People, let’s be reasonable
I have always found unreasonable people and organizations as appealing as root canal surgery with a roto rooter. Reasonableness and flexibility in our actions, and in the actions of our organizations, are a foundation of professionalism and good governance.
We use reasonableness to solve our problems, to enact our laws and to dictate the way we do business. We strive for prudence and reasonableness in our doctrines of fairness for our internal and external clients. It is part of our problem-solving criteria, and yet we are not conscious of its effects on us.
One of the more difficult aspects of reasonableness is the inability of all parties involved in a dispute to detach themselves from the dispute in order to discern, in an unbiased fashion, which party is reasonable and which party is not. Usually the basis for a dispute, and the impediment to its final resolution, is the failure to recognize the interests of the others. Until those are understood, exploration of alternatives is useless.
There is a school of thought that more rationality in the courts—through review for unreasonableness—will mean more socially rational decisions. In other words, knowing that there will be a court eventually assessing whether a decision was reasonable (not correct, but reasonable) helps make the agency decision-making process reasonable. It gives a lever to those within the agency who want to push for a more reasoned process.
This brings up another potential problem: a law or protocol that fails the test of reasonableness.
When a law or rule falls short of being reasonable, whose responsibility is it to bring it to the attention of the appropriate stakeholders and to take corrective action? Is it the responsibility of the head of an organization, or middle management? Or, worst case, does it take a court action to change such a rule? All rules are not created equal; some have more import than others. We all have seen articles about laws that are enforceable yet unreasonable.
In the toxic wake of the Enron and other corporate scandals, corporate attorney Robert Hinkley leveraged his 23 years of experience in advising large corporations on securities offerings, mergers and acquisitions—and the lessons he learned about reasonableness—to devote his life to promoting corporate citizenship.
Hinkley was not happy with the current state of corporate law and the responsibilities of corporate officers. I’d like to think that he was reading Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist,” when the character Mr. Bumble is informed that “the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction.” Mr. Bumble replies: “If the law supposes that, the law is a ___ —an idiot.” (I give you the bowdlerized version.)
Hinkley’s proposal is amazingly simple. He wants corporations to be more accountable to their stockholders and to society in general. Under Hinkley’s proposal, a corporation would continue to be obligated to make money for its stockholders. However, Hinkley proposes, a corporation would not be permitted to pursue those profits at the expense of the community, its employees or the environment. His proposal has gained wide purchase; if widely implemented, it would minimize corporations’ negative impact on the public. I’d like to see it taken several steps further.
The Virginia Association of Governmental Purchasing (VAGP) and other chapters are acting reasonably—and proactively—through the work of their legislative committees, which track and advise lawmakers on the impact that the lawmakers’ actions have on the procurement process. Every professional organization should cultivate this same level of commitment to reasonableness.
We should speak out clearly and forcefully about proposed laws that, if enacted, would affect the way we do business. When we see abuses reported in the media, our organizations should be the first to step forward to comment. It’s the reasonable act of a professional.
Eileen Miller, in her prize-winning essay “Far to fall” [which appears on page 18 with the title “Lessons from the cherry orchard”], asks: “What will your legacy be? Will you be remembered as the consummate professional who unselfishly trained and shared experiences with others, whose ethics and integrity were unquestionable, whose procurement prowess was stellar, or will you be remembered as the individual who inadvertently hit the ‘Reply to All’ button on the listserv?”
The choice is yours.
About the author
Frederick Marks, CPPO, VCO (Virginia contracting officer), is a retired purchasing officer who held positions as a supervising buyer for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey as well as director of material management for Northern Virginia Community College. Contact Marks at firstname.lastname@example.org.