Where Do You Draw The Ethical Line?

Every now and then I encounter an ethics article that covers a topic in a both thorough and refreshingly easily-digested manner – too many are either or neither of those… Just read a great piece by Vadim Liberman in the Conference Board Review called "Workers Behaving Badly". It falls squarely into the if-you-just-read-one-piece-on-business-ethics-this-month-make-it-this-one category.

As a 'teaser', here's a part of the lead-in to the article:

"The executive who expenses a few kinda-sorta-but-probably-not-really work-related dinners or cab rides, the colleague who comes in a bit late every morning, the employee who charges a hotel-room movie to the company, the worker who expenses a new stapler and takes it home, the manager who knows he needs a receipt for a reimbursement of $25 but since he doesn’t have one decides to submit two requests for $12.50 . . . the question isn’t whether these individuals are acting unethically. They probably are. The real question is: Should a company care? Should organizations concern themselves with all of their workers’ ethical infractions? Or just specific bad behavior? Or just specific workers? Or just at specific times? Where do you draw the line?"

Liberman, along with a number of guest contributors, do a better job than most in then trying to answer those questions. Can it actually be done? Of course not! That's why these simple-sounding illustrations are so vexing – they sound easy and obvious when, of course, they really aren't. BUT, this piece does a terrific job of talking through how you might go about deciding how you want to answer them for yourself and your company. 

Among other things, it's great to hear/see someone dare say out loud that where one draws the line on ethics issues, especially those not affecting anyone outside the company, is often really a matter of choice and not something iron-clad. Though I happen to be a proponent of drawing a fairly conservative line – for exactly the range of reasons given in the article – I'm certainly conscious of the fact that one can reasonably argue for drawing the line in any number of places. As I say so often in my programs, what frequently matters most has less to do with the decision you make (about where you draw the ethical line) and more to do with your rationale, the message your decision sends, and the degree to which your decision will be both sensible and enforceable for everyone in the organization.

Agree or not, it's a very nicely done article and highly recommended. 

And, er, where do you and your company draw the line?


  • Max Pinto says:

    Unethical behaviour in the workplace or elsewhere is unacceptable, but I have always turned a blind eye to small items e.g. an employee stealing a few pencils, erasers, sheets of computer paper, etc., because I believe that
    (a) most employers do not pay an employee what he or she is worth and these small thefts do not come anywhere near making up the shortfall;
    (b) these small thefts may motivate the employee to work more effectively, such that the benefit to the company may exceed the cost e.g. a small amount of time spent checking one’s personal e-mail account or even looking at a beautiful/handsome employee, instead of focusing on work all the time;
    (c) an employee needs to be happy in order to be productive;
    (d) employers often do not lead by “ethical” example, so what gives them the right to expect pure ethical behavior from other stakeholders: employees, customers, suppliers, etc.? I say “don’t talk the talk, unless you can walk the walk and see (a) above;
    (e) there are very few human beings who are 100% pure and honest and we need to run a business by employing human beings, because robots cannot do everything for us, etc., etc. so let us adapt to human nature and minimize our discomfort, knowing that very few of us are 100% pure, ethical and unselfish.
    I have a policy of distributing free abridged versions of my books on leadership, ethics, teamwork, motivation, women, bullying and sexual harassment, trade unions, etc., to anyone who sends a request to crespin79@hotmail.com.
    Maxwell Pinto, Business Author

  • Max Pinto says:

    As far as slightly exaggerated expense claims of executives and other employees, here is my take:
    I understand that two wrongs do not make a right, but how about looking at this in another way i.e. are employers justified in underpaying employees in the knowledge that “if the employee finds the compensation package unfair, he or she can leave and we can find a replacement quite easily?” Is this not “stealing” from the employee, in a subtle manner? Or, are we gonna play a game of semantics and say “Well it’s not really stealing because we have the employee’s consent?!” Okay…then it’s taking undue advantage of employees during salary negotiations and ripping them off, largely because of economics conditions, the recession, low profits or what ever other lame excuse employers choose to mention (and even discuss).
    Many employers talk about teamwork and then keep the rewards of teamwork basically for themselves, while using sweet words of praise, a pat on the back, etc. and perhaps buying employees a meal every now and then or giving them some free tickets to the movies. (An employer-employee relationship is a business courtship or marriage, depending upon how the relationship is handled by both parties. Job satisfaction and the welfare of corporations and individuals depend upon the degree of motivation through money, respect, fairness, challenging assignments,etc.)
    Great leaders realize that profits and improved cash flows result from fruitful relationships with all stakeholders, rather than from relationships that satisfy their own greed and irritate others.
    Great leaders structure compensation packages which promote effectiveness, thus reducing the temptation to cheat on expense claims and in other ways.
    What I say is ” Lead by example. Do not take undue advantage of your employees and other stakeholders. Then see who tries to cheat you, instead of cheating employees and others in a subtle manner, and then acting as if you are being taken undue advantage of.”
    For free abridged books on leadership, ethics, teamwork, motivation, women, sexual harassment, unions, law, etc., write to crespin79@hotmail.com.
    Maxwell Pinto, Business Author

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