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.
Because I interviewed only employees of large aerospace companies, there was a substantial amount of similarity between the companies. Because of the many similarities, I will first outline what was the same between the five firms. Most notably, all of the corporations were part of the Defense Industries Initiative (DII) that started in June, 1986. This initiative developed out of the great public and political concern at the time about overpriced hammers, toilet seats, coffee makers, and the like, at a time when the whole defense industry received lots of attention as a result of overcharging. The federal government suggested that some internal regulations or procedures be established to regulate contractors' charging practices, otherwise the government would have to intervene. The companies agreed to implement additional "safety nets" to catch ethical concerns. For every company I interviewed, that meant installing a hotline for voicing ethical concerns. In addition, each attempted to introduce an accessible and neutral third party with the power and the authority to act on such concerns when management was unresponsive. All the companies were proud of their hotline and its use, as well as of how well-publicized it was. Almost all companies boasted that the hotline's number was prominent on posters, in the company newspaper, and in the company directory; they also stated that the service was specifically pointed out to new hires. Furthermore, all of the hotlines attempted to maintain the confidentiality of any person who calls, and furthermore to allow for complete anonymity if the caller so wishes. According to those I interviewed, doing so makes it a little more difficult for the investigators and ombudsmen, but requesting anonymity supposedly does not affect the way the concern is treated.
(Anonymity contributes to the difficulty of investigation because, for example, the ombudsman will not know from what level the complaint is coming, and may be somewhat hampered by not knowing more specifics about the case. Furthermore, the ombudsman must wait for the employee to call back, rather than being able to call him for more information or to inform him of how his case is proceeding. Although all admitted that knowing who placed the complaint made things a little easier and more credible, they insisted that the anonymous caller is not treated any differently.)
Despite these efforts to support the hotline, the contacts also agreed that the proper way to solve any dispute was via the employee's manager(s). It is hoped that one's supervisors will be receptive and understanding enough either to take action to solve the problem on their own, or to satisfy the employee that there is really no reason for concern. Obviously, this solution creates the least difficulty for all concerned, and it is the most direct way to resolve a problem. Many of the interviewees also stated that most problems are resolved at this level; often employees do not fully understand the situation and they simply need more information in order to alleviate their concerns. They also remarked that many of the calls received by the hotlines only needed to be referred to the proper people (in many cases, Human Resources or Personnel).
Ethical advisors themselves have a great deal of influence upon the way one would feel about calling them for assistance. All of the advisors were helpful and friendly, but some seemed friendlier than others, and some certainly were more knowledgeable and experienced than others. Unfortunately, in most circumstances, this feeling for who you're talking to would not be a factor until you called the number at least once anyway, but it could have a significant effect on how employees felt concerns were being treated, as well as on the likelihood that the complainant might blow the whistle. If the employee felt the ombudsman was not well-qualified or didn't care about the situation, the employee might be more likely to go outside the company at an earlier time than someone who was satisfied that a complaint was being handled earnestly and competently.
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