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Defining Moments: When Managers Must Choose between Right and Wrong

(originally published by Booz & Company)
Thoughtful managers sometimes face business problems that raise difficult, deeply personal questions. In these situations, managers find themselves wondering: Do I have to leave some of my values at home when I go to work? How much of myself -- and of what I really care about -- do I have to sacrifice to get ahead? When I get to the office, who am I?

Difficult questions like these are often matters of right versus right, not right versus wrong. Sometimes, a manager faces a tough problem and must choose between two ways of resolving it. Each alternative is the right thing to do, but there is no way to do both. There are three basic types of right-versus-right problems: those that raise questions about personal integrity and moral identity; conflicts between responsibilities for others and important personal values; and, perhaps the most challenging, those involving responsibilities that a company shares with other groups in society.

Most companies are now enmeshed in networks of ongoing relationships. Strategic alliances link organizations with their customers and suppliers, and even competitors. Many companies also have complicated dealings with the media, government regulators, local communities and various interest groups. These networks of relationships are also networks of managerial responsibility. Taken together, a company's business partners and stakeholders have a wide range of legitimate claims, but no company can satisfy all of them. At times, stakeholder responsibilities conflict with managers' personal and organizational obligations. When these conflicts occur, managers confront this third type of right-versus-right problem.

A particularly stark example of this occurred in the pharmaceutical industry nearly a decade ago. Late in 1988, the senior management of Paris-based Roussel-Uclaf had to decide where and how to market a new drug, called RU 486. Early tests had shown that the drug was 90 to 95 percent effective in causing a miscarriage during the first five weeks of pregnancy. The drug came to be known as "the French abortion pill," and Roussel-Uclaf and its managers found themselves at the vortex of the abortion controversy.

The chairman of Roussel-Uclaf, Edouard Sakiz, was a physician with a longstanding personal commitment to RU 486. He would make the final decisions on introducing the drug. Earlier in his career, while working as a medical researcher, Dr. Sakiz had helped develop the chemical compound on which RU 486 was based. He believed strongly that the drug could help thousands of women, particularly in poor countries, avoid injury or death from botched abortions. In the developed world, he believed, RU 486 would provide women and physicians with a valuable alternative to surgical abortions.

But Dr. Sakiz couldn't base his decision on RU 486 solely on his personal values. As the head of a company, he had other important obligations. Some were to his shareholders; from this perspective, RU 486 was a serious problem. Revenues from the drug were likely to be quite small, particularly in the early years. Yet, during this period, anti-abortion groups would mount an international boycott of products made by Roussel-Uclaf and Hoechst, the German chemical giant that was Roussel-Uclaf's largest shareholder. A successful boycott would cost the two companies far more than they would earn from RU 486. At worst, a boycott could imperil Roussel-Uclaf's survival, for it was a relatively small company with weak profits.

Like any executive, Dr. Sakiz also had responsibilities for the people in his company. He had to assess the seriousness of the threats of violence against Roussel-Uclaf and its employees.

At a personal level, Dr. Sakiz faced a version of the question, Who am I? Was he, first and foremost, a medical doctor, a scientific researcher, an advocate of women's rights, or a corporate executive with responsibilities to shareholders and employees? In addition, his decision on RU 486 would commit his company to some values rather than others, thereby answering the organizational question, Who are we?

The prospect of introducing RU 486 placed Dr. Sakiz at the center of a network of responsibilities to important groups and institutions outside Roussel-Uclaf. Among these were the French Government, which owned 36 percent of Roussel-Uclaf, and the French Ministry of Health, which closely regulated the company, thus shaping its business opportunities.

Hoechst, which owned 55 percent of Roussel-Uclaf, also made strong ethical claims on the company. Its chairman was a devout Roman Catholic, who opposed abortion on moral grounds and had repeatedly stated his position in public. Moreover, Hoechst had a mission statement committing the company to lofty goals, which was put in place partly in reaction to its role in producing a poison gas used at Auschwitz.

China was another powerful actor in the drama. It wanted access to RU 486 for population control. The moral ground for China's position was avoiding the misery and risks of starvation resulting from its surging population.

Roussel-Uclaf's network of relationships and responsibilities raised extremely difficult questions for Dr. Sakiz and his company. What, in fact, were the company's obligations to women? To the Government laboratory that helped develop the steroid molecule on which RU 486 was based? To the larger medical and research communities? Were the unborn a stakeholder group? Could Roussel-Uclaf introduce the drug both in the West, citing a woman's right to choose, and in China, where women had apparently been coerced into abortions, even near the end of their pregnancies?

Dr. Sakiz's decision would define his company's role in society and its relationships with stakeholders. Everyone was watching him intently because his actions would be decisive, for RU 486 and for the company. In addition, he would be revealing, testing and in some ways shaping his own ethics. In short, Dr. Sakiz also had to make a personal choice that would become an important part of his life and career.

