When loyalty is not a virtue

The case of Nigel Wright should remind us that ethical loyalty cannot come at the expense of other virtues.

One of the problems of writing this column two months before publication is that events overtake me. By the time you read this, the election will be over, and Nigel Wright, Stephen Harper’s former chief of staff, will probably be a footnote to history. But as I write, he has just testified at the Mike Duffy trial, and I am riveted by the loyalty he apparently felt for the prime minister. Where did it come from? Was it reciprocal? Is it ethical? And what lessons are there about the role of loyalty in the business world?

Judging by what has been reported in the press, Wright was intensely loyal to his boss, and to the Conservative Party. His priority was damage control. I suspect the real cost to him was not the $90,000 cheque (a figure apparently immaterial to his net worth) but the harm done to his sense of himself as an ethical person. By all accounts, Wright was a straight shooter. He rationalized his actions — which involved lying to the public — as what he described in court as “not a bad misrepresentation.” When you hear phrases like that, you know he doesn’t really believe in himself any longer.

THE ROOTS OF LOYALTY

The question I am having trouble answering is where the loyalty, which overrode his ethical judgment, came from. My university students start with the belief that there must be something “in it” for the person committing the unethical act. And that has generally been true for senior executives involved in shenanigans — whether they were focused on the value of their stock options or preserving their reputation as smart business people. But Wright was already rich and had a great reputation. Was he just a true believer in the Stephen Harper brand of government? Or was the proximity to power irresistible? And did he go into the job knowing he would have to lie (i.e., make “not bad misrepresentations”) to protect his boss?

The curious thing is that the PMO and other political staffers continue to be loyal even when it’s clear there is no loyalty in return. Wright was defended until the scandal threatened the prime minister, at which point (I suspect) he agreed to take the bullet and resigned. But the story (now) is that he was fired and was a lone bad actor in the plot. I personally reserve the lowest place in hell for bosses who ask a subordinate to take the blame for something the boss agreed to or condoned. The fact that subordinates believe so strongly in the cause that they are willing to do so is irrelevant.

In business, when midlevel managers participate in unethical acts, the excuse frequently heard is that they feared for their jobs if they spoke up. And that is often true, as is the desire to continue to reap the bonuses or other rewards they get. But loyalty also plays a part, although many people hesitate to admit it later. Research sometimes attributes this loyalty to a charismatic leader, who combines charm and ruthlessness to get his or her way. But Harper can hardly be described as charismatic.

ARE MILLENIALS LESS LOYAL?

The instinct to be loyal exists in all of us, to a greater or lesser degree. It may be loyalty to our friends, our team, our leader or our country. From a young age, we are taught that loyalty is a virtue. We sing anthems, hear about the one true God, and support our local sports teams. We learn that it’s bad to snitch on our friends. Our employers survey us to see if we love our company, in the hope that loyalty will make us stay longer and work harder.

But ethical loyalty cannot be at the expense of other virtues. It cannot condone cheating or lying or hurting others. We are told that the millennials are less loyal than their parents. Perhaps that’s not altogether a bad thing.

About the Author

Karen Wensley


Karen Wensley, MBA, is a lecturer in professional ethics at the University of Waterloo and a retired partner of EY.

comments powered by Disqus

Highlights

Update your knowledge and strengthen your network at this must-attend conference covering the most important issues and trends affecting audit committee members.

It’s probable that someone you know is deep in debt. If you are observant, you might see one of these seven signs.