Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Ethical behaviour in the Job and business

Found this on Linkedin, a must read for folks with experience.

How do good people get caught in seemingly no-win ethical dilemmas?

In my early years in management I reported to someone in a large, publicly-held corporation, who directed all of us on his staff to use our expense report process to contribute $1000 each for a computer system that was going to reside in his office. He convinced all of us that this was not only OK, but was expected. He after all was a regional manager. We later learned that this was not true and he was subsequently fired for misappropriation of corporate funds. We the members of his staff were essentially told that we should look to further our careers elsewhere. I regret being part of this even if I can assign it to naivety and lack of experience.

In another large, publicly held company, I was approached by a member of the Board of Directors to consider a remote learning solution that he had created as the means for us to reach our customers more effectively. Upon evaluation, we determined the technology was not a good match for us and I politely communicated that to the board member. I was later refused a promotion told only that certain members of the board were uncomfortable with my style. I do not regret my how I handled that one.

With over 30 years of management experience today, I am quite confident that I can navigate the waters of safe ethical behavior. I wonder, however, is there a better answer for the younger and less experienced? Or must they too accumulate a regret or two before they find their way?

How about you? Did you have a solid ethical framework in your work environment that allowed you to make the right choices all the time, or do you too have something that you regret?


I have been in a situation that seemed at the time to be "a no-win ethical dilemma." Now that I am out of it, the answer was clear. The easiest thing for me to do is always to tell the truth and to do what is right. If I do these two things, I can emerge from any ethical dilemma able to hold my head high.

This will sometimes mean a financial squeeze, a strained relationship or other hardship, but in my experience these were short term.

The key is to have a strong moral compass. Without this you will be blown like a ship without a rudder.


Ethics is always a personal dilema faced especially when you are starting out in any profession, whether public or private industry. As an accountant, I have learned on the job first hand, what types of ethical dilemas businesses and individuals can face. It is up to each individual to make that moral choice on how to proceed. The more exposure you have to ethical dilemas, the more confident you will become making and in standing by your decisions.

As a junior accountant, I was more apt to "go with the flow" to not ask questions, although in the back of my mind, I knew something wasn't right. I felt that I needed my job and did not want to jeopardize my career by raising concerns that I was not comfortable with. Today in senior management, I can comfortably maintain that ethical posture and confidence in sound business decisions and relay onto others in senior management the proper rules of business.

I consider myself to set a great example of ethics and confidence in my position and to uphold the accounting profession.


Every time I've resisted unethical behavior, I paid much less for my resistance than the unethical party did, but I always suffered, and I suffered first. C'est la vie. Courteous, well-documented refusals that cite corporate mission and values make trouble, but it's the best kind of trouble and the only kind that a responsible employee who cares about the company will make. Think of the alternative: culture flows from the top. Power corrupts. If you didn't take a risk in disagreement based on the common good and the long view, could you call yourself ethical? And if you "went along," how long would you want to stay with that company or that boss?


A few situations like this slap the naivity right out of us, don't they?

There will always be ethical dilemmas. I have 16 virtual advisors. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Einstein.... Great people.

Except BF had a child out of wedlock, TJ had slaves, and AE married then divorced his pregnant first/second cousin.

A similar list of anyone's heros would reveal the same.

We usually don't plan on doing something wrong. Like your example, you think you are doing something good....then more and more you get sucked in. Later on you have to protect your action you thought was right but is now wrong. Best thing: Admit you thought it was right at first but then change it and get past it.

THE PROBLEM is having one set of standards for us and one for others.
Having one set of standards for us and one for others is never right.

One need go no further than LinkedIn to see people rail on one politician for what they praised the other for. Double standards. Non-objectivity. That is the problem. What you do is good because you are you, and you are a good person. What they do is bad, because they are bad people. Does not follow.

Like Martha Stewart. She should have gone to prison as she did. However, I could be her best friend. She just made a bad choice amongst 35 that day.

Here is my fail-safe ethical guideline: I can do whatever I wish to do, but it must be consistent with the greater good.

