Monday, May 25, 2009

The Front Page Test

My employer makes us take a series of on-line training classes every year. The classes cover topics like the company's diversity policy, and protecting intellectual property. One of the classes is about business communication. It includes tips on what constitutes "proper" business communication, and what is not proper, but of course it's impossible to cover every possible need to communicate, so one of the broad guidelines that the course includes is the Front Page Test. The Front Page Test is, very simply, this: Would you feel comfortable if what you're writing appeared on the front page of the newspaper? Because, you know, it's only a subpoena away from doing just that.

The Front Page Test always made a lot of sense to me. Let's say I'm writing an email message to a colleague, and I type, It doesn't matter if this feature in our product works or not, since we're only adding it because the customer's CEO is a retarded bonehead. Hmmm. On the front page of the newspaper? Okay, delete that.

Then a couple weeks ago I was listening to an interview on All Things Considered with one of the psychologists (or psychiatrists -- I didn't get which, but definitely an MD) who developed the torture techniques used by the US on terrorist suspects. As you know, doctors are supposed to heal people, not pioneer ways to do them harm. I think they may even take some sort of oath to that effect. When the interviewer asked this particular doctor about that , the doctor who helped refine torture techniques said something to the effect of, "My patient is the United States, the people of the United States. That's who I'm helping. I don't care about the physical or mental well-being of the person being interrogated. He means nothing to me. I don't care about him at all."

Of course there's the obvious arrogance of this statement, beginning with the assumption that anyone who is tortured using the techniques this doctor developed has been implicitly anointed as deserving of torture, without any consideration of his well-being, even though there is no impartial review of evidence, much less a fair trial*. But beyond the arrogance, there's also the question that, having, as a doctor, departed from the code of ethics that defines what is and is not right for doctors -- heal, not harm -- then how does such a rogue doctor decide what is unethical and what is not? If you are promoting harm, how do you know how much harm is too much?

The interviewer asked the doctor this question, something like this: Given that you are studying, as a doctor, the best ways to cause people the greatest harm, then how do you know when to draw the line? How do you decide what is right and what is wrong?

The doctor answered that he and his colleagues used the "Front Page Test": We asked ourselves, would we be comfortable seeing what did on the front page of a major newspaper?

Ah! I thought. The Front Page Test! I remember that from my company training. It seemed reasonable.

Well, continued the reporter, now your work is on the front page of every newspaper, so how do you feel?

And the doctor replied that...

...he felt completely comfortable. Fully vindicated. Not ashamed in the least.

In that instant I realized that the Front Page Test is worthless. Completely worthless. Because it relies entirely on the judgment of the applier, and there will always be some, like this doctor, who will rationalize however they must to make themselves feel vindicated. The test is actually worse than worthless, because while perhaps most people can apply the Test correctly, to the rationalizers who can't, it reverses and a becomes a shield for unethical or even evil activity. It's an easy defense of immorality.

Of course, torture isn't a part my my day-to-day life, so I thought about how this lesson might apply to my own company. I thought about the email example above: It doesn't matter if this feature in our product works or not, since we're only adding it because the customer's CEO is a retarded bonehead. I asked myself, "Self," I said, "is there anyone at our company that you know who would not only approve that message using the Front Page Test, but, if it actually did appear on the front page of the newspaper, would be happy to see it there?"

It didn't take me two seconds to think of the first employee: A first-line engineer who would not only send something like that, but if it appeared on the front page, would boast about it -- I can see him saying, "It's true, and someone needs to tell that customer's CEO the way it is, and I'm the only one who had the guts to do it!" He'd be proud.

Just like the torturing doctor is proud.

The Front Page Test, is only as good as any single human's nature. Unfortunately, as the torturing doctor has shown us, that's not enough.

* Perhaps the doctor is convinced that his torture techniques give their wielders a superhuman window into the human soul that allows them to separate the evil from the innocent.

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I have a job that regularly involves talking to reporters, and although I am a very small fish in a very small pond, as a public official I have lived by a version of the front page test for many years and find it very useful (this version is 'never say or do anything that you wouldn't want to see on the front page of the paper'). I would respectfully submit that the fact that there is at least one doctor out there who doesn't mind being known as the 'torture doctor' does not invalidate the test. The value of the test is that it encourages a person to look at the consequences of what they are about to do and consciously decide if the thought/action, if made public, would be damaging to their career, image, self-image, conscience, or any other quality that they hold dear. The fact that the torture doctor is proud to be known as the torture doctor tells me a lot about the qualities of the people who looked at him and said "That's what we are looking for in a doctor!" and that is useful information, even if it does turn my stomach. It's kind of like a yellow light.... some people see a yellow light and slow down, others see a yellow light and speed like hell through an intersection. The fact that some people see the yellow light and decide to act irresponsibly isn't the light's fault.

Just my two cent's worth.
=The fact that the torture doctor is proud to be known as the torture doctor tells me a lot about the qualities of the people who looked at him and said "That's what we are looking for in a doctor!"=

Yeah, that too. Clearly the "employers" were looking for doctors whose morals could be easily compromised by holding the Front Page Test in front of their eyes.

What makes your particular position different (and makes the Front Page Test so effective for you) is that, for you, the Front Page Test has practical applicability. If you misstep, you know what you say or do will actually appear on the front page. In situations like my company's (and the doctor's), the Test is more theoretical. The possibility of actually seeing our words on the front page is remote, and so the process of weeding out those with bad judgment is not very effective.

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