As a police commissioner once said when he turned down the twentieth bribe offer he had received that day, “Ethics ain’t easy!” All of us are faced by those moments when doing what’s right is very different from doing what’s easy or what would be the most profitable. That’s one of the reasons for a company to have a mission statement or a code of conduct: so that employees understand what’s expected of them when they’re faced with the choice between right versus easy, ethical versus profitable.
The problem is that so many choices fall into the gray area in between. What do you do when making the ethical choice will almost certainly hurt someone? What if doing something a little bit wrong will help create a very large “right?”
Take a few moments to read the examples below and answer the questions they pose, and you’ll see what I mean.
- Your co-worker asks you to cover for him so he can sneak out of work early to go to his son’s softball game. Do you agree? If he went anyway, would you keep silent?
- You’re about ready to sign a big new client to a contract worth over $50,000. Your boss is under a lot of pressure to increase sales. He calls you into his office and tells you his job is on the line, and he asks you to include the revenue for your contract in the sales figures for the quarter that ends tomorrow. You know the contract is a sure thing but the client is out of town and cannot possibly sign by tomorrow. What do you do?
- The manufacturing cost of the widgets your company makes has dropped by 50%. One of your customers, Sam, tells you he knows this because he is best friends with your company’s VP of production and asks you for a discount on his order. Your boss okays the discount. Your other customer, Sue (who is one of your best friends and knows nothing about the drop in manufacturing costs), places the exact same order for widgets as Sam. Do you offer her a similar discount? Do you tell her about the drop in manufacturing costs?
- Company policy forbids co-workers to become romantically involved. You go to the same church as someone from another department, and you find yourself becoming attracted to this person. Do you pursue the relationship?
- Your best friend is the VP of one of the companies with which your firm does business. You take her out for lunch just to catch up on personal stuff, and you pick up the check. Do you declare this a “business lunch” and submit the receipt for reimbursement?
- While in the restroom, you overhear your boss telling a colleague that Bob is going to be laid off at the end of the quarter in about two weeks’ time. Bob is a good friend of yours. Do you tell him?
- One of the newest salespeople in your division is a real goof-off, never showing up for work on time, distracting other people with his antics and so on. You complain about him to your boss, who tells you the kid is the son of the company president. Your boss instructs you not only to leave the new guy alone but also to make his sales numbers look good by throwing him some no-brainer accounts. What do you do?
Now, just in case you’re feeling very virtuous because you know you’d always make the ethical choice in those cases, ask yourself:
Have you ever
. . . lied to your mother? your boss? the IRS?
. . . lied so you wouldn’t hurt someone’s feelings?
. . . lied to get out of a business or social engagement?
. . . taken a questionable deduction on your income tax?
. . . fudged figures on a report to make the results look better?
. . . taken a sick day when you weren’t sick?
. . . lied to a customer (“we sent your order yesterday”) or creditor (“the check’s in the mail”)?
. . . cut corners on quality control?
. . . blamed someone else for something you knew you were partly responsible for?
. . . used any of these phrases: “Everybody does it,” “It’s the lesser of two evils,” “It’s only a little white lie,” “It doesn’t hurt anyone,” “Who will know?”
. . . put inappropriate pressure on others?
In the real world, ethics ain’t easy. Somehow we need to come up with a way of looking at even the most complicated situations and evaluating them with an eye to what’s right—not what will cause the least trouble. We need a basis upon which to build the kind of success that feels good because we know what we’re doing represents us at our best.