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Do You Consider Yourself Ethical?

How to Self-Assess Ethical Behavior

I recently read an article Consider yourself ethical? New research says think again. Shannon Chapla reports on a new book titled “Blind Spots: Why We Fail to do What’s Right and What to do About it” that is co-authored by Max H. Bazerman and Ann E. Tenbrunsel. The theme of the book is when confronted with an ethical dilemma, most of us like to think we would stand up for our principles. But we are not as ethical as we think we are. The authors attribute it to a “Blind Spot” which “is an unknown obstacle that prevents us from seeing our unethical behavior. Tenbrunsel explains. “It doesn’t allow us to see the gap between who we think we are, who we’d like to be, and who we truly are.” The authors cite the Bernie Madoff affair as an example. I have previously blogged about Bernie who was sentenced to 150 years in prison, the maximum for his crimes resulting from a Ponzi scheme. “Clearly, Madoff was a crook,” Tenbrunsel says. “But there are a host of people who supported his decisions and we would argue many of them did so unknowingly. Why does that happen? Why do we all behave in ways that contradict our values?”

These are excellent questions and I highly recommend the book to all who are fascinated by how people subvert their own ethical principles time and time again. According to the authors, "there is a human tendency to justify our own actions to ourselves with little thought for their consequences." They believe employees can give rise to dysfunctional organizations for fear of rocking the boat. I agree and believe that is why increased attention has been focused on encouraging whistle-blowing. As I have previously pointed out in my blog on the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, an incentive now exists for whistleblowers to spill the beans on their employers. To be considered for an award, a whistleblower must voluntarily provide the SEC with original information that leads to the SEC’s successful enforcement of a federal court or administrative action in which the SEC obtains monetary sanctions greater than $1 million. An individual whistleblower may be eligible for an award of 10 percent to 30 percent of the monetary sanctions. To determine whether the $1 million in monetary sanctions threshold has been satisfied (a necessary precondition for award eligibility), the SEC will aggregate awards from separate proceedings that were based on the same underlying facts.

Why is it so difficult for employees to do the right thing? For one, the workplace pressure can be enormous when financial fraud or other wrongdoing is undertaken by a member of top management. Some employees do not have the ethical reasoning skills to identify when there is an ethical issue. One way to think about it is if my actions affect others, then I have an ethical issue. Ethical people should consider the consequences of their actions before deciding what to do. If you don’t spot the ethical issue earlier on, it becomes much more difficult to do the right thing down the line because you may already be implicitly involved in a cover-up so you’ve taken the first step down the proverbial “ethical slippery slope.”

Here are five simple steps to follow when you start to feel uneasy about something going on around you, at work or at home, or you are asked to go along with a questionable act or decision.

1.      Don’t act right away. Ask for time to consider your options.

2.      Seek the advice of a trusted advisor. Clarify legal issues and company policies on the matter.

3.      Consider how your actions will affect others: Will they be harmed or benefit from my action? Am I being respectful of their rights? Am I being empathetic?

4.      Ask yourself: Would I be happy if my decision became public knowledge?  Would I be able to defend it? How would I feel if my family found out?

5.      Make a decision.

Being ethical requires a long-term commitment to act in accordance with certain virtues including honesty, trustworthiness, integrity, fairness, diligence, and to be responsible and accountable for one’s actions. Ethics is not something you can turn on or off like a spigot. It takes practice and it develops as a habit by doing it over and over again.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on July 29, 2011