Living and working ethically (part 2)

Last month I wrote the first part of a column about workplace ethics and how individuals fall short because they give in to temptation of the human heart (such as greed) or are pressured by the boss or employer. I discussed how individually, we each need to keep our ethical muscles toned, so they don’t fail us when we need them for decisions. Let’s talk now about what to do when temptation comes from the workplace.

The key to handling these company pressures is to anticipate them in advance. I daresay all employees have faced one or more times when the boss, co-workers, or quotas strong-armed them into doing something wrong. So, don’t be caught off guard. Expect these attempted coercions to come. Next, before responding, think about what needs to be said. 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 in your language. After all, you want to be successful and effective in influencing your manager, not make her defensive or antagonistic. You can also appeal to company policies about how truthfulness is a corporate value and how fudging to meet an arbitrary quota is not actually meeting a quota.

If these efforts fail, most larger companies have a whistleblower hotline where you can anonymously explain an improper practice that your management won’t fix.

There is another element to 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 women), 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 her taxes may get away with it.

Still, it more often happens that these ethical breaches catch up with the cheaters eventually. We are living in a time when human action is more transparent than ever. Corporate and governmental policies encourage transparency and everyone with a smartphone can videorecord and tweet about any incident. 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 is its own value. If, day in and day out, you do the right thing, you will have lived a life of integrity.

Last column I asked you who your heroes are. If you live that virtuous life, you will be a hero for someone else. A heroic life is well worth living.

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

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