Sunday, April 15, 2007

Not My Table: Dangers of Compartmentalization

Although "Mind your own business" and "Stick to the knitting" may be sound advice when it comes to operations, those mottos are poor guidelines when ethical concerns are encountered.

Compartmentalization of ethical concerns can be found where employees are reluctant to report or confront ethical problems or lapses in other departments or in work units headed by other supervisors. In extreme cases, it can encourage a level of deniability that can abet crimes.

The operation of the Holocaust is one of the most frightening examples of extreme compartmentalization. Each stage of the execution process was designed to give the operators an absolving excuse, false but soothing, for their involvement in murder. As a result, the people who rounded up Jews and put them on trains could say that they had never killed anyone; that part was not their responsibility. Similar alibis were provided at each stage along the line. Even the people who dropped in the poison gas could say they were just following orders. The clever design of this process and its occasional twisted jokes, such as having "Work will make you free" over the entrances to death camps and playing music as people marched to their final moments, make the Holocaust more evil than straightforward killing.

Workplaces, of course, provide far milder examples of compartmentalization sins. Many organizations would dissolve into chaos if reporting mild cases of incompetence became the norm. Reporting ethical problems, however, is a healthy form of disruption because the alternative is too risky.

It is leadership's job to spread the word that everyone has the responsibility to report ethical concerns, regardless of whether or not the problem is inside or outside of their work unit. While doing so, leaders might consider discussing the limits of compartmentalization.

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