In-house Issues: The Good, The Bad & The Big Fat Gray Area

How do you reconcile your values with those of your company?

The media director was pleasant enough during the interview. His was my third and final meeting in my quest to get hired by a well-known large pharmaceutical company. Suddenly, as our conversation was winding down, he unexpectedly launched into a diatribe about how the pharma industry was being maligned by a capricious press and ignorant public. “Do you know how much money has to be invested before we bring a drug successfully to market?” followed by, “I bet people who find themselves needing our drugs rethink their opinions about us real quick.” The more he spoke, or rather ranted, the more nervous I became. It got to the point where spittle was forming at the corners of his mouth. Who was he trying to convince or defend – himself, the company, me? I left the building ill at ease but when offered the job, I took it without a second thought.

Over time I witnessed just what my interviewer felt compelled to defend. Without going into any detail, I can say that there were practices and behaviors sanctioned by the company that deeply conflicted with my morals and values. Yet there I stayed day after day, supporting an organization engaged in business in a way I fundamentally disagreed with. I was terminated a year and a half after starting there simplifying my moral dilemma but rarely a day goes by that I don’t poke around my psyche amazed at the choice I consciously made to remain at the company.

I was first tempted and then became addicted to the power and prestige of my position. I enjoyed the high salary and perks that my job afforded and I did truly believe I was having a positive impact on the professional lives of the numerous staff I was responsible for. I admitted to friends and family that I was conflicted but that was more about assuaging my guilt and abdicating responsibility rather than seriously questioning whether I should leave or not. In the end, I’ve come away from this experience with a resolve to never put myself in a situation like that again.

It’s not really that clear cut though. I can’t think of a single company that doesn’t have dysfunctions and skeletons lurking in its closets. If you look hard enough you’ll find practices that offend your sense of right and wrong. Ultimately it becomes more a matter of honestly parsing the list of what’s good and bad about your company rather than dogmatically judging your company in absolutes. Most designers I know have a strong sense of the power they can wield through the practice of their profession and, with that, a self-imposed obligation to use their talents for the greater good. But it helps to understand and accept the moral nuances and, more importantly, the trade-offs that we all engage in. It becomes a matter of degree where you have to calibrate your moral compass to a reality that is complicated and confusing but that can be deciphered.

As simplistic as this sounds, it helps to list all the aspects of your company that you’re aligned with and, dare I say, proud of. Then be brutally honest about those attributes and practices you find morally and ethically offensive. Read and reread the lists. Be with the contradictions a while and then make a choice of whether to stay and support your company or leave because the conflict is too great. There will be plenty of gray areas but why should your relationship with your company be any different than your ties with friends and family when it comes to accepting the bad with the good? Life is full of compromise; just make sure your choice is a conscious one.

Whatever you do though, come clean. Don’t just rationalize or try to brainwash yourself the way that media director was painfully attempting to do. That kind of self-delusion ultimately leads to internal conflict resulting in deep personal unhappiness and loss of self-esteem. Cynically, I’d also have to add that you shouldn’t harbor expectations of changing any of the practices you believe to be unethical. Like a delusional bride who believes that once she’s married she’ll be able to remold her husband into the man she wants him to be and finds reality to be otherwise, you’ll more than likely find yourself disillusioned and frustrated after going down that path.

I found a great tee shirt at Tater Reds when I was in Memphis for the AIGA Make/Think conference and I now try to live by the credo silk screened on the back, “It’s hard to live your life in color and tell the truth in black and white.” Open your eyes, be realistic, make your choice and embrace it.

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2 thoughts on “In-house Issues: The Good, The Bad & The Big Fat Gray Area

  1. Ted

    WOW!! This is a topic rarely discussed, but so evident. It’s like the white elephant in the room. I for one have gone through this at my job. I question MANY practices, but also know I can’t change it all. I only have control over my actions, and so I go by that. When I feel something very unsettling that actually disturbs my tasks at hand, I will voice my opinion. Great article! Thank You