Does Age Impact Ethics?

Michael Douglas’s movie “The Solitary Man” depicts a story of a high-profile businessman becoming a criminal. It is riches to rags story, where Ben, the character played by Douglas is reduced to asking his daughter home rent. The movie makes one contemplate – does age impact ethics? Watch these last scenes of the movie first.

The crucial point in the conversation is when Michael Douglas says – “No one noticed”. He changed from being a faithful husband to sleeping around with young women, because his wife didn’t notice. He shifted from being an honest businessman to a fraudster because no one noticed. The crux of crime – opportunity, reward and rationalization. When no one notices or stops you, it became easy to rationalize criminal behavior.

In another scene of the movie, he says to his friend Jimmy – “In the highest moments and lowest moments of life, you are all alone. On the cover of Forbes magazine, I am by myself. In business magazine cover with handcuffs, I am by myself.” As is the cliché it is lonely at the top. Does the isolation at senior level positions impact psychology and behavior?

Since very few juniors will confront a senior or CEO on unethical behavior, it becomes easier to rationalize. As seniors do not receive negative feedback they remain unaware of the impact of their behavior on juniors and the organization. Social intelligence antenna works on receiving direct and honest information. With diplomatic responses, some miss the signals.

One more critical comment that describes his psychology on ageing was – “I was becoming invisible. Thirty years ago the room changed when I entered. I was a lion.” With age no one noticed him and his ego couldn’t take it. He compensated it by chasing young women.

Douglas couldn’t transition from the sense of invincibility that comes with success and youth, to being just another mortal, whose significance diminished with age. Hence, he broke all social and ethical norms to delude himself into feeling powerful.

In all careers the change is significant. Before retirement, one is generally at the highest level of their career, and suddenly on retirement, the people whom one was working with don’t have time for the person. A person deals with loss of self-esteem, insecurities and feelings of vulnerability. Each retiring person treads this uncertain path; however huge the savings and retirement plans he/she has kept.

Moreover, statistical data shows that old people are subjected to extensive verbal and emotional abuse at home. A survey by Helpage India indicates Bangalore as the number one city in India for mistreating elders. Previously Bangalore was known as pensioners paradise, and now 44% elders say they face abuse at home. In upper strata of society sons mistreat, and in the lower-income group, daughter-in-laws abuse. India, a country where youngsters respected elders by touching their feet, is fast becoming a nation that abuses elders. Further, as India does not have a social security system, if elders do not have sufficient savings, they are financially dependent on the younger generation, mostly sons. As India has a huge young population, a second job after retirement is difficult. Hence, living separately is not an alternative available to many retired people.

The sense of financial insecurity increases propensity of fraud of  employees near retirement age.  Various surveys state that the frauds conducted by older and senior employees are much larger in value than junior employees. The focus on training senior employees on business ethics is low, as organizations assume that old hands are aware of the norms and culture. However, since outward behavior is normal, colleagues don’t realize when the person has snapped inside. Therefore, this group requires more focus than normally given.

Ideas for Action

1.  Organizations can handhold older employees prepare transition plans for retirement. Coaching employees on developing second source of income through developing different talents and hobbies will benefit. An active alumni group for retired employees helps in keeping their social circle intact. If organization provides pension benefits, including medical insurance generates confidence.

2. Employees themselves may develop supplementary business ventures near retirement. For instance, civil engineers in India generally buy residential properties and farmlands. After retirement they venture into real estate and farming.

3. Relationships with family and friends matter. Irrespective of the amount of money available after retirement, without family support one leads an unhappy life. Hence, employees must keep up work-life balance and focus on relationships outside office.

4. Organizations need to train employees that frauds do not contribute positively to retirement funds. The probability of legal penalties and miserable old age are high. With rising inflation and government targeting black money, illicit money put away in lockers is not a viable option. To mitigate this risk give refresher business ethics courses to older employees annually.

5.  Companies to detect fraud propensities must periodically conduct a background verification and credit check of old employees to confirm their financial position. For instance, in a few cases employees develop gambling, drugs or alcohol addictions. They conduct frauds to fund these addictions. A background verification discloses these deviations.

6. India socially has two challenges – lack of old age homes and a social stigma if any person seeks psychological help. Psychological abuse remains an unmentionable issue.Hence, abused elders don’t have any alternatives. They cannot seek outside medical or other help as they attempt to protect family reputation. Organizations in their corporate social responsibility programs can  build awareness about these two aspects.

