Review: The Book of Hard Choices

I just finished reading The Book of Hard Choices, by James A. Autry and Peter Roy, and I find myself slightly dissatisfied by it.

It was a compelling read, certainly: I picked it up at my local library on a whim, but when I started reading, I couldn’t put it down.  Subtitled “How to Make the Right Decisions at Work and Keep Your Self-Respect,” it deals mostly in case studies, approaching ethical situations from specifics instead of generalities.  I found myself carried easily from one brief example to another, wondering how each person’s situation would play out: what would they decide?  How would it affect them?  From top CEOs of businesses everyone has heard of, to smaller niche players with names and brands obscured to protect privacy, the subjects of these studies faced tough choices and went with what felt right to them, risking profit, reputation, and legacy for their moral and ethical beliefs.

What bothered me was that as a whole, these case studies seemed to suggest that everything would work out fine.  As people chose to stand up to the bullying of their big customers, to hold to quality over cost in a competitive market, or to go against public opinion or industry standards, they were risking big things, but none of the case studies actually lost big on their big gambles.  Some people weren’t as successful as they might have been; some people missed promotions or passed up opportunities because of their choices, but the decisions were never the career-killers or company-killers that some ethical decisions end up being.

If you are a venture capitalist who made $250 million on a deal instead of $300 million because you stood by what you thought was right, you can look back and say, “I’d do it again.”  But there are people who made that choice and lost out much bigger.  If you are an employee who said, “We are doing something wrong, and if we don’t address it, I will have to tender my resignation,” your view of your decision will probably be different if your company says, “We’ll fix it,” than if they said, “Bye, then.”  Maybe the people in the stories told here would feel the same way if the outcomes had been different, but we don’t know that, because we weren’t shown those stories.

I think there is a case to be made that holding to your ethical beliefs is the right choice even if it means you lose your job, even if your company collapses, even if you are ridiculed in the public eye.  I just don’t think that Autry and Roy made that case.

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