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Are you an Ethical Person?

Basic Principles of Ethical Behavior

How do you know if you are an ethical person? Most of us would say it’s knowing the difference between right and wrong. But that’s not enough because a person of integrity acts on his or her convictions about right and wrong regardless of the consequences. There is a difference between knowing what the right thing to do is and doing it.

Let’s assume you are being pressured by your boss to manipulate the financial statements. An ethical person refuses to go along because it violates honesty. But, does it make you disloyal to your boss and is that a violation of one’s ethical responsibilities? The answer is yes and no. Loyalty is important but it should never be used to mask certain basic ethical values such as honesty, trustworthiness, responsibility and so on. If we let our loyalty to another trump basic ethical values, then we can imagine all kinds of situations where we do what’s in someone else’s best interests and not our own, or the public interest.

Honesty is a moral characteristic, a virtue, and sometimes considered to equate with truthfulness yet there are differences. Honesty means you say what you sincerely believe to be true. You can honestly state something that is untrue. For example, you may have witnessed a crime and think you know who did it but it turns out to be wrong. Truth is about objective fact. Something is either true or not. You can state the truth in a dishonest manner, like if you yourself believe it to be true. A person can be honestly wrong, believing something that is not the truth.

Many people do not realize that dishonesty is not only telling an untruth – a lie by commission – but it also entails a positive obligation to disclose all the information another party has a right to know; not committing a lie by omission. Consider, for example, that your best friend’s husband is cheating on his wife, with whom you also have a friendship. You work in the same office as your best friend. His wife approaches you out of concern that her husband has been working too hard and it is affecting his behavior; he has been coming home later and seems more distant. She believes you would know whether he is, in fact, working late and asks whether you have beendoing so as well. What do you say? Would you tip toe around the truth? Would you say something like I don’t know about the extra work because I leave the office at 5pm every day -- an untruth? Or, would you disclose the truth as you know it to be true?

Some of the most difficult ethical challenges we face in life are whether to admit to our mistakes when questioned about them. Just consider all the politicians who have had affairs and lie about it when confronted. And sports figures who cover up unethical, and in case of Lance Armstrong, illegal acts. We are loathe to admit mistakes and failings in judgment. Many people cover-up the bad behavior hoping to silence the critics. Of course, it rarely works that way. Once you start to tell a lie you have taken the first step down the proverbial “ethical slippery slope” and there may be no turning back. A lie begets another lie and deceitfulness becomes the controlling behavior.

Being an ethical person also requires to be responsible and accountable for one’s actions and not covering them up. I remember a case I was involved with where my best friend, who had just joined the company I had worked for over ten years, came to me one day and confessed that a sales budget projection he had made was 50% too high. He was reluctant to admit the mistake because the company had hired dozens of new workers to meet the projected increased demand. He also worried about how he would be viewed by his boss because of the mistake. After much thought and discussion I convinced him to come clean and admit the mistake and promise to be more careful in the future. While his boss was disappointed in the mistake he did tell my friend that he appreciated the honesty and full disclosure and that immediate action could be taken to rectify the situation rather than dragging it out. He also earned the respect of his boss for being truthful.

I have a few guiding principles I use as I strive to be the most ethical person that I can. Here they are:

  1. Do no harm. I’m always conscious of not wanting to hurt another person whether it is by my words or actions.
  2. Contribute to the betterment of others. Through my teaching I strive to enhance the ethical awareness of my students so they can lead a more ethical life and act ethically in the workplace.
  3. Consider how I want to be remembered at the end of my life. Obviously, it’s not to be known as a cheat or thief, or someone who uses others to get my way. For me, it’s that I did what I could to make the world a better place by living up to the ethical values that guide my life’s decisions.
  4. Act the way I would want others to act towards me. When faced with an ethical conflict or dilemma I always consider how I would want others to handle the dilemma if I were in the same position as that of the person(s) affected by my impending decision/action. This an extension of The Golden Rule to treat others the way we want to be treated.
  5. Admit my mistakes and move on. I’m not perfect. I make my share of mistakes. We all do. But, when I do, I immediately admit it, promise not to do it again and take whatever steps are necessary to change my behavior. I, and only I, am responsible for my decisions and actions and am accountable to others when I miss the mark.

I like to think of ethics as being all about what we do when no one is looking. Our actions reveal the character or person that we are.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on January 13, 2015. Professor Mintz teaches in the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: