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Unethical Choices

Last spring, federal prosecutors charged 50 people in a college admissions scam that allowed wealthy parents to buy their kids’ admission into elite universities. Prosecutors found that parents together paid up to $6.5 million to get their kids into college.

For most of us, college was expensive enough without having to pay extra to get in.

Unethical Choices

While the college admission scam generally involved the wealthy elites, there are many notoriously unethical scams that involve just average people.

Take for instance the now-infamous Wells Fargo debacle where 5300 employees opened up more than a million fraudulent accounts.  Researchers looking at the cause of this unfortunate event found that while many of the 5300 were lower level employees, the main culprit was upper management’s lack of ethical behavior.

In the end, Wells Fargo ended up paying $185 million in fines.  Many employees were let go, but unfortunately, relatively few in management positions were even reprimanded.

What To Do

As business leaders and entrepreneurs, we need to acknowledge that we need to pay attention to the potential of unethical behavior within our organizations.  We all are sure we will never take the outrageous, unethical actions that make the evening news.

Unfortunately, the opportunity presents itself daily to engage in “small-time” unethical behaviors that, if left unchecked, will eventually lead to bolder and more unethical actions.

Wells Fargo didn’t just decide one morning to open fraudulent accounts.  They slowly slid down a slippery slope of accepting more questionable actions to the point where 5300 employees thought it was completely acceptable to cheat their customers.


In researching ideas on how other companies protect themselves from unethical actions, one of the most popular idea is to write a corporate statement on ethics.  That is one idea that clearly doesn’t work—Wells Fargo and all the universities in the college admissions scam had corporate ethical statements, and see what good it did for them.

Here are my suggested actions to help protect you and your business from transgressing into an acceptance of unethical behavior.

  1. Foster an environment where it is acceptable, and even expected, for employees to speak up. It is not a tattletale to report that another employee is carrying boxes of your product home to sell on eBay, or that someone is filling their car using the company credit card.  Once reported, as a business leader, you must take swift, decisive action as well as defend and support the person who reported the unethical action.
  2. Consider the pressures you are unwittingly placing on your employees. Are your sales goals so high that your employees become tempted to devise a scheme to cheat the system just so they look good?  Are production rates excessive where the employees need to lie to meet your expectations?
  3. Evaluate your corporate goals for their fairness across the company. The classic example of injustice is where an investment is made to increase production, but the capital for the investment came from the salesforce, who is expected to sell the increased production.  This type of conflict is ripe for all kinds of unethical behavior disguised as righting an injustice.
  4. It all begins at the top. Leaders who are known to occasionally look the other way or take advantage of company perks set the stage for everyone else to engage in unethical behavior.

Conversely, a corporate executive who religiously adheres to ethic actions broadcasts to the rest of the company that unethical decisions will not be tolerated.

The Bible

There is a long story in the Bible about a man named Joseph (Genesis 37-44).  Although there are many great lessons to be found in this epic tale, one of the messages is how continued reliance on God is the solution when faced with many unethical and scandalous situations.

Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers, imprisoned through the unethical testimony of his employer’s wife, and helps a fellow inmate get out of prison only to have promises made forgotten.  But in the end, Joseph c Biblean make all things right through his unfailing sense of right and wrong founded on God’s love.

One of God’s many lessons on the difference between right and wrong is from Proverbs 12:22.

The Lord detests lying lips,
but he delights in people who are trustworthy

Establishing a culture of ethical behavior starts with company leadership.  And, the best place for the leadership to find and embrace ethical behavior is in the pages of scripture.  All we need to do is follow the commands of God and the teachings of Jesus, and our reputation for ethical behavior will only grow.