not want leaders at any level in the organisation to ignore merit or to make appointments based on criteria that were not consistent with company values and policies. The purpose of these guidelines would be to articulate a simple rule: work experience candidates must apply and be selected just like other employees.
The CEO was leery of this second option. She didn’t want to be seen as a leader who encourages guidelines and bureaucracy; what’s more, shedidn’t want to be perceived as a rigid rule-follower. At the same time she felt that there was an ethical dimension to the problem.
As she framed it, her choice was not just about whether she should agree to provide work experience for the son, but whether she should choose to acknowledge the wider social context in which her decision was about to take place.
Should she view this dilemmaas a decision that affects just three individuals? If so, it is clearly ethical to choose the first option.
Yet if she was to consider all individuals affected – others who deserved the opportunity – the fairness of that first option starts to peter out. This effect is exacerbated when the CEO widens the scope of the problem to include all the other people who might model their behaviour on hers.
This would lead to more unfair decisions and more individuals overlooked for work experience.
Our awareness and willingness to act on ethical dilemmas often depends upon how broadly we frame our problems and who we chose to include in our considerations. Do we frame relevant stakeholders as a small handful of individuals who are within our immediate sphere or do we acknowledge the ripples that form around the one decision and the potential stakeholders who are more remote?
In the end
CEO took the second option. She opened up the work experience position to a small field of candidates sourced through the company’s employees. This decision was taken after talking to all the senior executives, who also bedded down some basic guidelines.
As it turned out, the successful candidate wasn’t the senior executive’s son. The successful candidate was a family friend of one of the account managers – so still someone with access to connections.
The CEO was satisfied that this was a fair process and she had still been able to provide a leadership development opportunity in a transparent manner. At the same time, she had modelled ethical decision making for her team, which she hoped would influence their future discussions of more substantial issues with an ethical dimension.