My cells must work for my organs, or they are a cancer.
My organs must work for my body, or they have failed.
I must work for my community (business, etc.), or I am dysfunctional.
My community must work for the greater good, or it is a cancer on humanity.

We do have to be careful though, for we rationalize our best interest: "Well, it is best if I pollute the waters so I can get wealthy and give to charity and create jobs."

But there are no no-win ethical dilemmas, and here is why: You can always attempt to do the greatest good, in every single situation. As long as you honestly can say you were trying to do the greatest good, with due diligence, you are never "guilty" in an ethical sense, though perhaps in a legal or practical sense you could be.

The system has the right to judge the performance of its parts, so even an appearance of unethical behavior is not good. Generally go with the perception of good by society, unless it is clearly wrong.

We are all just different parts of the same universe, thus our every action must be consistent with the greater good.

Or we can choose to be cancers upon creation. The choice is ours.

The simple answer is to ask if, from a larger perspective, your actions are consistent with the greatest good. To test objectivity you may consider asking if you would still believe it if your opposing religion or political party or economic class were doing the same.

In our every action we create the rules we wish society to have.

But what I have learned from LI and elsewhere, is that people are perfectly happy to have double standards and believe other people are dastardly evil and their heroes saints, both for the very same actions.

You are either working for the system, or against it, and the system goes on from our cells on to infinity. You are either working for the system or against it, and if the system finds you working against it it has every right to take corrective action.

Ironically the highly subjective field of ethics is actually nothing more than systems theory.



The golden rule has always worked pretty well for me. When confronted with an ethical dilemma, I like to try and determine what the impacts are on various people (i.e., customers, vendors, fellow employees, shareholders, managers, etc.) of a course of action. If I find a course of action has an adverse impact on a particular person or class of persons, I then ask whether or not I would be okay if something like that were to happen to me. If the answer is no, then it is unethical.


These are difficult situations and even more difficult times. My bottom line is, and has been for a long time, "is this something I can tell my wife and children."

I presented this and my other "laws" during the lunch speech at a business marketing conference in 2005 and several people asked for a copy of the speech and two people suggested it become my 2nd book - which it did - Why Epiphanies Never Occur to Couch Potatoes.

At the end of the day, each of us has our reputation to consider, and a mirror to look in.

And I want to know that my decisions are all in the category of "can I tell my wife and children.



Well, there is the doubt that there are "good" people but there are hundreds of ways to get "caught". Sometimes, there may be doubts about if the catch is a devils trap, a cultural taboo or some kind of political game.

As several others examples point out, there are the traps of lies, following the wrong examples, going along.

Through out the world, more so in poverty but even in professional circles there are the traps of desperation, "I need to do this to make business", "I need to do this for promotion", "I need this to eat next week"

Fundamentally human, are the "following gonads not brains" traps

Not exactly types, but one can also analyze many of these situations as
"slippery slopes", "tar babies" and "best of bad choices"


Situations like this can be difficult.

I had one experience where a manager forced employees to produce reports about our work that were misleading and, sometimes, outright lies to mask bad leadership decisions. Some on the staff balked, some just went along, others took a route of more passive resistance.

It was interesting and instructive to see the two extremes of the reactions. One staff member, with a background in assessment, saw it not as an ethical debate, but one of "giving the client what they want" (in this case, the "client" being her manager). Another questioned the practice privately, but went along with much enthusiasm. Both got a nice promotion eventually. Those that questioned what we were doing were ostracized and "blackballed" by the manager.

In the end, these things backfire. The manager wound up getting a reputation as being untrustworthy - the hype she was dishing out just didn't match the reality of what people were seeing. She found it more difficult to find quality people to work for her and, as a result, more and more problems kept piling up in the organization that she just couldn't solve.

The sad part about it is that she damaged the reputations and careers of many of her employees in her quest to get promoted.

I just don't want people in my life like that. Lies and dishonesty just keep piling up like unpaid bills. Eventually, someone wants to see results. Someone who's a fake can never really regain respect once it's lost.


All are expressed opinions, but still, "if your heart or wife (!) doesn't have a problem, why give a damn?".

Money is all honey, if you want to be ethical.

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