The New York Times Test & Corporate Misbehavior

The New York Times Test is mentioned often in the context of corporate misbehavior. It basically says that you can decide whether or not you should do something by considering whether or not you’d want it (and your name) to appear in an article on the front page of the New York Times.

At first it sounds like a practical, useful standard. Well, it’s clever, but that’s about it. If the idea is to help you measure your conduct in grey ambiguous areas – those areas that you’re not sure of and actually NEED a test to analyze – it’s useless.

The Times doesn’t carry stories about rank-and-file conduct in the grey zone. When was the last time you read a story on the front page of the Times or any other paper about an executive who submitted an expense report for a personal meal, or about a scientist who accepted a pen that may have exceeded the value allowed in the company’s Vendor Gifts policy. Who wants to read about that?

Stories about rankly unethical behavior – executives who embezzle, steal, sleep with their subordinates – that’s what makes the front page. And the people involved are usually those who think they’re invulnerable; they’re certainly not worried about the Times Test.

For the rest of us, the better test is how you’d feel if your actions were discovered by your co-workers and those who you support or manage. In organizations where values and culture really mean something, that’s the best question to ask to gauge the acceptability of your conduct.

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