Debunking American Exceptionalism III: Incompetency
Debunking American Exceptionalism IV: Declining Educational Achievement

Why Good People Do Bad Things

Ethics in life and Ethics in the Workplace must be Cultivated

Good people strive to do the right thing. They recognize that their actions have consequences. They are aware of the rights of others and act in a way they hope others would act if faced with similar situations that affect the good person. Good people think with their head and act in concert with their heart, and they apply the knowledge and wisdom gained through a lifetime of experiences. Good people are honest, trustworthy, fair-minded, and empathetic towards others. Good people accept responsibility for the consequences of their actions and strive to improve their behavior throughout their lifetime.

Good people sometimes do bad things. It doesn’t mean they are bad people. Instead, circumstances may arise where they feel pressured by peers to deviate from ethical behavior. This happens in business all the time. Take the case of Betty Vinson. Asked by her bosses at WorldCom ($11 billion fraud) to make false accounting entries, Vinson questioned the entries and knew they were wrong. Still, she recorded the improper amounts out of fear of losing her job and not being able to support her family. In other situations, good people may do wrong things because they want to be seen as a ‘team player.’

The ethical challenges come not from one’s own ethics but from the ethics of people around you and the organization of which you are a part. At work, a person may be called upon to do things that turn out to be unethical or even illegal, just as Betty Vinson. My advice to those who want to avoid involvement in wrongdoing is being prepared for organizational challenges that will inevitably test your personal values, moral beliefs, and commitment to doing the right thing. The first step is to be sensitive to ethical issues that may arise in the workplace.

Mark Pastin, who deals with issues related to ethics and compliance, points out that most individuals and companies do not set out to make a defective product or to engage in massive fraud. Very often, these situations begin in small ways, with very small steps that seem inconsequential. It is also important for people to understand that most ethics scandals typically involve a number of people who are included in the decision-making process at each stage. As a result, responsibility becomes diffused among these individuals, making it difficult to attribute blame to or impose accountability on any particular person. Although people may feel uncomfortable with what is happening as they move down the “ethical slippery slope,” they convince themselves that “so long as it is legal, it is ethical” or that they are doing what is expected of them. Rationalization — the ability to justify our behavior — is one of our greatest moral failings. Behavior that would clearly be considered unethical by an outsider becomes acceptable to those involved because “that is the way it has always been done” or “it doesn’t really hurt anyone” or “that’s the way they do it at Firm X.”

So, ethics can be dangerous to your career if you have not been trained to identify and analyze ethical problems and to resolve them effectively. Ethics can also be dangerous to your career if you work in an organization that does not support ethical behavior or, worse, encourages misconduct. Finally, we should recognize that anyone can get caught up in unethical conduct under the right circumstances. Organizational forces are very strong and people have psychological weaknesses that make them vulnerable to wrongdoing. Steps can be taken to improve both organizations and the individuals in them, and we should take those steps. But the dangers cannot be eliminated entirely.

Good people can largely avoid doing bad things by clarifying their own values and acting on them whenever possible. We become ethical people by practicing ethical actions. We become kind people by practicing kindness; fair-minded people by seeing all sides of a story and then acting in accordance with our values; trustworthy people by keeping our word; and honest people by not exaggerating the truth for our own benefit and deceiving others by omitting important information another party has a right to know.

Good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around the laws. This is the challenge to ethical behavior in life and the workplace.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on November 21, 2013