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Human Rights and Professional Ethics in the Workplace

by Michel Fariña, Juan Jorge

The image of the labor psychologist is associated to shady professional ethics. This is because the in-house position with the company subjects the psychologist to a structural conflict between professional duties and employer’s demands. Argentine cinema has taken on this subject in two films which are worth analyzing. The first, “El Método”, (Marcelo Piñeyro, 2005), in which seven candidates for an executive position in a multinational corporation are selected through the Gronhölm Method, with the participation of a psychologist infiltrated amongst them. The second, “Whisky Romeo Zulu” (Enrique Piñeyro, 2004), is a barely veiled fictional account of the LAPA airline tragedy at the Buenos Aires Jorge Newberry Airport in 1999.

Whereas in “The Method” the character is clearly a labor psychologist, in “WRZ” the character is a psychiatrist working in the area of mental health of the medical team in the Buenos Aires Jorge Newberry Airport, which introduces an interesting question regarding the diagnostic function test in the workplace.

Three fragments of the film will be discussed, two of which correspond to interviews the professional holds with the main character, a LAPA Commander who is undergoing serious conflicts with the airline company. The first one is framed within the diagnostic process and the second one introduces work indication and a psychological interpretation. The ethical issues involved and the horizon of responsibility, both deontological and subjective, that may have bearing on the events that later unfolded, have been identified.

The film tells the story prior to the accident of LAPA (Líneas Aéreas Privadas Argentinas) Boeing 737, which on August 31, 1999 caught fire after impacting against an embankment in the Buenos Aires Airport. 67 people died in the accident. Directed and played by a LAPA ex –pilot, the film reveals the complex web of complicities between the Argentine Air Force and the airline company to dodge security measures in order to reap higher economic benefits.

Enrique Piñeyro is that LAPA pilot. The film shows his childhood dreams, his yearning to fly and someday becoming commander. After years of hard work and the result of proven capacity, he is finally promoted. That is when his problems start, because, as the film’s tagline says, “flying isn’t what you dreamt it to be”. The protagonist is slowly drawn into a conflict that becomes insoluble: respecting safety rules and regulations and at the same time holding down his job while under continuous pressure from his superiors.

The situation tenses and the pilot is summoned by the medical team. He is interviewed by a psychiatrist and the following scene takes place.
Let’s review the dialogue:

P: Are you satisfied with the way you are working?
E: What do you mean?
P: Are you tired?
E: Well, yes. I got up at six this morning to come here…
P: Of course, I can imagine. Has it been a long time since you’ve had vacations?
: Yes, a long time. Too long. The fact is that I’ve asked for them but they haven’t given them to me. Which isn’t legal either.
P: Are you nervous?
E: No.
P: Do you get depressed? Do you feel like crying sometimes?
E: No.
P: My question amuses you. Do you find it amusing to talk about depression?
E: No.
P: Does it frighten you?
E: No.
P: Okay. We will do some tests. You will have to draw this again… answer these little questions for me … In another page draw a man, a woman and a house. Another of my colleagues will give you this other test.
E: Why do I have to take this test?
P: Because I need you to take this test.
E: Yes, but … I‘ve been flying for seventeen years and I have never taken one.
P: Things change in seventeen years. We need a diagnostic evaluation. Complete all of it, that way you can go home quickly.

In an interview made to him, the director confirmed that the dialogue was practically verbatim, which gives this scene the nature of a documentary. Spectators, however, are surprised and rate the professional’s conduct as ‘incredible’.

In the first place, there is no intention to try and establish empathic contact with the interviewee. On the contrary, the sequence of questions is made to intimidate him. It starts with a tough interrogation and concludes with a series of supposedly technical instructions given in a patronizing and demeaning language: you draw me a man, a woman and a house … answer these little questions for me…complete all this and you can go home quickly…This, together with the arrogant tone, gives the scene a frankly obscene character. Are not the exhibitionist expressions on the psychologist’s face, and the humiliation to which she submits the candidate, what shocks us most about the interview?

Ethical parameters, even the most elemental, are rudely trampled on. For example, the principle of integrity, which forewarns that personal values, needs and limitations of a professional can negatively affect their work; and for this reason the professional is committed to eliminating their prejudice, bias, feelings of aggression and discriminatory practices in their line of work. (APA, 2003)

But, as can be seen, the mere enumeration of the standards sounds ridiculous, because, as we will later see, it is not about ignorance of this ethical principle, but rather a suspension of ethics, which, in this case, appears to be legitimized by certain situational conditions which we will later discuss in more detail.

Let’s continue a little more with the story. On one occasion, the Commander decides to make a non-scheduled stop, because of an alarm warning in the control panel. The airline company, instead of backing his decision, replaces him with another pilot who accepts flying in those conditions. The main character then compiles every record of technical failure reported by the pilots themselves, and writes a letter to the company warning them of the risks.

He is again summoned by the medical team and interviewed by the same professional, now acting as spokesperson for the company’s labor measures, who advances a diagnosis and presents a curious clinical indication.

