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Morality & Me - Episode 1: First jobs, fluffy animals, and moral awakening

What did I learn about morality from fluffy animals? Read on to find out!

In this series of articles, I will be looking back at my own relationship with morality through the course of my career to date: when did I find myself in situations of moral ambiguity or dilemma, how I responded, and how it affected me. I will at times refer back to some of the concepts I shared in my last article, but will go easy on theory, and focus on experience. This article revisits the first years of my career, which took me from theme park rides, to manufacturing, and eventually to my first job in the UK.

Starting on a high - happy and naïve!

Having been, as a child and teenager, a big fan of theme parks and all things Disney, getting an opportunity to work at Disneyland Paris just after I turned 18 was like a dream come true. And one that would last, on and off, for 5 years, squeezing all the time I could outside of my studies to come to work, in a number of roles involving operating rides, helping guests, guiding VIPs, conducting customer surveys, and working in one of the resort hotels. Feeling so happy and fortunate to work in this environment (during my first summer I genuinely wished I didn't have to take two days off each week), the rose tinted glasses permanently stuck on my face meant I wasn't really asking myself any questions about morality. Of course, seeing Mickey and Pluto taking off their heads backstage for the first time made me briefly reconsider everything I believed in life.. But any challenge coming my way (and like in any customer service role there were some) would be swept away by the greater purpose of creating magic experiences, and the fireworks ending each summer day reinforced the feeling of pride I had to be part of such a noble enterprise.

The Disney smile was still a work in progress at that point

That isn't to say that it was all free of moral reasoning, like deciding to stick strictly to the minimum height requirements on roller coasters, when a child is just 2 centimetres too short, in tears and their family begging your kind heart because this ride is the reason why the child wanted to come and why they as a family travelled from the other end of the country. Or deciding to close a ride at the end of the day, when you can see in the distance people running towards you, knowing that on the other end of the queue an entire team is eager to go home. The main coping mechanism with the feeling of disappointing people in these cases was to fall back on "the rules", be they for safety or operational reasons, and using them as a way to disengage your own moral judgement, and feel better about playing your part in the smooth running of the operations.

"Can I ask you a couple of quick questions?"

One of my other jobs at Disney, which I did for a couple of years and truly enjoyed, was to conduct market research, which involved walking around the resort to ask guests questions about their stay and their satisfaction. Most of those were quite relaxed, however one of the questionnaires we had to administer involved very frequent micro-moral dilemmas. It was a very simple survey to gather data on our guests' demographics, which would take between one and two minutes each. The challenge was that we had to catch people straight after they entered the park, right after the turnstile, when they would either be eager to run to their first ride, taking a moment to savour the joy of being there, getting their tickets and papers in order, or desperate for the toilet. And we had quotas of surveys to complete per hour, to make sure the data was statistically representative, which could mean having to complete a survey every three minutes, sometimes less.

I mention micro-moral dilemmas, as these were lose-lose situations: aside from a lovely smile and warm welcome, this could only be an inconvenience to the guests who were keen to move along, and on the other hand not stopping them meant the risk of missing our quotas. And in the end, the latter would tend to take precedence, and we would often consider this as a numbers game, almost a sport, a competition with ourselves (and sometimes our colleagues) to complete our quota, with the guests being a means to this end, unless some specific circumstance would bring us back to realising we were in a conversation with fellow human beings with their own motivations; these could range from a negative reaction, being asked a specific question, or someone being unexpectedly nice and friendly! And we would all develop our own techniques and strategies to get people to cooperate. Some of us would be good at starting with a joke to establish quick rapport; others would put all their energy in their welcoming smile. I would tend to flex my technique, sometimes taking the risky approach of guessing where the guests were from to start the conversation, or sometimes cheekily just casually asking them the questions while walking with them a few meters into the park..

A very different type of fluffy characters

Fast forward a few years, past my year spent as a French teaching assistant in Dublin, the completion of my Masters in HR, and my first experience in HR in a manufacturing environment, to the time when my job search took me away from France, to start a new life in the UK. My first role in the UK was to work in Expatriate Services for a large consumer good company. I was actually employed by another company who was acting as an outsourced provider for them, although this had only been a recent change by the time I arrived, a lot of the staff had moved across from the client company which they still considered part of their identity, and we were still collocated with them.

For me, as a recent graduate, being employed by such a renowned blue-chip company, and working on behalf of another blue-chip company was a source of great personal pride, as the country farm boy I was felt I found my way into the big corporate world; not only this, I did it in another country and in a foreign language, how cool was that?

Where morality came into the picture here wasn't so much through the job itself (although I shall be sharing reflections and stories about working in the world of expatriation in my next article). It came from me looking out of the window - I was lucky to have a very sought after window seat, from where I could admire the bunnies hopping around the bit of grass in front of the building, creating a Teletubby land sort of feel. And one day, my eyes were drawn by the sight of a very different type of bunnies. It took me a while to see what exactly it was, when I realised that 3 or 4 people dressed up in fluffy animal costumes were standing in front of our building, facing us. At first I didn't make much of it, or make a big deal about it. I had only been in the UK for a few months, and had still many opportunities for cultural faux-pas, or misunderstanding of local practices. That said, I was pretty confident that staring-at-an-office-block-dressed-as-a-rabbit was very unlikely to be a British tradition.. Interestingly, it didn't generate much interest from colleagues either, and my initial enquiries didn't take me very far. I finally found someone who could explain to me that this was in fact a protest against animal-testing, which was still a practice the consumer good company we were working on behalf of had in place back then (which has since evolved). And this sent my brain in a spin..

Many things went through my head at that time. First, what initially looked like a seemingly benign, and somewhat comical sight suddenly became something much more profound with a very different meaning. Second, the fact that animal testing was a reality in this organisation wasn't something that I ever thought about, still living on the tail-end of my younger years' naivety, taking for granted that large reputable firms wouldn't take part in activities causing harm. And third, the fact that I was standing in the building which represented these practices, and, albeit in a small an indirect way, a part of that system. It was like suddenly the gloss finish covering this working environment, which to me up to that point only stood for positive things to be proud of was a little damaged, and that all was not completely rosy - indeed I was still naïve at this early stage of my career, and this was one of the moments which helped me challenge myself and grow. What also surprised me, was the lack of reaction on the floor. Some of it was simply due to a lack of awareness as I had established. But it equally appeared very quickly that it was something uncomfortable, and despite not being called out by leaders, something that the collective mind of the floor had decided to leave outside. Interestingly, working as a third party created some distance which helped feeling a little less directly implicated. What's more, none of the testing this was about happened on this site. Research has showed that the more distanced we are from certain actions, the less strict we are in judging it from a moral perspective. Also, creating distance is a way to disengage with our moral standards and cope in situations which involve harm of some description.

Of course, time went on, the protesters went home, and weren't ever spoken of again. In the scheme of things, it was a very minor event, yet one which, nearly two decades on, I still remember as being defining in my own way of thinking about right and wrong in the context of work. And all the way back then already, something I felt would have benefited from being more openly acknowledged, and actively talked about.

After a year in this role, I went on to move to another part of the country to be with my partner, whom I had just met a few months before, which also meant more changes in my career, including a stint in the financial sector, which I will cover in my next article - hope you join me again then!

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