I teach moral judgment at Melbourne Business School in Australia. The audiences I address range from MBA students to C-suite executives. Every time I present, no matter who is in the audience, there is one moment when I have the complete attention of everyone in the room. It is when I tell the story of what happened to my father when he was a 16-year-old concentration camp prisoner under the Third Reich in the summer of 1944.
My father was a slave laborer working on a railroad construction site. He spent most of his long days carrying heavy steel rails up a hill, over and over again. After several months in the labor camp he started to doubt that he had the strength to keep going, fearing instead that he would perish along with so many others he had known.
One early morning during roll call an SS sergeant walked up to my father's section and yelled, "Which one of you young inmates speaks German?" My father raised his hand. He followed the officer, and saw a man waiting for him in a long leather coat. My father panicked. "What have I gotten myself into?" he wondered. The man had the dark and neatly dressed look of a Gestapo officer, and my father was sure he had made a very bad decision.
But then the man introduced himself. My father was stunned. He had been nothing but a number for months; no German had ever bothered with the basic decency of an introduction. The man explained that he was a civilian engineer who needed an assistant for his work. His job was to conduct a survey for a new road through the forest, so he needed someone to help carry the equipment. My father immediately understood that this job would be much easier than carrying steel rails. They headed off into the forest to begin their work.
As they walked side-by-side through the forest on their second afternoon of work, the engineer said to my father: "I can see what a horrible situation you are in, and I want to do something to help you." He went on to explain that while he couldn't assist him openly, he could obtain some food for him. He told my father that there was a barracks in the woods where he ate his lunch with the SS officers. He had hidden some food in a corner, under a bench, knowing that the building would be empty at the end of the day.
Towards evening, as they neared the perimeter of the camp, the engineer pointed to the barracks. My father hurried to the far corner of the dark building. As promised, under the bench he found foods he had not seen in months: chicken, rice, milk. He drank the milk, took some quick bites of the food, and put the rest in his pockets to share with his friends in the camp.
For the two extraordinary weeks that he worked with the engineer, my father supplemented his daily intake of stale bread and putrid watery soup with food stolen from the SS kitchen. As the days passed, he grew sturdier. The boost to his wellbeing was more than physical: The fact that this German cared enough to take great personal risk to feed him restored some of my father's faith in human beings. Indeed, my father credits the engineer with saving his life.
As everyone in the audience is sitting there wondering whether they would have been as brave and compassionate as that man had been, I state a critical point: the engineer was making a moral judgment about how to treat his labor.
It is unlikely that any of us will ever be faced with such a stark life-or-death decision — remember that the engineer's generosity and courage could easily have cost him his life. Yet executives often make choices that help or harm others in significant ways. For example, when trade-offs are made regarding worker safety, or when decisions are made concerning healthcare insurance for employees, lives are on the line. And sometimes, under the pressure to make our quarterly numbers or to get a task completed on time, compromises are made and corners are cut.
Bad moral judgments are commonly due to our tendency to frame problems too narrowly. Often our boss or our board provides this framing for us. But when facing moral decisions, narrow frames are dangerous. Instead, widen the frame be asking how your decision will affect the business and its reputation in the long term. Consider how your choices will affect your sense of yourself as an ethical individual and as a role model for others.
I often wonder about the final days of the civilian engineer. As he took stock of his life — the deeds he had done and the choices he had made — was he consoled by the knowledge that he had once shown such generosity to a young and desperate boy? Did he, I wonder, know that he had done something of great moral significance? Did he perhaps fear that he had not done enough? And did he, in the end, feel that he had made choices to be proud of?
We are unlikely to ever ask ourselves a more significant question than that last one. When we face real moral quandaries, we should look for the broadest of frames, and there is perhaps no larger frame than wondering how we will judge ourselves as we near the end of our lives. So when the pressures of business are pushing you towards an ethical misstep, try to remember the engineer who did his job with such extraordinary moral courage. If he could risk his life for my father, then we can overcome the constraints of tight budgets, quarterly pressures, and demanding colleagues.