On the straight and narrow
There is a method to making ethical decisions
AS you’ve likely noticed, infamous Toronto Mayor Rob Ford can’t stay out of the news, but at least the latest message was he had been “cleared” of allegedly smoking crack cocaine. However, with another ongoing police investigation and the mayoralty campaign heating up, the story of Rob Ford is far from over.
In fact, while Ford may be taking comfort from this latest announcement, I would suggest he still has a lot to do to clean up his image. That’s because his personal and professional behaviour over the past year has once more brought to light the importance of ethics in the workplace.
However, what are ethics and why is this issue important? Good ethics means sensitively and fairly serving and balancing the best interests of one’s business, the clients and the public. Ethics are based on responsibility, honesty, integrity, courtesy and a willingness to comply with the highest ethical standards.
The general public, voters and business clients alike are becoming intolerant of all personal, business and/ or political scandals. After all, people want to deal with individuals who are credible and who consistently foster trust and respect.
As a result, organizations have been scrambling to develop a code of ethics, ensure effective policies and procedures, and aggressively train their employees. However, in spite of all these efforts, breaches of ethics continue. Why does this happen?
Just ask Chuck Gallagher, a former U.S. accountant, corporate executive and convicted felon who spent 18 months in prison, followed by three years’ probation, for embezzling money from his clients’ trust funds. Gallagher also lost his wife and family, his professional licence and his first career. However, he rebounded and today is a professional speaker and consultant on ethics and fraud.
Gallagher talks about his moment of weakness and how one simple choice created a pattern of corruption. He admits his main concern at the time was maintaining a professional and community image of wealth and success. This was his identity; how he judged himself and how he thought others judged him. It was his choice to resort to theft to maintain this identity that eventually led to his downfall.
Yet most ethical behaviour isn’t all that extreme. It can include simple choices, such as stealing the restaurant tip left on the table or saying things that aren’t true. It can include giving and/or allowing false impressions, hiding or divulging information, taking unfair advantage or taking someone’s intellectual property and calling it your own. My bet is if you look around, you’ll quickly find your own examples.
As Gallagher found in his own situation, part of the problem is that people rationalize their behaviour. They make up excuses that allow them to believe what they are doing is OK. They may convince themselves they’re “fighting fire with fire,” or use the excuse that they aren’t hurting anyone. In another example, a person may steal money because he perceives it is “owed” to him.
Yet, as we suggested earlier, citizens, stakeholders, vendors and customers are craving ethical and socially responsible practices. Employees also want to be part of an organization where fair play and respect for the law are as important as making a profit. If that’s the case, we have to do a better job of managing the issue of ethics in the workplace.
This is not easy. Instead, the issue of ethics is very complex and growing more so every day. In my view, it doesn’t matter how many policies and procedures you have or the number of training sessions you’ve attended, ethics are personal. In other words, the only behaviour you can control is your own. You are the one who makes the choices.
Each of us has needs, each of us has opportunities and each of us has the choice to act. Rarely is someone forced or pushed. People make choices based on their values and ethics.
At the same time, choices are complicated by issues such as identity. In Gallagher’s case, he believed his personal identity was built around the perceptions of wealth and prestige. This compelled him to steal in order to keep up the pretext. And, as with many others who engage in unethical conduct, his reputation and career were destroyed.
While Gallagher has become a well-respected speaker on ethics and fraud, the challenge for all of us is to avoid following in his initial footsteps. The best way to do this is to follow a simplistic model such as that developed by the U.S.-based Josephson Institute. Their seven-step path — along with my own comments — is as follows: 1. Stop and think — The saying “Think before you talk” is also very applicable to decision-making. Do not rush to judgment; instead, follow tried-and-true steps to good decision-making. 2. Clarify your goals — Determine what your goal is and what decision must be made. Be sure to consider that all decisions must reflect a concern for all the affected individuals and/or stakeholders. 3. Determine the facts — Take time to evaluate and distinguish facts. Examine the credibility of your sources and identify any issues of self-interest, bias or any ideological commitments that might impact a person’s objectivity. 4. Develop options — Use a series of brainstorming activities and tools to creatively develop a set of actions. Finalize your discussion with at least three alternatives to accomplish your goals and consider the benefits and the risks of a potential choice. 5. Consider the consequences — Review your potential actions and alternatives and determine if any will violate an ethical value. Eliminate any and all ideas that are impractical, illegal, improper and/or unethical. 6. Make a choice — After you have identified, selected, reviewed and discussed your alternatives, make a choice. Avoid procrastinating but ask for more information if needed. Being decisive is an essential skill for effective leaders. 7. Monitor and modify — Making choices requires monitoring the consequences and results and stepping in to adapt the solution as required. If needed, reassess the entire situation and apply the decision-making model again.
As the many recent news examples show, unethical behaviour can make or break both corporate fortunes and individual careers. And as we know, no matter whether the downfall is quick or long and painful, the situation is usually front-and-centre news and details can be found on the Internet for years to come. The result? Unethical leaders can run, but they can no longer hide.
Barbara J. Bowes is president of Legacy Bowes Group and president of Career Partners International, Manitoba.
She can be reached at email@example.com.