Topic: Business & Commercial

Best Selling Bad Ethics
(6/17/2004)

In the large and dingy pantheon of really insidious concepts, Stephen Pollan and Mark Levine's new book "Fire Your Boss" deserves a special plaque. It proposes a "re-thinking" of the relationship between people and jobs, and the re-thinking boils down to a complete corruption of ethical values. Previous books by this pair, both lawyers and career advisors, have been best sellers, and this one will be too, unfortunately. We all have unethical instincts, and nothing is more reassuring than having an "expert" validate them.

The thesis of "Fire Your Boss" is essentially that the proper focus of one's work career is to be proactive, which Pollan and Levine define as making sure you quit before you are fired. They paint a picture of a national work culture without loyalty, or higher purpose. Bosses don't care about you, they say. "Meaningful careers" are for saps. The only purpose of a job, the authors tell us, is to make as much money as possible with the least expenditure of time; what you do is irrelevant. Use your social life and free time to be "fulfilled;" jobs are there to give you more money so you have more life options. Provocatively, "Fire Your Boss" suggests that you begin searching for a higher paying job the second you start a new one, and that the second you have a better opportunity, bolt.

Let us say, in fairness, that the formula promoted by "Fire Your Boss" will work for many. It is certainly true that if all you seek is money, that singularity of purpose is likely to bring you what you want. However, it is clear that the formula is also profoundly unethical and potentially destructive in many ways. It is, in fact, a life strategy that fails ethical analysis by almost any existing construct. Imagine, for example, as Kant would have us do, what the Pollan-Levine approach would do to society if it became the ethical norm. Experience would be minimal, with everyone job hopping. Competitors would steal prize employees with checkbooks rather than shared goals. Low paying, socially crucial careers like teaching and public interest law would be performed by the least qualified and credentialed. Non-profits would collapse. Artists would be nearly extinct, as only those without more lucrative skills would continue to create.

The world of "Fire Your Boss" acknowledges no loyalty or job commitment. Values are irrelevant: produce toxic waste, promote tobacco products to kids, sell porn on the internet--these are hunky-dory as long as they are legal and pay better than your other alternatives. Moreover, the book commands that you always please your boss, since he or she determines your compensation. It points us to a business world populated by spineless yes-men who will stand by as a company crumbles, while they prepare for their next sudden exit to a better benefits package. This is a world for those who believe that money trumps everything, and that no purpose is worth sacrifice, courage or selflessness.

Gordon Gecko would feel right at home.

And thus the book's prescription fails a utilitarian test as well. The society where all job decisions are made only to maximize profit is a society so harsh that money can't soothe it. It is a society where Enrons flourish, betrayal and deceit are expected. Pollan and Levine seem oblivious to an immutable fact of human nature: values and the behavioral habits they nourish cannot be compartmentalized. The man who looks for a new job the day after he is hired is more likely to look for a new wife the day after the wedding. The employee who makes every job decision based on purely financial considerations is going to embrace those same venal values in family and personal decisions as well. The authors would transform America into a capitalist hell, a nation of soulless hustlers. But the fact that widespread adoption of their advice would be socially and ethically catastrophic shouldn't bother Pollan and Levine; they maintain that it isn't the good or bad results of one's labor that matters--its only the money.

"Fire the Boss"?

Burn this book.

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