Ethical Behavior

“It is curious – curious that physical courage should be so common in the world, and moral courage so rare.”

– Mark Twain (1835 – 1910), American Novelist and Journalist

Unethical Behavior

In any given year, over half of the employees in the workplace in the United States will have witnessed at least one act of unethical behavior.  Yet, so few of these acts of unethical behavior will have bee reported and acted upon.

These acts of unethical behavior are not the newsworthy type like the corruption at Nissan, sexual charges in the media, privacy breaches at (fill in the bland of your favorite financial institution), and the pharmaceutical’s role in the opioid crisis.

No, most acts of unethical behavior that are noticed in the workplace are the run-of-the-mill workplace moral violations.  These include misusing company time, abusive behavior, lying, and violating company internet policies, to name just a few.

Given those facts, are the newsworthy acts of unethical behavior worse than the run-of-the-mill kind?

Psychology Behind Unethical Behavior

To answer the question, we need to understand the three psychological dynamics that lead to crossing ethical lines.

  1. Omnipotence – when someone feels so aggrandized and entitled that they believe the rules of decent behavior don’t apply to them.
  2. Cultural Numbness – when others play along and gradually begin to accept and embody deviant norms.
  3. Justifies Neglect – when people don’t speak up about ethical breaches because they are thinking about more immediate rewards such as staying on good grounds with the powerful.

In considering our own ethical experiences, it is easy to see that we know people, and maybe even ourselves, who occasionally fall into one or more of these psychological dynamics.  The people who cross ethical lines are neither saints nor sinners but are well-meaning business leaders who fail to consult their moral compass.

For most business leaders, it is not a simple decision to always decide to do right as opposed to doing wrong.  It is about navigating the vase space between the two.

It is always a slippery slope to be navigated and fought against.  The big newsworthy breaches of ethical standards all started with one small innocent deviation away from what before was an ethical norm.

It was just one excuse, one exception, and one look the other way (see the three psychological dynamics above).

How to Guard Against Unethical Behavior

  1. Own your personal flaws. This requires a mature look in the mirror to recognize that, although you might possess some cultural status, you are not above the ethical norms that everyone else adheres to.
  2. Be on the lookout for moral lapses. Occasionally, objectively look at yourself and see if you like who you have become.  Ask if you are doing things that you would not like others to do.
  3. Develop an accountability group that you can have frank and objective discussions with about behavior. Be ready to hold each other accountable.

 The Bible

As you would expect, the Bible is the guide to which we all need to keep our moral compass on track.  What you may not know, however, is the Bible is full of stories of people who have lost their moral compass and suffered greatly before they turned to God for help.

King David wrote in Psalm 51:3-4.

For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.

 Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
and justified when you judge.

At best, the benefit of crossing ethical lines is a short-term gain.  At worse, it is losing your soul.

Lean on God’s Word and allow Him to direct all your actions.  You will never have to worry if your actions are ethical or not. He will make sure they are.