For managers, ethical behavior depends not just upon the decision itself, but the processes and the purposes behind the decision.
Taking a Stand in Expensify’s Name
Using company letterhead, Expensify’s CEO, David Barrett, sent 10 million users a sharply worded email encouraging them to vote for a particular Presidential candidate, and against another.
Did Barrett do the right thing?
Companies Have Free-Speech Rights
The Supreme Court has ruled that corporations like Expensify have First Amendment rights to engage in political speech. This even includes making political donations. (This was a ruling which the late Ruth Bader Ginsberg contested and detested ’til the day she died.)
Who Speaks for the Company — and How?
Free speech is not the issue, of course. Expensify has the right to speak. But, it has no voice of its own. Company officers like Barrett must speak for it.
Barrett is not Expensify’s sole owner. In speaking for the company, what matter are not his personal views, but the best interests of the company.
In theory, if Barrett thought he was acting in the best interests of the company, his email would be ethical. Also, in theory, if his action did Expensify more harm than good, his action would be unethical even if Barrett thought he was helping the company.
The Ethical Guardrails of Processes and Purposes
So much for theory.
In practice, a thoughtful and dutiful CEO would know that sending a sharply partisan message to all company customers on company letterhead represented a significant policy decision. To ensure that he was not fooling himself about his own motives, Barrett should have presented this policy to the Board for approval.
Barrett should also have sounded out his senior people to think through the policy’s likely costs and benefits for Expensify.
Finally, since California labor law prohibits political-viewpoint discrimination, Barrett should have considered the effect of the policy on employees who might have a different view. Was he creating a hostile work environment?
Falling Short in a Non-Partisan Way
Barrett does not appear to have taken any of the above steps. He should have.
Which candidate Barrett supported, and which he opposed, do not matter. Barrett should have put his duties as CEO first. This includes respecting the processes and purposes which safeguard the company’s interests.
If you don’t agree with this analysis, imagine that the email, in equally strident language, supported Trump and opposed Biden.
Ethics that aren’t even-handed are no ethics at all.