We all face ethical dilemmas. Many seem like tough calls, but if you build good habits of steadily doing the right thing, ethical choices get much easier.
Think of honesty and ethical behavior as muscles that need to be exercised, says Mark Herschberg, an instructor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of “The Career Toolkit.”
People typically know what’s the right thing to do and what isn’t. You know not to cheat on your expense report by saying your pricey dinner was with a client. But there might be pressures to break the rules. You might tell yourself, “Everybody does it,” “I deserve a piece of the company’s profits” or “I’ll just do it once.”
But that’s the time to flex honesty as a good habit. “What it comes down to is we need pressure to do the right thing,” Herschberg said. “Willpower is like a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it’ll become.”
Make Ethics One Of Your Good Habits
If most members of the group want to take a step that’s unethical, it’s not easy to show dissent.
“But once you do it several times, you realize it’s not bad to be the outlier and it gets easier,” Herschberg said.
He suggests people start with the Golden Rule when deciding which actions are ethical and which violate company standards. Procter & Gamble (PG) once immediately came clean when contractors it hired stole a rivals’ information from a dumpster.
“Flip the script,” Herschberg said. “What if it was my company and my information was stolen? Think about everyone, including the supplier and the customer, and how they would feel.”
Set the example of the way you want others to view ethical dilemmas.
“Leaders’ personal behavior is watched so closely by employees,” said Marianne Jennings, professor emeritus of legal and ethical studies in business at Arizona State University.
Good Habits: Draw Ethical Boundaries
It becomes easier to handle sticky situations when you’ve been clear about where the ethical lines in your organization are, Herschberg says. The more you’ve talked about it and communicated what’s expected, the easier it becomes to set a course of action.
“If you set that norm, it’s easier for people to approach because they know how to handle it,” Herschberg said. “Some employees might say, ‘I always hear the company talking about profits but never about safety.’ It helps to have an explicit culture.”
Habits Lead To Culture
The ability to create an ethical culture often comes down to whom you hire and fire, who is and isn’t disciplined, and how they’re disciplined, Jennings says.
Make ethics a part of your group’s culture by talking about it frequently. Highlight the issue in newsletters and discuss it in meetings. Many issues crop up that involve a course of action that’s legal. But is it right?
“You have to look at ‘could’ versus ‘should,’ ” Jennings said.
There’s a steep cost to doing business unethically. It often leads to a sullied reputation, lost contracts and a decline in market value, Jennings says. Further, employees become cynical, productivity drops, and absenteeism and depression soar.
“There are costs to all of this, and it’s on hard issues,” she said.
Make Minor Details One Of Your Good Habits
Pay attention to the details. That’s where ethical good habits are formed, but also bad ones.
Honesty as a habit shows in “how you respond in every little thing,” Jennings said. “You create it over time through little examples that show, ‘That’s a line we don’t cross.’ “
Jennings spoke to a woman who said she wouldn’t take even a pack of gum if she forgot to pay for it. “I don’t want to know how far I would slip,” the woman told Jennings.
Once you get comfortable with little indiscretions, it becomes easier to justify increasingly bigger ones. Do the right thing on the small items and the big choices become easier.
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