Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Ethics of Exits

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Last week, Pope Benedict XVI became the first pontiff in six centuries to resign his office. In the midst of the Lenten season, his departure, with scarcely two weeks’ notice, gives rise to interesting questions about the timing and circumstances of workplace exits. The transition of retirement is a developmental, economic, organizational, social, and psychological phenomenon. It is also an ethical dilemma when examined through the paradigm of competing goods.

First and foremost, the decision to retire involves individual-versus-other issues and short-term vs. long-term considerations. Employees, acting in their own interests, weigh the financial and social advantages of retirement against the benefits of continued employment. Some, for reasons of identity, ego, or passion for the job, will not retire even though they could well afford to do so. Others, driven by financial pressures, depleted pensions, or the need for health benefits, will refuse retirement even though their passion or capacity for the work has diminished. As of 2010, 16 percent of the labor force consisted of people over age 65, a four point increase since 1990 and a trend that is destined to continue.

Pope Benedict was 78 when he was selected for the position. He will be 85 at the time of his retirement. In certain positions where norms and policies place no upper limit on the age of the worker, the presumption is that only illness, incapacity, or death would trigger resignation. Indeed, despite his age, the pope’s resignation stunned the world. For university professors, Supreme Court justices and yes, pontiffs, keen self-understanding and humility are required to make the determination of the right time to make an exit.

In this light, Pope Benedict’s decision to retire, ostensibly because he is too weary (and perhaps ailing) to do the job, is a commendable subordination of personal interest to organizational needs. The timing and timeline of his departure, however, have created an organizational crisis as hurried steps are taken to replace the pontiff by Easter. It also will create nearly unprecedented circumstances for the Vatican as the new pope assumes leadership in proximity to his predecessor. As most other organizations already know well, strong boundaries and clear intentions will be necessary for the smooth transition. The retiree who can make a clean and positive break with his or her job will put organizational needs ahead of ego and self-interest and, in doing so, support the successor.
Is retiring always the selfless act in the competing goods of individual versus other? A contrary perspective casts retirement as the self-centered, short-term choice, citing the prior pope’s decision to continue on in the job despite suffering the ravages of Parkinson’s disease and serving until his death in office. These, too, constitute competing goods: It is good to retain the skill and wisdom of the elder for the benefit of the faith, organization, or corporation. In Pope John Paul’s case, his suffering constituted an inspirational, living model of martyrdom. On the other hand, it is also good to ensure competent leadership for the organization and, in most professions, support a worker’s decision to dedicate remaining time attending to health, family, or other personal interests rather than continue employment.

Organizations that incentivize or force retirements to bring in “fresh perspectives” or reduce payroll costs by hiring younger workers, without regard to the interests, abilities, and needs of the older employee also are making tradeoffs among competing goods. The immediate benefits for the organizational bottom line may come at the expense of workforce diversity, institutional memory, and senior expertise. Aggressive efforts to force retirements or downsize older employees also may result in claims of age discrimination, leading to the organization’s and the workers’ long-term harm.

Some workers’ resignation decisions are more nakedly self-interested and short term. In this category, consider the corporate titan or politician, ensconced in scandal, who suddenly elects to “spend more time with my family” rather than stay and face accountability in correcting their alleged misdeeds. (Some have suggested that Vatican scandals have played a larger role in Pope Benedict’s decision than the publicly offered rationale for resigning admits.) Resignations with excessively long lead times may complicate the replacement process if the incumbent lingers on, contaminating or delaying the selection and transition process.

The ethics of exits also affect those who surround the prospective retiree. In this case, Pope Benedict’s case diverges from typical retirements in that it appears he had little human consultation or influence in making his decision. More commonly, employees observe colleagues overstaying their welcome in the workplace and make them the subject of gossip or criticism, shared with co-workers but withheld from the colleague in question. Absent ageism or animus, it is clear to co-workers when an individual has lost interest or enthusiasm for the job, yet directly broaching such a topic is fraught with hazard. Superiors are advised to scrupulously avoid such conversations, as they could constitute age discrimination. Concerned peers must consider their own motivations and interests. Are they in a position to benefit from the colleague’s departure, or is the conversation truly in the other’s interest? If the latter is the case, the greater good is likely in a caring and forthright conversation about the person’s plans, in the hope of facilitating a gracious and timely exit. Demeaning sidebars behind the colleague’s back don’t constitute an ethical good for the workplace, the worker, or their colleagues.