Lockheed Martin ethics program is ambitious, but incomplete

The Chronicle of Higher Education
Friday, June 3, 2005
By Nina C. Ayoub

'Ethics at Work: Creating Virtue at an American Corporation'

When Lockheed Martin "hired" Dilbert in 1997, it was as a test pilot of sorts. Not for the defense giant's airplanes, but for its evolving ethics program. Dilbert and his comic-strip pals were used in a board game, the Ethics Challenge, that moved players from room to room as they tackled workplace dilemmas. Created for Lockheed Martin by outside consultants, the game made a serious concern engaging and even irreverent.

Innovative, says Daniel Terris in Ethics at Work: Creating Virtue at an American Corporation (Brandeis University Press/University Press of New England), a case study blending praise and criticism.

Mr. Terris, who directs the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life at Brandeis, had unusual access to a corporation known for its stealth bomber and stealthy research facilities. Lockheed Martin, he says, provided all of the materials used for its ethics program since that effort's beginnings. It also allowed him to interview at plant sites, corporate headquarters, and an annual meeting of 65 ethics officers. The company reserved the right to review the manuscript for proprietary or national-security secrets, but otherwise had no control over the contents.

Conducting the research, what most interested the scholar was not the performance of the ethics program, but the choices made in its design. "A group of decent, well-meaning people at Lockheed Martin has created an ethics program that is ambitious but incomplete."

Incomplete, but expansive. All of Lockheed Martin's 130,000 employees, including executives, are required to participate in ethics training that each year involves new approaches. For Mr. Terris, then, the problem is not the breadth, the intent, or the creativity of the program, but its depth and, he says, its overly individualistic ethos. Lockheed Martin "implicitly describes the ethics of a corporation as the sum total of millions of decisions of individual actors." But doing so, it evades truths about how individuals behave in groups. In addition, he says, while the company's ethics policies were crafted in response to a past history of scandals at the top, the program rarely presents cases of that kind of malfeasance.

Closing, he discusses Lockheed Martin's special nature as a defense giant. Naturally, no company wishes to "examine itself into extinction," he writes. However, he says, silence on the issue threatens the entire ethics program's integrity and credibility. Lockheed Martin "helps to make some of the deadliest man-made objects on the face of the earth. To claim that this fact has no ethical implications for the manufacturer is, on the face of it, absurd."