• Susan Fletcher, Ph.D.

How to Get to the Core of Ethics on the Job

"Rules cannot take the place of character."

Recently I had an ethical dilemma. I went to our local PetSmart with my kids and our Golden Retriever Sophie. We found a new leash to replace the one that Sophie chewed on which now looked like it needed to be buried. So proud, we put the new leash on Sophie in the store and proceeded to get a few other things - enough that we needed a cart. After the cashier rang up our purchases, we paid and headed to the car. As I drove out of the parking lot, it occurred to me that she didn't realize that the leash was a purchase. We had left the store without paying for the leash! Even though it was inconvenient, we were in a hurry, and it would have been easier to just drive home, I turned around and all of us went inside and brought it to the cashier's attention and paid for the leash. Maintaining ethical standards is critical to staying in the Smart Zone.

A recent Gallup poll revealed how people rate the honesty and ethical standards of different professions. Nurses rated highest on the ethical scale with grade school teachers coming in a close second. Lowest on the scale were lobbyists and car salesman. Click here to see how other professions rated.

Harvard professor Howard Gardner has stated that it is more difficult for business people to keep an ethical mind than other professions. Mainly because in business there is not as much structure and the only goal is to make money and not break the law while doing so.

A little more alarming is a recent Junior Achievement/Deloitte Teen Ethics Survey that reports nearly 40% of teens surveyed said it is sometimes necessary to cheat, plagiarize, lie or behave violently to succeed. We have to wonder if these students will make the right decisions as adults when they face ethical challenges on the job.

Consider the following rationalizations for using unethical behavior at work:

  • No one will know. Who is going to know you stuck an extra ream of office paper in your briefcase?

  • It's not hurting anyone. I bet baseball player Barry Bonds felt that taking steroids wasn't hurting anyone. I'm sure track star Marion Jones felt the same way.

  • Everyone does it. I remember my mom saying, "If Julie jumped off a bridge would you?" One of my clients recently told me of her first experience as an intern when her coworkers explained how to "pad" her expense report to make up for low intern salary.

Here are 4 Smart Moves for addressing the core of individual ethics:

  1. Focus on Character: Most ethics training in companies focuses on rule compliance and not on clarifying values and fostering individual integrity. In Michael Josephson's book, Making Ethical Decisions, he describes Six Pillars as the basis of ethical decisions and the foundation of well-lived lives. The Six Pillars are: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and good citizenship.

  2. Look for Humility. According to Stephen M.R. Covey, a humble person is more concerned about what is right than about being right. And we all remember in Jim Collins' book, Good to Great, that the Level 5 leader has "extreme personal humility." Being humble doesn't mean you are a wimp. It means you put principles ahead of your personal ego. You don't get caught up in win-lose power plays.

  3. Be Congruent. In other words, walk your talk. Make sure your behavior and intent are the same. If you are a manager, then don't say, "My company values family time" and then demand long working hours and weekends for you and your employees to get the job done.

  4. Watch Out for Moral Disengagement. This takes place when people behave in a way they wouldn't normally behave without feeling guilty. For example, lying to business competitors may be called "strategic." Or, "My boss told me to do it" is an excuse for shifting moral accountability to a superior. People with a high degree of empathy are less likely to morally disengage. Check out my blog post on How to Lead with Empathy.

Running an ethical business begins with the individual character of each person. Staying true to core values will make your company more profitable and help you stay in the Smart Zone.