The purpose of this paper is to report findings from interviews with ethical advisors (or those in equivalent positions) at five major aerospace companies. Using these interviews, I intended to explore what means were available for employees to voice ethical concerns that may arise in the workplace. To maintain a core of similarity across the corporations, I mailed the same scenario to each advisor. The scenario, which is included in this study, described a hypothetical situation in which an employee is concerned with the way the corporation is handling a particular contract.
The scenario was intended to be intricate but incomplete. Depending on its interpretation, the problem could reflect a major safety issue, a minor operation issue, or a trivial problem. I chose this scenario because the problems it poses are similar to those that arose when a planned system for Boeing/Sikorsky's Comanche helicopter was scrapped, due to the fact that exhaustively testing the system was too difficult. I personally believe that someday, if such a system is finally developed, even then it will be impossible to fully test it. In addition, because I can easily see myself encountering some of the subtle issues presented in the scenario, I wanted to examine various large aerospace companies handle such concerns. Therefore, I felt the best approach would be to use the scenario as a point of departure for examining and comparing many aspects of the companies' built-in systems for handling ethical concerns.
Unfortunately, this approach led to some problems in the interviews. The scenario was a little too technical and a little too intricate. Some of the interviewees did not want to treat it as anything more than a managerial or an organizational problem. In general, the interviewees were not as flexible in working within or around the scenario as I had anticipated. For the most part, they seemed to have definite ideas about the way their company worked, and preconceived notions about how the scenario did or did not fit that image. In hindsight, it would have been better to have a shorter, more well-defined problem rather than trying to explore so many avenues at once. Furthermore, it would have helped to take a more realistic approach, specifically concerning the position of the (relatively) new employee and the contract in question.
For the most part, I was not surprised by the results of the interviews. I was glad to see that all of the major defense companies had worked together to establish additional procedures for dealing with ethical concerns, and that alL of the companies had, at the very least, an adequate start for dealing with problems that may arise that cannot, for whatever reason, be handled with the employee's immediate management. Some of the companies had more extensive systems than others, but all had a hotline of some kind that was intended to help employees with concerns that supervisors refuse to address. In many cases, I believe many of the differences I noted were differences in the philosophy behind the system; but the philosophy of what's better and what's not is obviously open to some argument. For example, Company A's use of a near-retirement employee is good in that such an employee is probably less worried about performing in order to obtain a desired follow-up assignment. However, this employee could be less excited about the position, seeing it as "Aw, we can't put you anywhere else because you're leaving" position. And what happens if this person gets a complaint about a favorite earlier coworker? Largely, impartiality depends on the person who is selected to the position! Speaking to the people who run the hotline gives one a good idea of whether or not they (and thus the company) see it as a desirable system in its own right, or as a necessary inconvenience because the government wanted it done. My personal analysis is that Companies A, B, and C understood its importance, whereas Companies D and E simply felt it to be necessary and not necessarily intrinsically valuable.
In addition, I would also point out that it is important to remember who was interviewed. By talking to the people who run the hotline, one is likely to get an optimistic description of the program and how successfully it operates. For example, all the companies stressed that the hotline number was brought to the attention of everyone who worked there. Nevertheless, another student interviewed a worker Company B, and he made no mention of a corporate-wide hotline that could be called! Obviously, these are conflicting reports. Therefore, some of the results to the questions (such as "we don't have trouble with retaliation") should be taken with a grain of salt. It is understandable that a company would not want to admit that retaliation occurs as a result of someone voicing an ethical concern, but it is important to acknowledge that someone who has received disciplinary action might seek revenge. Mr. V indicated that we may not want to think so, but employees are only human, and sometimes when a person feels wronged, he seeks retribution for his suffering. So, by interviewing only the ombudsmen themselves, I received only one side of the issue. This should be kept in mind when drawing conclusions about the effectiveness of the company's system.
In conclusion, I feel that the interviews reflected reasonably well the systems in place at the various companies to handle ethical concerns. While they were probably slightly exaggerated, it is worthwhile nonetheless to draw comparisons between the five firms. I was satisfied that all of the companies had a system of some type for bringing concerns under investigation, although some were considerably more extensive and well-implemented than others. From the data I collected in the interviews, Company A definitely had the best setup, followed by Companies B and C. These three companies certainly realized the importance of having channels for dealing with ethical concerns. Somewhat lower on the scale is Company D, which seemed to have a strong but very basic, "no-frills" system in place. Company E, more so than Company D, seemed to feel that the system was necessary but not necessarily good in and of itself. I got the impression that they run the hotline because they have to, not because they want to. In my opinion, their system was adequate, but the bare minimum that I would hope to be in place for a large company.
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