Companies provide ethics classes and seminars to teach employees about acceptable behavior in the workplace. Employees who are naturally honest usually get some thought from these sessions, while those who are not naturally honest get just a free lunch. Ethics classes tend to teach behavior in binary terms. This behavior is acceptable and this behavior is not. Stealing from business is bad and not stealing from business is good. The problem is that most unethical behavior occurs in the gray areas, in the areas where the employee would like to excuse or overlook her actions. The company just bought new software and I would never think of stealing one of the CDs for me. But maybe borrowing the CD so I can load the software on my PC at home is fine if I return the CD in the morning… right? After all, this will allow me to use the software to do my work from home… right? And if my daughter is able to use it to do her homework too, what’s the problem… right?

Of course, we all recognize that this is unethical behavior. The damage is done to the company that created the software and expected one license to be used when in fact two are being used. Most software companies struggle to beat their development costs and this is probably not a small breach of ethics for them and they would say they are victims of theft. And let’s be real… when you “borrowed” the CD, you probably didn’t announce it or ask for permission and might even have hidden it in his bag on your way out the door. No one said this was unethical behavior, so it was probably okay… right?

This is an example of unethical behavior that some might consider minor. It probably happens tens of thousands of times every day. Aside from the loss of revenue for the software developer, the real problem here was the employee rationalizing his behavior. By not stealing the CD, they are not violating the company’s ethics policy and might even be helping the company by allowing themselves to work at home. The employee is intentionally overlooking the fact that his behavior was unethical.

Let’s consider another example. You are the CEO of a large public corporation and it is your job to create value for your shareholders. You are in a tough and competitive market, and while you know you have some problems today, you also have every reason to believe that things will get better in the future. To help you through this period, have your finance department assess the future value of some of your contracts so that your projections look better. After all, these are future projections and if you don’t hit your projections then, you’ll be able to absorb the loss then, and on top of that, perhaps by helping your numbers now, you can help make those projections a reality. . Of course, he’s having a bad year and has to account for some real losses. By moving some of your assets to other parts of the corporation, you can isolate those losses and account for them against the failing operating units of the business. This is just a business and you’re just doing your job… right? Your corporation uses Arthur Anderson, one of the “Big Five” accounting firms to perform its external audits. They will see your balance sheet as you have directed it and be able to report that your corporation is healthy and a great investment that helps support your stock prices. You do not believe that your behavior is unethical; you’re just doing the job you’re paid to do… right?

This is an extreme example of the rationalization of unethical behavior that would eventually result in the conviction of its CEO, Kenneth Lay, for financial fraud and the downfall of Enron and Arthur Anderson. Arthur Anderson’s defense was that they had done their analysis on the numbers Enron gave them and were therefore not at fault…and then they destroyed the evidence related to the case. They were just protecting the reputation of him… right?

To be effective, ethics training must go beyond the do’s and don’ts and cover the gray areas that occur in every employee’s workday. They should be given tools to guide them when they are operating in the gray areas where their actions may be unethical.

Employees should be taught to challenge their decisions by asking; “Am I rationalizing unethical behavior?” Companies must reinforce their ethics policy by instructing employees, when there are doubts; “Take the high road.” When followed, this simple rule will help employees avoid unethical behavior. Unethical behavior creates a victim who is negatively affected by the employee’s actions. If there is a victim, it is likely that the behavior of the employees is unethical.

The following topic (and others) should be covered by a company’s ethics policy and acceptable behavior should be taught as part of employee ethics training. In each example, the statement points to a gray area where the “high road” is not taken. Try to identify the potential victim in each example.

– Sexual harassment: I’m happily married and would never hit on anyone at work, but her short skirts definitely helped her go from a 4 to 5 on her performance review.

– Equal Opportunity – That joke was funny so I passed it on but I was careful to only send it to certain friends because I know we have some of them working here and I didn’t want to offend anyone.

– Product Renderings: Seller told me it would outperform the competition, but didn’t tell me that it was only in limited condition.

– Product quality: We needed to meet our shipping schedule, so we shipped the product and plan to ship a patch for that bug later.

– Sales negotiations: She’s a good customer, so of course I gave her a 5% discount because I knew we had increased our prices by 10% just before announcing the sale.

– Environmental impacts – Yes, these bulbs are designed to save energy, but they are high in mercury when disposed of.

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