Living and working ethically

“Lead us not into temptation” is the plea of the Christian Lord’s Prayer; it also works well as guidance for staying ethical at work. When 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. So why do we — from the manufacturing worker to the CEO — give in to temptation and how can we reduce the temptation?

There are two broad categories of temptation — those pressured by the company and those of the human heart. Let’s discuss the latter first. For the history of humankind, people have done what was wrong out of greed, jealousy, or laziness. If we give in to these temptations it is because we have weak ethical muscles.

Many people work out to keep their bodily muscles toned, but allow their ethical muscles to become flabby. The first step to toning your ethical muscles is to start small. The occasional white lie in response to the question, “How do I look in this dress” is acceptable, but 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 how long you were on 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.

In addition to fixing these behaviors, you can grow your ethical muscles by surrounding yourself with great ethical examples. The easiest way to do this is with what you read or watch. Who are your heroes? Watching movies or reading stories about them 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 associates carefully. If you hang around people who routinely tell small lies and misrepresent their time or themselves even in minor ways, you will weaken your ethical muscle and almost certainly engage in these behaviors yourself. “If you lie down with dogs you will wake up with fleas.”

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 do the rework in a way that might get past the quality inspector, but you know it isn’t the correct procedure?

Also, believe it or not, at work your friends or co-workers can also tempt you to do what is wrong. A co-worker may ask you to lie for him, cover for him, or take his side when you don’t completely agree with it. You may be pressured to do wrong by company policies, such as quotas. Wells Fargo Bank was in the news because it forced employees to meet quotas for new customer accounts by not letting employees go home until a daily quota was reached. No wonder employees made up fake accounts.

In next month’s column we’ll address how to respond to these ethical coercions or temptations.

Eric Dent, a former professor at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, now teaches at Florida Gulf Coast University.

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