Closing Thoughts

India’s transition from a developing country to global powerhouse has eroded Indian culture and social values. Adoption of western culture has benefited is some aspects. However, western societies challenges of lack of family support system are ignored. This has resulted in creating a number of social problems in Indian society. Balancing the advantages of western and Indian culture and addressing the negatives will benefit the society. Achieving economic growth at the expense of certain sections of society will harm the social fabric and destroy moral values. This old story says it all :

Devil appeared before a middle-aged man. The man was worried that his career wasn’t doing well and he  won’t have any retirement funds. The devil said – “I will ensure that you and your future generations will never have any financial problems, if you give me your soul.” The man agreed. Devil continued – “And the souls of your children, their children and all future generations.” The man again agreed and asked – “What’s the catch?”


Daughters-in-law emerge as major abuser of elderly: Study

Program Change Management Risks

Organizations invest huge amounts in running numerous programs to improve operations, culture and profitability of the company. For instance, programs cover technology implementation, building social networks, improving employee engagement and corporate social responsibility initiatives. Some programs give good return on investment while others dwindle without much success.  The success and failure of a program appreciably depends on effective change management.

Even for information technology programs, various survey reports show success-failure ratio as 50-50 percentage. Failure results in cost overruns and delay in project schedule besides low employee morale. A few reports indicate just around 20% of the programs are successful in the first effort in all respects. The differentiating factor, with technology and implementation capability being the same, is change management skills. Lack of focus on change management risks results in program failure.

Before discussing some key aspects of program change management risks, let us understand the reason for the same. Change causes insecurities to surface, hence sows the seeds of conflict and discord. On start of a program, people do not understand the reason for change. They are unable to assess what is at stake and what success looks like. Moreover, people respond differently to change. Idea of change gets supporting, skeptical and scornful reactions. If not handled carefully, different groups within the organization prepare battle plans to sabotage the program.

Hence, change management strategy is an essential component of program implementation. Given below are some of the risks on the same.

1.   Senior Management Involvement

For approval of the program, the program manager shakes hands with all the senior managers to get their buy-in.  Managers assume that the senior management commitment will continue after approval. However, this is rarely the case. With time, commitment will wane if senior managers do not understand the direction of the program and/ or start giving priority to other programs. Hence, program managers need to monthly/ fortnightly update the senior managers through review meetings and reports on the status and plans of the program.

Additionally, users and employees need to see senior managers demonstrate commitment to the program i.e. walk the talk. Program managers need to leverage opportunities to show senior management support for the program. Develop a leadership plan to ensure senior managers become champions of the program.

2.   User/ Employee Adoption

The program managers gear most of the programs activities towards adoption by the users. For example, in building a risk culture, adoption of risk assessment template is a milestone. The point is change agents view program activities in isolation for pre-go-live stage without considering the overall impact on the organization. Programs influence strategy, process, technology, and people. Without synchronizing the four aspects, even with user acceptance, the program will be unsuccessful in the long run.

Second aspect to consider is the handholding and support after the go live stage. After implementation of a program, the users may still face some challenges or new problems and risks may arise. For continued success of the program a team is required to support it, else it will fizzle out.

3.    Multiple Communication Channels

A program requires a good communication plan and failure in communication jeopardizes the program. Communication messages must be clear, straightforward and from the heart. The corporate jargon and meaningless mantras does not get buy in from senior management or users. For example, do not have a mission statement for an ethics program that sounds like this:

The company’s mission is to be the most ethical organization in the world by adopting best practices, making it a great place to work and rewarding meritocracy

Employees will roll their eyes on the above statement and consider it as management hyperbole. There is nothing actionable or measurable in the statement. Neither are the steps linked to ethics.

Another risk is failure of communication from senior management. Program managers assume that employees understand senior management commitment from strategy and other generic documents. However, adopters need to hear from senior management, their views and aspirations regularly.

Moreover, when programs run into problems, the initial reaction is to hide the bad news from the adopters. Clear concise communication on challenges being faced by program managers and support required, gets the program back on track. Communicate more often when program is running into trouble.

More importantly, change agents sometimes fail to listen to the adopters. Adopters’ feedback is critical for the success of the program. Understand their angry reactions, criticism and challenges. Develop plans to address them and not ignore them.

 4.    Training Plans

 Standard training material is the bane of most programs. Change agents believe that once the training is imparted, their job is done. Some pieces are overlooked in training plans and I have mentioned these before in a post. These are:

  • People have different learning patterns.
  • People are at different stages of learning – beginner, learner, manager, and expert.
  • People do not remember the training for long unless they start using the information in practical work.
  • Old habits are hard to break; hence, people revert to old patterns of working if not monitored.

Last but the not least, is the content of the training. For example, fraud awareness training is a double-edged sword. The users, who didn’t know a word about fraud, now have some idea on how frauds are conducted. The information can be misused. Moreover, an overload of information may create panic reactions in users. Hence, when to deliver training and what information to give are critical decisions for successful program implementation.

