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Home  > Article

Saying 'I Object!' at Work

By Martin Lieberman

What happens when you disagree with your company's policies, or an assignment you've been given? Is there a way to voice your opinion without losing your job?

"I've realized that when you take a paycheck from someone, you're selling a little of your integrity." Mark Eastman, McKinsey & Company

The Los Angeles Times is the paper of record for the L.A. area. But on October 10, 1999, it did something that attracted a lot of criticism: It published a special issue of the Sunday magazine devoted entirely to the Staples Center (the city's new sports arena) and split the advertising revenue with the Center itself. Media insiders across the country were furious at the deal, claiming that the paper crossed the line between editorial and advertising. But perhaps no one was more upset by the Los Angeles Times' decision than the staff itself, most of whom were unaware of the arrangement until after the issue's publication.

Many staff members felt that the deal compromised the paper's integrity, and that readers had lost confidence in their work. More than 300 reporters and editors signed a petition demanding that the newspaper's publisher, Kathryn Downing, apologize. Others called for her resignation. In the end, Downing did apologize, and she and Mark Willes, chairman and CEO of Times Mirror, the LA Times' parent company, admitted that the agreement had been "a mistake."

The Staples Center incident is a well-publicized example of the conflict that can erupt when an employee disagrees with his company's actions. In that case, the situation was resolved diplomatically, largely because of the number of opponents at every level of the paper's hierarchy. But what happens when you're the only one who has a problem with your company's actions?

What are your obligations?
Mark Eastman*, a 24-year-old business analyst at McKinsey & Company, was assigned to help a chain of convenience stores increase its sales of beer, tobacco, and coffee. While many twentysomethings would have been excited about this assignment, Eastman's Mormon upbringing caused a conflict. According to his religious beliefs, alcohol, cigarettes, and caffeine are forbidden. "I was really torn up inside every time I applied myself to understanding their consumer research and developing their new marketing plans," he says. "I never told my parents I was working alongside the sales teams from Anheuser-Busch and Philip Morris .I think they would have told me to quit."

Eastman became uncomfortable enough with his assignment that he asked the senior partner on the project for guidance. The partner's response was that a consultant's first obligation is to the client, and that he was welcome to move on to a "lower profile, less interesting" project if he wished. But hope was not completely lost. Eastman found another partner in the office who was more sympathetic. This person agreed to serve as Eastman's mentor, and now the two work together to make sure that Eastman has more agreeable assignments.

Integrity for Sale
Mark Smith, a spokesman for Brown & Williamson, one of the country's largest tobacco companies, says one way to avoid a situation in which you disagree with your employer's actions is to research the company's policies and clients before signing an employment contract. "People who work here would never have joined us had they not already dealt with those issues," he adds.

That said, Smith also explains that at Brown & Williamson, giving feedback is "institutionalized." The company has committees composed of employees that review the company's advertising and public affairs activities. The firm also has a vice president of corporate responsibility to whom employees can voice their concerns.

If you do find yourself at odds with your company's actions, or if you're asked to compromise your own beliefs, you have a weighty decision to make. Do you feel strongly enough to make a stand against your employer? If you do, you should be prepared to resign if the conflict intensifies. Eastman learned a valuable lesson at McKinsey & Company. "Sometimes you've just got to be more flexible in your views about morality and ethics," he says. "I've realized that when you take a paycheck from someone, you're selling a little of your integrity."

* name has been changed

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