Businesses provide ethics classes and seminars to teach employees about acceptable behavior in the workplace. Employees who are honest by nature usually take away some food for thought from these sessions while those who are not honest by nature take away only a free lunch. Ethics classes tend to teach behavior in binary terms. This behavior is acceptable and this behavior is not. Stealing from the business is bad and not stealing from the business is good. The problem is that most unethical behavior occurs in the gray areas, in areas where the employee would like to excuse or overlook their actions. The company just purchased new software and I would never think of stealing one of the CD’s out of the box for myself. But maybe borrowing the CD so I can load the software on my PC at home is OK 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 also use it to do her homework, what’s the harm… right?
Of course we all recognize that this is unethical behavior. The harm is done to the company that created the software and expected that one license was being used when in fact two are being used. Most software companies struggle to overcome their development costs and this is probably not a small breach of ethics to them and they would say they are the victim of theft. And let’s face it… when you “borrowed” the CD, you probably didn’t announce it or ask permission and might even have hid it in your purse on your way out the door. Nobody said this was unethical behavior so it was probably OK… right?
This is an example of unethical behavior that some might consider minor. It probably occurs tens of thousands of times every day. Aside from the loss of revenue for the software developer, the real problem here was that the employee rationalized their behavior. By not stealing the CD they aren’t breaking the ethics policy of the business and might even be helping the business by enabling themselves to work at home. The employee is intentionally overlooked the fact that their behavior was unethical.
Let’s consider another example. You are the CEO of a large public corporation and it’s your job to build value for your shareholders. You’re in a tough, competitive market and, while you know you have some problems today, you also have every reason to believe things will improve in the future. To help you through this period, you have your finance department assess the future value of some of your contracts to make your projections look better. After all, these are future projections and if you fail to achieve your projections at that time, you will be able to absorb the loss at that time and besides, maybe by helping your numbers now, you can help make those projections become a reality. Of course, you are having a bad year and have to account for some real losses. By moving around some of your assets to other parts of the corporation you can isolate those losses and explain them against poor operating units of the business. This is just business and your just doing your job… right? Your corporation uses Arthur Anderson, one of the “Big Five” accounting firms to perform your outside audits. They will look at your balance sheet as you have now directed it and be able to report that your corporation is healthy and a great investment helping to maintain your stock prices. You don’t think your behavior is unethical; you’re just doing the job you’re being paid to do… right?
This is an extreme example of the rationalization of unethical behavior that would eventually result in the conviction of their CEO, Kenneth Lay, for financial fraud and the downfall of Enron and Arthur Anderson. Arthur Anderson’s defense was that they had performed their analysis on the numbers Enron gave them and therefore they were not at fault… and then they destroyed evidence related to the case. They were just protecting their reputation… right?
To be effective, ethics training needs to go beyond the “Do’s and Don’ts” and cover the gray areas that occur in the workday of all employees. They need to 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 question their decisions by asking; “Am I rationalizing unethical behavior?” Businesses need to reinforce their ethics policy by instructing employees, when there is doubt; “Take the high road”. When followed, this simple rule will help employees avoid unethical behavior. Unethical behavior creates a victim who is negatively impacted by the employee’s actions. If there is a victim then the employees behavior is likely unethical.
The following subject (and others) should be covered by a business’s ethics policy and acceptable behavior 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 come on to someone at work, but her short skirts definitely helped her go from a 4 to a 5 on her performance appraisal.
– Equal Opportunity – That joke was funny so I passed it on but was careful only to send it to certain friends because I know we have some of them working here and I didn’t want to offend anyone.
– Product Representations – The salesman told me it would outperform the competition but he didn’t tell me that was only under limited conditions.
– Product Quality – We needed to meet our shipping schedule so we sent the product out and planned to send a patch for that bug later.
– Sales Dealings – She is a good customer so of course I gave her a 5% discount because I knew we had raised our prices by 10% just before advertising the sale.
– Environmental Impacts – Yes, these light bulbs are designed to save energy, but they have high mercury content when you have to dispose of them.