 5.     Reward & Recognition System

For a program to be successful, set up a clear system about reward and accountability for the adopters. Failure to establish a system will result in rewarding mediocrity rather than meritocracy. Further, without implementing a penalty criterion, there is no downside for wrongdoing. Hence, maintain a balance between reward and punishment.

For instance, in an ethics program, build a system of bonus points at time of appraisal for meeting business objectives in an ethical way. If a manager had the option of choosing an unethical means to achieve an objective faster but selected an ethical way though had to work harder, award him/her bonus points. On the other hand, award penalty points to a manager who chose unethical means.

6.    Dealing with Failure

Sometimes, despite best efforts the program team stares at the face of failure. People adopt inflexible approach and refuse to acknowledge the logical benefits of the program. They foresee their personal and political agendas negatively impacted, hence refuse to contribute to the shared purpose of the organization. The situation reminds me of an old joke.

A man bought a parrot as a pet. To his dismay, the parrot had a bad attitude and spoke foul language. The man tried to teach the parrot to behave but the parrot refused to change. One day in a fit of anger the man put the parrot in the freezer. He heard the parrot screaming and abusing for a couple of minutes, then there was silence. The man opened the door of the freezer, the parrot trotted out and said – “I beg your forgiveness for speaking rudely. I promise to behave properly.” The man was amazed at the transformation. Then the parrot said – “May I ask, what did the chicken do?”

To avert sudden failure periodically conduct organization surveys to understand the acceptability of the program and organization readiness for the next stage. Measure the behavior and sentiment change due to the program. Do not rush to the next stage without ensuring that adopters connect with the program in the existing stage.

 7.    Awareness of Retaliation

Situations can get out of hand when people start retaliating against the program manager and his/her team. Some programs are launched for appearances sake. For example, senior management may approve a program for business ethics, diversity or employee participation. However, when the change agents sincerely attempt to run the program to bring about a cultural change in the organization, they get mobbed by the employees. In this case, the junior employees start complaining that the change agents are pressurizing, bullying and forcing them to change. This impacts the heart of the program and the change agents spend most of the time defending their actions. The senior management doesn’t really want change, hence looks the other way or gives tacit approval to derail the program and mob the change agents.

In such cases, the change agents have to pay a high price, but the seeds of change are sown. People recognize that there is a better way of doing things, and gradually move towards light.

Closing Thoughts

 Change is difficult. We ourselves find it difficult to change, so getting others to change is an obstacle race. As Mahatma Gandhi said on leading the non-violent Indian independence movement – “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you and then you win.” Being a change agent is a test of stamina, perseverance, discipline and sacrifice. There are no low hanging fruits to pluck, no short-term rewards, no personal glory, however, in the end organization benefits.


Women in Indian Boardrooms

You might be saying, “Oh, not again about women”. But this is one piece of news I wanted to share and discuss with you. Believe it or not, the New Companies Bill 2011 has a provision making it mandatory for companies to have one woman director on the board. One can look forward to more corporate women becoming rock stars. Female gender was mostly invisible in Indian boardrooms, may now gain some significant visibility.

Though personally I am against the idea of reservations and believe women should succeed on merit. I go by Charlotte Whitton’s quote – “For a woman to get half as much credit as a man, she has to work twice as hard, and be twice as smart. Fortunately, that isn’t difficult.” However, in India’s case I think reservation may really be beneficial. I am discussing two biases that are restricting the growth of women in corporate sector.

1. The Indian Bias

As mentioned in an earlier post, India has over 500 million women however just 335 held directorship positions in listed companies, that is less than 5% of total board of directors. Across the world women face a concrete ceiling (not glass ceilings, these are easier to break) in getting senior positions. In US,  for the last few years the percentage of women in senior management positions is 13-15% with no significant growth. Norway shows the highest percentage with around 30% women holding board positions. These countries have such low percentages of women at senior level although their social culture supports equality of genders.

In India, only the constitution recognizes equality of genders. The social structure is biased against girls from the day they are born. This is because of the age old dowry custom in India. On marriage, the brides father has to give a big fat amount to the grooms family to get his daughter married off. In most families, if the money is not given, either the girl will not get a suitable match in arranged marriage or if she does, she is be harassed in her husband’s family. Women are not considered earning partners and in conventional families are not allowed to work. Hence, they don’t have economic power.

