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Workplace Ethics are Muscles that Need Exercising

Lead Us not into Temptation” is the plea of the Christian Lord’s Prayer; it also works well as good guidance for staying ethical at work. When employers or employees act dishonestly, unethically, or with a lack of integrity, it is usually because they have given in to a temptation that they know was wrong. They have weak ethical muscles. Many people workout to keep their physical muscles toned, but allow their character muscles to become flabby.

In business, there are two broad categories of temptation – those pressured by the company and those of the human heart. When it comes to the heart, for the history of humankind, people have done what was wrong out of self-gain, deviance, greed, jealousy, or laziness. The majority of unethical behavior is self-serving in some way, either as an intentional act or to escape an unpleasant outcome. It also reflects on a person’s character.

Character is defined as the mental and ethical qualities distinctive to an individual. Good character is often something a person builds over time, through each decision made in situations that could go either way. Ethics or moral principles are a system that defines right and wrong and provides a guiding philosophy for every decision made. Character and ethics work together to define a person’s values.
There are two aspects to ethics: The first involves the ability to discern right from wrong, good from evil, and propriety from impropriety. The second involves the commitment to do what is right, good, and proper.

Honesty is the Best Policy
So why do we – from the entry level employee to the CEO – give in to an unethical temptation and how can we reduce this at the workplace?

The first step to toning your ethical muscles is to start small. While the occasional white lie in response to the question, “How do I look in this dress,” to the wife may be acceptable, do you lie in other situations because you don’t want to help a friend or look bad? Do you fudge a little when it comes to the time clock or how long you took a break? Do you make yourself look better to other people by slight exaggerations? All of these behaviors weaken your ethical or moral muscle and leave you unprepared for when an important ethical challenge does come your way. Unethical behavior also increases when people feel that their actions will not harm a potential victim and that their peers will not condemn their actions.

Build Your Honor Guard
In addition to building a foundation of ethical behaviors, you can grow your muscles by surrounding yourself with great ethical examples. The easiest way to do this is with what you hear, read or watch. Who is your mentor? Who are your heroes? Watching movies or reading books about people of inspirational character will inspire you and strengthen your ethics. If you fill your mind with great ethics, you are more likely to exhibit great ethics.

Another important technique is probably something your mother told you as a child – choose your friends and advisors carefully. If you hang around people who routinely tell small (or big) lies and misrepresent their time or themselves, even in smallest ways, you will weaken your ethical muscle and almost certainly engage in these behaviors yourself. The way my mother put it was, “if you lie down with dogs you will wake up with fleas.” I think she got that from Benjamin Franklin.
Over time, who surrounds you and what you feed your mind with either creates the protection of your inner ethical intuition, or the chaos that that drowns out the instinct to do the right thing.

Bigger Ethical Picture
Let’s turn now to how you may get tempted by your company. These lures come in a few predictable forms. First, sometimes your boss will pressure you to do what is wrong using the force of her or his authority. Perhaps, some completed work doesn’t meet quality standards and has to be reworked. What if the boss instructs you to rework it in a way that might get past quality control, but you know it isn’t the correct procedure?

What about your co-workers who tempt you to do what is wrong, such as lie or cover for them, or take his or her side when you don’t completely agree with it. An instance where you may be pressured to do wrong by company policies: quotas. Wells Fargo Bank was in the news because they forced employees to meet quotas for new customer accounts by not letting employees go home until a daily quota was reached. Is it a wonder that employees made up fake accounts?

The key to handling these company pressures is to anticipate them in advance. I daresay every employee has faced one or more of the examples above, often frequently. So, don’t be caught off guard. Think ahead about what needs to be said or done. Let’s assume your unit is asked to meet an unrealistic quota. This demand affects all of your co-workers, so it is prudent to form a coalition. A manager has a much more difficult time dismissing the concerns of five people than one.
Once you have thought about what to say, practice with others, including at least one person who is not involved with the situation. They will likely be able to tell you where you can be more diplomatic or positive in your language. Come armed with statistics or numbers that mean something to management, not just feelings. After all, you want to be successful and effective in influencing your manager, not making them defensive or antagonistic. You can also appeal to corporate values and how fudging to meet an arbitrary quota is not actually meeting a quota.

If these efforts fail, consider asking management to put a “suggestion box” in a common area where you can anonymously explain an improper practice that you feel needs attention.

Nice and Last?
There is another element of anticipating ethical temptations and challenges. The dilemma is captured in the statement credited to Leo Durocher, a major league baseball manager. He once said, “Nice guys finish last.” Fortunately, the research evidence shows this is mostly wrong. There is a wrinkle though. “Nice” guys or gals, those who choose to act with ethics and integrity, don’t always win in the short term. The student who cheats in a course may get an A. The employee who sabotages another employee may get the promotion. The person who cheats on taxes may get away with it.

Still, it more often happens that these ethical breaches catch up with the cheaters … eventually. So, I tell my college students to be prepared twice in your career to lose out on something to someone who acted unethically. Although they may lose on a short-term decision, they will likely win out in the long run. Even if they don’t though, the virtuous life is the one in which acting with integrity has its own value. If, day in and day out, you do the right thing, you will have lived a life of integrity.
Remember when I asked you who your heroes are? If you live that kind of life, you will be a hero for someone else. And that outcome is priceless.

Dr. Eric Dent serves as Professor and Uncommon Friends Foundation Endowed Chair in Ethics, Lutgert College of Business at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, Florida. He is a consultant to Fortune 500, government, and non-profit organizations as well as an invited speaker to national audiences. Prior to earning his Ph.D., Dr. Dent served as a corporate vice president in the financial services industry. He began his career as a computer scientist with IBM.