Ethics is not a game. Poor ethical decisions can have tragic results.
My final Master’s program class featured a curriculum called The Ethics Game. My solutions to every ethical dilemma were all deemed by the program as ideal. In the real world, I’ve had to make ethical decisions frequently.
During the game there is no real pressure to make a poor decision. My classmates and I all made appropriate ethical decisions during our capstone course. In the real world, there will be someone who wants you to compromise your ethical standards for the sake of expedience or to make something happen that you know should not be done.
During my Quality Assurance days there were times when someone above or below me wanted a product specification ignored. Usually because the product was overdue to be sent to the customer or next process. In management the pressure was to overlook a rule or safety issue. In sales frequently to offer an unfair price.
Compromising my ethics in Quality or management could put the safety of someone at risk. My solution is usually demanding that the person exerting pressure to compromise ethics to be the signatory authorizing the approval. It’s much easier to demand that someone else to be responsible for a bad outcome. However, when it is their butt on the line most will back down and do the ethical thing.
Tragedy can occur when ethics are compromised.
The memory of what we are doing when significant events, specifically tragedies, get sizzled into our minds. The generation before mine are likely to be able to tell you what they were doing on the day that President Kennedy was shot and killed. For my generation that day is 9/11/2001.
One of those memories for me is also the day that the Challenger space shuttle exploded on Tuesday January 28, 1986. However, the critical day of this event was not the day of the explosion that sent civilian astronaut Christa McAuliffe and 6 professional astronauts to a fiery death. It was on Monday 1/27/1986.
On that day a Morton Thiokol engineer named Allan McDonald whose job, among other things, was to sign off and approve the launch scheduled for the next morning. Allan refused to sign off to approve the launch. There was great pressure being applied to Allan from both NASA and Morton Thiokol management to sign off. Allan accurately believed that the lives of the crew was at too much risk.
Eventually, someone above Allan on the Morton Thiokol food chain signed off against Allan’s better judgement. Challenger launched as scheduled at 11:37 am Eastern Standard Time. 73 seconds into its ascent the craft broke apart and disintegrated as it descended into the Atlantic ocean.
Allan McDonald refused to approve the launch because he believed, correctly, that the overnight temperatures would make the o-rings protecting the booster rocket joints too brittle to keep fuel from escaping the rocket. Fuel escaping around the o-rings ignited in a fiery explosion causing the demise of the craft and its crew.
A weaker person would have to approve the launch. Despite Allan’s correct assertion that the cold overnight temperatures could cause a catastrophic event, the pressure to stay on schedule facilitated a poor ethical decision. Authoritative coercion is difficult to resit.
In the days that followed McDonald easily overcame one more ethical dilemma. During a Presidential Commission review of the tragedy, NASA simply referenced that Morton Thiokol had concerns, but approved the launch. McDonald spoke up and pointed out that the engineering team headed by him did not approve the launch. Allan further stated that an executive at his firm approved the launch against his will.
Morton Thiokol demoted McDonald for exposing this inconvenient truth. McDonald’s ethics and boldness could’ve cost him his job, but it most likely saved more lives down the road. Fixing the root cause of the disaster, o-ring elasticity, was more important to Allan than saving his job.
When the chairman of the Presidential Committee found out about McDonald’s demotion, NASA put pressure on Morton Thiokol to reinstate Allan to his original position. He then headed up the team that re-engineered a new and safer rocket joint.
After his retirement, McDonald became an ethics advocate and spoke to many students and engineers and management about his experience and the importance of ethical leadership.
Why do I write about Allan McDonald and his ethical decisions concerning the tragic Challenger shuttle? I recently read that he died from a fall at the age of 83. I do not want his ethics to die with him.
Ethics should not be a game. In some cases it is life and death. There are few Mulligans in ethical decisions.
As I look back on the year 2020 and forward to 2021 and beyond doing the right thing is forefront in my mind. In my opinion, many of our leaders are not being held responsible for ethics. That is our fault as much as it is theirs. We must hold our leaders and ourselves to a higher standard. That will make us leaders.