The Burgundy Ribbon Rule

BurgundyRibbonsCalPERS

Another rule, and for the time being, at least, I am happy* with the wording here: an abuse of asking almost always presents an abuse of power.

Take the case of burgundy affair at the public pension fund CalPERS, as documented by Yves Smith over at Naked Capitalism.

This past fall, documents obtained by Smith show, CalPERS CEO Marcie Frost “asked the CalPERS senior leadership team to wear burgundy to show their support for her” as she faced questions about representations she had made regarding her educational background before and after she was hired. Burgundy ribbons were set out in break rooms with messages urging the “Team” to wear one in a show of support. “No pressure and no problem if you do not want to do this,” the message reads, “it is completely voluntary.” Completely.

“This is obviously inappropriate,” writes Smith,

since a request made by a CEO is effectively an order. CalPERS executives and employees are civil servants, not Frost’s personal retainers. As an expert on managerial and political conduct reacted:

I don’t even know what category to put this in. A scandal-plagued boss orchestrating support by inventing gang colors and pressuring employees to wear them? What happens to the employees who don’t perform this ritual of fealty? Should they be polishing their resumés and practicing their swimming skills?

These incidents smack of underlying panic. Frost is working overtime to shore up her position as CEO in the face of fully deserved questions regarding her long history of misrepresentations about her background, which include committing perjury in Washington on a gubernatorial questionnaire. Not only is Frost pushing her subordinates far too hard to back her up, since they can only do so much for her and coercing them will diminish their good will, she is also showing a lack of a sense of professional boundaries….

Frost’s burgundy campaign may well have crossed the line into creating a hostile work environment. One senior staff member who came to the office and saw the “dress burgundy” request too late to comply issued a written apology. Similarly, when “asked” to wear burgundy to an offsite, one [employee] who wears only black and white felt compelled to buy a burgundy outfit to comply…

…word clearly got around quickly, including the notion that non-compliance was risky.

I am still fussing over the word “presents,” and I’ve considered “masks” and variations in that direction, as well as “declares,” “represents” or “signals.” That one abuse (presenting an order as a request) almost always carries the other with it — almost always, because I don’t want to get caught up right now in handling exceptions — is the essential thing.

You can read my other posts about asking here.

*Postscript: On reflection, I might prefer this much more straightforward and concrete formulation: when someone presents an order as a request, look for an abuse of power. That way, we don’t have to worry too much about motives, or figure out whether the person doing the asking is trying to get away with something. It falls to the person being asked to watch for abuse, and conduct herself accordingly. (Being asked for something, or to do something, turns the ethical spotlight on you, or at least requires you to share it with the person doing the asking. This is your moment.) In a case like the present one, and in most superior-subordinate relationships, calling out abuse may be impractical. Subordinates will bury grievances, reluctantly comply, or pretend not to have been aware of the request. The subordinate’s dilemma in this case registers a failure of governance; a failure of governance at the highest reaches makes itself manifest at even the lowest levels and in the most trivial matters (the wearing of a ribbon). More immediately, presenting orders as requests hijacks power, creates distrust (after all, we can’t help but wonder about motives), and makes people prone to dissemble. All this thwarts collaboration, or the power to do things (to act) together.

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