Opinion: Prepare yourself for ethical dilemmas

Here's a quick scenario. You've advertised a vacant position in your department and have received several hundred resumés -- a dozen of which are excellent. You've decided one of them will become your next employee.

Just before you call the lucky candidate, however, your boss comes into your office and hands you her niece's resumé. She makes it clear she'd like her to have the job. However, the niece is not as qualified as the candidate you were going to call. What do you do?

Welcome to the hard and rocky field of business ethics. Notice the question was "What do you do?" It was not the far easier question, "What is the right thing to do?" Why? Because most of us know what we should do. "Sorry Boss, but your niece doesn't have the necessary skills to fill the position. Perhaps next time." The problem is there is inevitably a consequence to such a stance. A consequence most of us would rather avoid if we could.

If you don't hire the niece, will your boss hold a grudge? How will you know? The sad fact is that most, not all, of the ethical dilemmas placed at our doorstep, are placed there by people who know full well their actions are unethical. This is what causes the dilemma, not the difficulty of figuring out the right course of action. Doing the right thing is usually not what these people want you to do.

Ethical business behavior is important. How many of those resumés in our imaginary scenario would be from Arthur Andersen or Enron employees? How many would still be gainfully employed if even a small number of people had stood their moral ground and raised their hands in protest when they encountered dark deeds?

We could of course choose to ignore the issue of ethical behavior. Most of the little dilemmas we encounter won't bring our organization to their knees. Besides, as I've pointed out above, we usually know the right thing to do, even if we don't always have the courage of our convictions. The issue isn't one of ethical training -- it's one of responding to, or even better, avoiding unethical behavior.

There is a technique available to those who'd rather not face these little problems. Make ethics an issue in your department. Talk about it, distribute articles on it, make a point of requesting that the training department offer at least one "Ethics and Management" seminar each year, devote some time to it. In short, become known as someone who places a visible value on ethical behavior. At the very least, it will prevent your manager from handing you resumés from relatives for fear you might call them on it.

One of the reasons we steer clear of ethical discussions is because how we respond to these scenarios speaks volumes about what we hold to be true. To be judged "unethical" is personal, because it is based upon the choices we consciously make. If you're interviewing someone for a job and you ask them what they'd do if they found a wallet with a $1,000 in it, along with the address of the owner...would you really hire them if they said they'd take the money and throw away the wallet? If you were being interviewed, would you state proudly that you'd take the money...and still expect to be hired?

The issue of ethics is difficult to address in a corporate environment for exactly those reasons. The "wrong" answers bring with them harsh judgments. It is precisely because of these "harsh judgements" that ethical training, or at least awareness, is important to every organization and everyone with people responsibility.

Despite the catastrophic consequences of unethical corporate behavior, how many ethics seminars/workshops have typical managers/supervisors attended during their career? How many organizations have posted an Ethical Charter, or have an ethical review board, or a recognized method of safely airing an ethical issue?

Ethical behavior is never a problem until it becomes a crisis, then the time to pay attention to it has long since passed.

de Jager is a speaker and consultant. Contact him at pdejager@technobility.com.

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