Just to emphasize the negative conditions of women living in India, including in urban areas, here is some shocking statistics :

1. The Gender Gap Report 2011 of World Economic Report ranks India 113 out of the total 135 countries measured.

2. An article on domestic violence mentions that “according to United Nation Population Fund Report, around two-third of married Indian women are victims of domestic violence and as many as 70 per cent of married women in India between the age of 15 and 49 are victims of beating, rape or forced sex.”

3.  According to National Crime Bureau 2010 report on Crime Against Women – “A total of 2,13,585 incidents of crime against women (both under IPC and SLL) were reported in the country during 2010 as compared to 2,03,804 during 2009″. India is amongst the most unsafe countries in the world. In 2010 there were over 22,000 rape cases and over 8000 dowry death cases reported.

Seeing the cultural and social bias against women a whole lot depends on their economic power. Hopefully, with this law, with more women in boardrooms the social mindset will change somewhat. When more visible stories of successful females are reported by the media, the Gen Y women might get a better deal and opportunities to gain financial independence. They might have more support from their families to hold a job and earn a living. Hence, this law gives Indian women a lot of hope and an opportunity to dream big.

2. The Global Bias

Before I discuss this point, here is a quiz, check out which of the words apply to your working style:

Aggression,  Empowerment, AutocracyCommunication, ManagementCollaborationRules, Consultative,  Win-Lose, Social-sharing, Boss-hierarchy, Win-Win, CompetitionEmotional Intelligence, Procedures, Teamwork, ControlRelationshipsToughnessNetworking, Command and Empathy.

This may surprise you, the words above in red describe mostly a male working style and those in blue relate to female working style. The present global economy the female traits are in demand. As Tom Peters had mentioned in his presentation on gender diversity, women lead in 18 of the 20 attributes required in the present work environment. If companies wish to change their organization culture to meet the challenges of current economic environment, then doesn’t it make sense to hire more women as they naturally have these traits.

Here is another twist on strengths analysis. Traditional thinking is that competitiveness and command traits ensure success. On the contrary, there are numerous traits required in employees for an organization to be successful. For instance, too many planners and judgement oriented employees in a team will delay action, flexibility and innovation.  Interestingly, the book Strengths Finders 2.0 authored by Tom Rath mentions 34 strengths. People have a group of these strengths that can be leveraged to be successful in the business environment. I am listing the strengths here.  Read below and find out which strengths you have and are they really appreciated in your organization.

1) Achiever, 2) Activator, 3) Adaptability, 4) Analytical, 5) Arranger, 6) Belief, 7) Command,  8) Communication, 9) Competition, 10) Connectedness, 11) Consistency, 12) Context, 13) Deliberative,   14) Developer, 15) Discipline, 16) Empathy, 17) Focus, 18) Futuristic, 19) Harmony, 20) Ideation, 21) Includer, 22) Individualization, 23) Input, 24) Intellection, 25) Learner, 26) Maximizer, 27) Positivity,   28) Relator, 29) Responsibility, 30) Restorative, 31) Self-Assurance, 32) Significance, 33) Strategic and 34) Woo (winning others over)

On reading this list, irrespective of gender the question comes up – if as an employee you have attributes or strengths that are not valued in the organization, then what do you do?  .

In my view, the crux of the problem is that organizations are biased towards certain strengths. For example, Apple, Google and other technology companies may be are more focused on intellection, learner and strategic traits whereas in military the focus is on command, discipline and belief. The employees with different strengths are not encouraged, though balance makes organizations more successful. Hence, if one delves deeper the issue is not about gender, it is about the traits that are valued in the organization.  Usually gender equality is facing hurdles as macho traits are more appreciated in organizations. Hence, where boards are all male, women are not welcome. Organizations where non-macho traits are valued, generally have more women at all levels including the top.

Closing Thoughts

In India, without economic power women are unlikely to be respected. Though Indian mythology talks a lot of women equality, respect and honor, the reality is different. Hence to break the vicious circle, this law will help. The benefits will be the same as reservations of seats for women in panchayats in rural India.

On the global front, organizations need to develop an appreciation of non-masculine traits. As evident from advertising and branding of some successful companies, women consumer power matters. Without having women at the top, an all male bastion cannot understand the softer requirements of female consumers. It makes sense to have women deciding for women.

If you don’t agree with me, take this instance. Ask any hubby to buy a gift for his wife, he will sound as if he has to do a torturous task rather than a happy shopping expedition. Husbands complain they don’t know what their wife wants, and male board of directors decide on female consumers preferences. Then men say women are illogical. Couldn’t resist that one.


  1. Gender Gap Report 2011 – World Economic Forum
  2. Domestic Violence in India: Causes, Consequences and Remedies
  3. Crime Against Women report 2010 of National Bureau of Crime.
  4. Strengths Finder 2.0 by Tom Rath