In late October 1988, a month after the French Government approved RU 486, Dr. Sakiz met with the executive committee of Roussel-Uclaf. Dr. Sakiz asked for a discussion of RU 486. After several hours, he called for a vote. When he raised his own hand in favor of suspending distribution of RU 486, it was clear that the pill was doomed.

The company's decision, and Dr. Sakiz's role in it, sparked astonishment and anger. The company and its leadership, some critics charged, had doomed a promising public health tool and set an example of cowardice. Other critics suggested sarcastically that the decision was no surprise, because Roussel-Uclaf had decided, in the face of controversy during the 1960's, not to produce contraceptive pills.

Three days after Roussel-Uclaf announced that it would suspend distribution, the French Minister of Health summoned the company's vice chairman to his office and said that if it did not resume distribution, the Government would transfer the patent to a company that would. After the meeting, Roussel-Uclaf announced that it would distribute RU 486 after all.

These events suggest that the RU 486 episode was something considerably less than a profile in courage. Edouard Sakiz seemed to have protected his job by sacrificing his convictions. There was, to be sure, strong opposition to RU 486, both inside and outside the company, but Dr. Sakiz made no effort to mobilize and lead his allies. He gave up without a fight. At a defining moment for the company, Dr. Sakiz's message seemed to place political caution and returns to shareholders above research and "the service of Life," as the company's mission statement put it.

But the surprising reversal of Roussel-Uclaf's original decision caused suspicion among some observers, who began to ask whether Dr. Sakiz had figured out a way to get what he wanted with a minimum of damage to himself and his company. Indeed, some wondered if the company and the Government had choreographed the entire episode. Others noted that Government science and health officials and Roussel-Uclaf managers and researchers had worked together for years -- on RU 486, on other products and on many other regulatory issues -- making it easy for them to anticipate each other's reactions.

What had Dr. Sakiz accomplished? More specifically, had he protected and advanced his own position? Had he contributed to the strength and security of his company? And had he defined its role in society in a creative way?

In personal terms, Dr. Sakiz succeeded in making good on his own commitment to RU 486 -- Roussel-Uclaf would distribute the drug. At the same time, he protected his job against the chairman of Hoechst. Because the French Government had effectively ordered Roussel-Uclaf to distribute the drug, Hoechst would accomplish little by replacing Dr. Sakiz with an opponent of RU 486. For Roussel-Uclaf employees, the period of uncertainty and speculation was over, and the company decision was clear.

Dr. Sakiz seems to have defined Roussel-Uclaf's role in society in a remarkable, perhaps even daring way. It would be a political activist and catalyst. The company worked to stimulate and then shape media coverage; it invited its allies to mobilize after dismaying them by suspending distribution; it acceded to Government intervention that it may have encouraged or even arranged; and it tried to blur responsibility for the introduction of RU 486.

Roussel-Uclaf was committed to "the service of Life" following an original, complex and audacious strategy. Roussel-Uclaf would distribute RU 486, first in France and then elsewhere, but neither Dr. Sakiz nor his company had volunteered for martyrdom.

Clearly, there is an urgent need to find other lessons for managers who face choices like Dr. Sakiz's. The writings of Aristotle, who developed the foremost theory of human virtue, are an excellent place to find such lessons. Aristotle counsels moderation and caution precisely because he is giving advice for situations in which important ethical claims stand in opposition. He wants to discourage men and women who find tension or conflict among their duties, commitments, responsibilities and virtues from veering too sharply in one direction or another and trampling on some fundamental human values as they pursue others. This is why Stuart Hampshire has written that, for Aristotle, "balance represents a deep moral idea in a world of inescapable conflicts."

The ideal of balance provides valuable guidance for managers who must resolve right-versus-right conflicts -- especially those like Edouard Sakiz's, that pit so many important values and responsibilities against each other. Aristotle's question for managers would be this: Have you done all you can to strike a balance, both morally and practically? By Aristotle's standard of balance, Dr. Sakiz performed quite well.

This article is adapted from the author's new book, "Defining Moments: When Managers Must Choose Between Right and Right." Reprinted by permission of the Harvard Business School Press. Copyright © 1997 by Joseph L. Badaracco Jr. All rights reserved. 

Joseph L. Badaracco Jr., Joseph L. Badaracco Jr. is the John Shad Professor of Business Ethics at the Harvard Business School. He has taught courses on strategy, general management, business-government relations and business ethics in the school's M.B.A. and executive programs. Mr. Badaracco is a graduate of St. Louis University, Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes scholar, and the Harvard Business School, where he earned his M.B.A. and doctorate.
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