The Loneliness of the Ethical
By T.R. Raghunandan, 14 Oct 2016

I had ended my blog a fortnight back with a reflection on how difficult it is to maintain an ethical position, when the incentive structures within a society militate against ethical behaviour. The maintaining of an ethical position then means going against the grain and that can have adverse consequences on one’s career. This is what I left behind in my session on ethics in the Lal Bahadur Shastri Academy (LBSNAA). I asked questions of the young officer trainees as to how they would manage their ethical dilemmas, but stayed away from suggesting answers.

The LBSNAA has an excellent system of seeking feedback from the officer trainees on each lectures and I looked forward to receiving comments on my sessions. The feedback revealed that more than one officer trainee felt that I ought to have spoken more of real life situations, using case studies or even personal experiences from my career. Some felt that such an approach would have helped them better understand how to behave in tricky situations.

However, that was exactly what I did not want to do. Giving examples from one’s own life can soon deteriorate into long winded story-telling, when one often tends to sanitise one’s position and attempts to showcase success when there might not have been any. Besides, anecdotes do not tell the whole story of the agonising loneliness of those who take an ethical stand, in the face of large numbers of those who do not.

Even as I reflected on the feedback received from participants in my classroom sessions, I received a mail from a former colleague. This former colleague of mine was known for his integrity, but was generally known to also be a bit of an introvert. Over the years, as he became more senior, he began to militate against the increasingly corrupt system around him. He began to do so by first resisting attempts made to persuade him to do what he considered to be wrong things, and then, by writing petitions against officers he thought were doing so. He also began to seek information about officers he wrote against, through applications under the Right to Information Act. My personal opinion was that while there was some substance in his petitions, he also tended to write in broad based terms, accusing everybody of lack of integrity, including some officers who were known to be honest enough to serve with distinction and effectiveness within the government.

This riled the honest no end.

Therefore, when it came to the crunch, the former colleague of mine was pushed around. He did not make matters easy by often acting as if he were on strike when occupying various jobs; but he had plenty to complain against, as he was frequently transferred. Finally, matters reached such a stage that he was served with a compulsory retirement order, just four days before he was to retire in the normal course. I personally believed that whatever might have been the merits of the situation, such an action was unwarranted and reeked of vindictiveness.

Across India, if one looks at the civil services environment, one comes across several such instances of people who have been isolated, been transferred frequently, or even subjected to more stringent punishment, simply because they profess to occupy higher ethical standards than others and they say that out loudly. Sadly, vindictive action visits such people more frequently than on those who are popularly seen as being honest, but who might have bent a few rules and regulations to secure a few advantages.

While the case of my former colleague might be an extreme one, I relate it only to point out that the veneer of bonhomie that lies over internal relationships within the civil service, is often a barrier to the examination of integrity of individuals from a hard, dispassionate perspective. If we think that someone is a ‘nice guy’, we tend to be harsh on those who ask uncomfortable questions of them. The anger against those who question the ‘nice guy’ label, the hierarchical arrangement of the civil services and the drawing of several informal lines of behaviour traits that cannot be crossed, all together make it highly unlikely that a 360 degree appraisal system will actually work.

Today, a subordinate who gives an adverse report about an officer is likely to expose himself or herself to considerable risk. If such an adverse report is based upon a subjective position on what constitutes high integrity behaviour, then it becomes all the more difficult to sustain. The subordinate would tend to lose in the long run as he or she earns the reputation of being one who is difficult to work with. That, for an ambitious person, is disaster.

Since the risk inherent in a subordinate claiming that a senior officer lacks integrity, is dependent upon the very definition of integrity, another tricky question remains to be answered; how honest is Honest?

In my next blog, I will look at that question, within the context of the Civil Services.