Let’s look at the following dialogue:

P: We took you off flying, initially for six months, after that… we shall see.
E: Why?
P: You know you are not well.
E: I am very well, what’s not doing well is safety. By the way, what was the company doctor doing here?
P: He came for a different matter. Let’s not change the subject. Obviously, if you write a letter of divination such as the one you wrote, you are describing a fear.
P: He came for a different matter. Let’s not change the subject. Obviously, if you write a foreboding letter such as the one you wrote, you are describing a fear.
E: Exactly. I am afraid that if things continue like this, a plane will fall.
P: Or are you afraid yours will fall?
E: No. No. Because I’m careful. If the plane is not in condition to fly, I refuse it.
P: Well, even so, you will have to undergo treatment.
E: Why? What is my diagnosis?
P: You know you are always escaping from your melancholy.
E: But you are not answering my question. What is my diagnosis?
Based on what do you speak about my melancholy? What is really escaping you here is the fact that we pilots find ourselves having to opt between following the rules and risking the loss of our jobs or breaking the rules and risking the safety of flights in order to keep our jobs. Do you realize? And you are one of the State representatives. You should be doing something, right?
P: Do you think it is the place of the medical staff to offer safety?
E: Ah, don’t tell me that you don’t think so.
P: You do realize, don’t you, that you are very querulous?
E: What does querulous mean?
P: cockish, whiney

Once again it would be useless to enumerate the ‘technical failures’ in which the professional incurs. It will be more interesting to offer a possible explanation for such conduct. As we have already mentioned, it is not about ignorance of the ethical standards that govern the practice, but of what the philosopher Slavoj Zizek calls “the political suspension of ethics”.

It is interesting that the concept is developed by the Slovenian thinker in the context of his analysis on ethics and Human Rights and after having analyzed in detail the ‘matrix’ in Guantánamo and Abu Ghraim. In view of the bewilderment of the American people when they see photographs of prisoners subjected to humiliations, there are two possible explanations: either the marines received orders from their superiors, in which case there are high ranking officers that must be sanctioned for having ignored the laws in force, or they acted on their own accord and in consequence must be put on trial as traitors or deserters.

Zizek proposes another hypothesis:

The Abu Ghraim tortures do not fall into either of the above categories, although these tortures cannot be reduced to simple acts of evil carried out by individual soldiers, and of course these orders were not given directly, but they were legitimized through a specific version of the rules of the obscene “Red Code”.

For Zizek, what legitimizes the treatment they are given, are the conditions in which these prisoners arrive –true ‘living dead’, or ‘Muslims’, in terms of Giorgio Agamben. Suspension of every humane principle is legitimized by the context of exclusion in which they are found. What the author finds interesting is that the scandal felt by the average American regarding the photographs, does not contradict what took place but represents the necessary counterpart. The obscenity of torture photographed by the very same perpetrators smiling on scene, which is reminiscent of certain initiation rituals typical of the most exclusive university campuses, is the other side of its public condemnation.

Returning to the field of work, the work market itself often subjects candidates to humiliations in order to obtain the post they want. And once it has been obtained, the excessive demands multiply in order not to lose it. Everybody knows that these conditions are far from the elemental principle of human respect, but there is like a pseudo state of need that prevents questioning. Furthermore, the existence of neatly worded ’ethical standards’, with company paid training courses, becomes the counterpart of civility that involuntarily sustains its practical subjection.

In the scenes from WRZ we have commented on, it is unlikely that there were organic instructions for the psychiatrist to act in this despicable way with the interviewee, but neither is the psychiatrist’s conduct the result of some erratic personal initiative. In actual fact it is about the perverse "red code" –to make reference to the well known film with Jack Nicholson, Demi Moore and Tom Cruise.

The Commander must drink that hard medicine of exclusion for order to maintain consistency.

Another character from the film, the executive played by the actress Mercedes Morán, represents to perfection the way in which the initiation ritual works and enables a sense of belonging to the secret society of illicit permissions. Sensitive and empathetic with the Commander at first, she is quickly possessed by the institutional phantom and acts out her own blind points in the summary execution of the other.

What ethics then for the psychology of work? Can we envision a future that surmounts the suspension of ethics we see in the workplace on a daily basis?

The singularity of psychological intervention lies in withdrawing from the particularistic logic that dominates the situation. As Alejandro Ariel has conceptualized it, ethics is not against morality nor is it complimentary to it, it is supplementary. This means that the psychologist does not intervene by taking sides with one or other band in conflict, not even by generating equilibrium between them, but by opening a dimension that reformulates the terms of the situation.

This intervention detaches the psychologist from the particularisms of the day and legitimizes her job in the necessary complexity of the case. If on the other hand the professional is subsumed in the series (commodores, commanders, businessmen), all efficacy is cancelled for its use.

This not only benefits the subject –who in no way is helped with a savage diagnosis such as we see in this film- but also the company. Please note that LAPA’s reaction is typical of a pre-capitalist logic that, in the name of a supposed pragmatism, leads to the brutal liquidation of a corporative project.

When at the end of the film the federal attorney investigating the case finally manages to send the airline executives and the aeronautical authorities to court, we realize how short-lived this pseudo business strategy is.

Most importantly for psychologists, it warns us of the risks our professional practice runs of being degraded, alienated in circumstantial songs of sirens. Only a theoretical-political discussion of our practices, and betting on a mechanism that will respect situational complexity, will lay the foundation for genuine ethics in the praxis of labor psychology.

This work was part of the opening conference given by Prof. Juan Jorge Michel Fariña at the III University Congress on Labor Psychology "Ethics in the Praxis of the Labor Psychologist", organized by the Faculty of Psychology, University of Buenos Aires.


Film:Whisky Romeo Zulu

Original Title:Whisky Romeo Zulu

Director: Enrique Piñeyro

Year: 2005

Country: Argentina

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