Dear Ethics Guy: I work for a publishing company that has been struggling over the past several years. There is a possibility that we won't make it. Because of this, my boss has come up with several tactics that are, in my opinion, ethically questionable at best.
Last week, at our staff meeting, he instructed us to go to various Web sites where our books are sold and write a series of positive reviews under fake names. He said that people really read these reviews and can be motivated to buy a book simply on the basis of a rave. (Since so many of us buy books online instead of in stores, we no longer judge a book by its cover; we judge it by its reviews!)
At the meeting, I objected to my boss's strategy on several grounds. First and foremost, it is a violation of the policies of these Web sites to write fake reviews. Second, I am personally troubled by lying or deceiving someone, even if the goal is a worthy one. Although I like most of our books, I don't like all of them, and I would never tell someone I did just to make a sale or to make our company look good. Third, even if we were to engage in this strategy, it's hard to imagine that it would make a significant difference to our bottom line.
Believe it or not, no one came to my defense, and my boss said that if I didn't want to be a "team player," that was up to me. His implication was that if I didn't go along, my job might be in jeopardy. I don't think he'd actually fire me, but I could get assigned to the accounts no one else wants to take on.
Am I being a goody-goody here, or do you think I'm right to speak out?
I'm with you all the way. Writing a false review, which here means writing under a fake name or claiming to like a book that you don't—or both—is wrong, plain and simple.
This is the time to reiterate that I am not an attorney, and this column does not offer legal advice. I mention this because it may very well be the case that writing false book reviews on Web sites does not violate any laws (though it clearly does violate the policies of those sites, as you rightly point out). Nevertheless, it isn't right to lie just because it may be legal to do so. Ethics holds us to a higher standard than the law does, and the fact that we commit no crime by doing X does not and should not automatically give us the license to do X.
The integrity of book reviews is dependent upon the reader rightly believing that the reviewer is who she says she is, and that what she says about the book is what she holds to be true. At the end of the day, all we have is our integrity, and if we engage in deceptive practices or outright lies, even to achieve something we believe has great value (such as preventing a publishing company from going under), our most precious commodity has been squandered. If we do this often enough, we may find that we don't have any integrity left to squander.
When I was a graduate student at Georgetown University, one of my professors said something that has stayed with me for 20 years: "Evil must not be done so that good may come of it."
Bottom line: Stand your ground, be true to your conscience, and if your boss actually punishes you for doing so, you would be justified in seeking redress, which might mean reporting his behavior to his boss or to human resources. You should also go on record as being opposed to your boss's tactics. If you are fired for refusing to engage in unethical business practices (which I believe would be unlikely here, but it could happen), then you have every right to engage an attorney who, unlike me, can provide legal advice.
By the way, how did it come to pass that a person who tries to do the right thing is labeled a "goody-goody?" Is it better to be a "baddie-baddie?"
Have a professional ethical dilemma? Need help figuring out the right thing to do on the job? Ask the Ethics Guy! Write to Dr. Bruce Weinstein at Bruce@TheEthicsGuy.com, and your question may be answered in his weekly column on BusinessWeek.com.