Pushing a Brand You Can’t Back

In this week’s New York Times Magazine, ethicist Kwame Anthony Appiah responded to a somewhat unusual but by no means entirely unfamiliar ethical question. In this case, the writer, a college professor, is working for a college that has faced growing financial constraints in recent years. After an intensive consultation, the college decided to change how they do things.  In short, they decided to start letting in basically anyone who applies–no matter how low their GPA or SAT scores–and to pass anyone who enrolls. Worse yet, the college has asked professors to meet with prospective students (“consumers” may be a more apt term) to persuade them to enroll (“close the deal,” so to speak). In this case, the college professor wants to know if she is obliged to lie about the quality of her college to prospective students.

booksIt’s a good question and one that is not only facing college professors employed by institutions with questionable standards. Workers are often asked to back a brand or product or service that they know is not up to standard. So what is an employee to do? In the case of the college professor, there are a few factors that need to be taken into account. First, can one still get a good education at the college in question? Sure, the college may have low admission standards, but does that necessarily mean that all the professors (including the one in question here) are not teaching at a high standard? If one can still get a good education, then, continuing to teach at the college and even promote it may not be unethical. That said, if anyone can graduate–even those without any competency–there is a risk that the value of the diploma will eventually deplete and this will negatively impact students who actually deserved to graduate as well.

The Ethics of Backing Bad Brands

Backing a regime intent on murdering an entire population is unethical. Backing a car manufacturer selling defective vehicles is also unethical. Backing a food producer manufacturing food products that contain dangerous substances (or mislabeled products) is also unethical. In the latter cases, the outcome could be death, serious injury or illness. While one may find themselves faced by other ethical dilemmas (the need to support their family), drawing the line is important in such cases, since lives are at risk. On the other hand, backing a college with low standards or backing a product that is simply a bit shoddy (selling jeans bound to unravel after a few months) may not be ethical but the risks are lower. The bottom line is when it comes to backing bad brands as part of one’s job, then, appears to rest on an assessment of the risks entailed.

The Ethics of Forcing Employees to Back a Broken Brand

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On the flip side, asking employees to back a broken brand is another question. When you ask your employees to embrace your brand, you’re asking for a high level of engagement. In some cases, you’re asking employees to bring their enthusiasm for your brand or a specific service or product into other aspects of their lives–to use their own social media accounts as a tool for promotion. If you know something is broken, and you’re asking employees to promote it, you’re essentially asking them to engage in a cover up of sorts, and there is no question that this is unethical, even if the stakes of the cover up are relatively low. If you’re asking employees to engage in a cover up where the risks are high, the ethical breach is naturally even graver.

Quick Fixes and Long-term Solutions

The quick fix is to simply quit your job. Of course, not everyone can do that.

The long-term solution is to stick around and try to bring out change from the inside out, but this too can be difficult Any employer who is already comfortable forcing employees to push a broken brand likely will not be overly open to suggestions and collaborative engagements from the rank and file.

September 3, 2016   Updated :November 16, 2016   Ethics   

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