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August 14, 2002 Volume 2, Issue 33
 
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It Might Be Legal, but It's Unethical

by

Now that CEOs will be held personally accountable for statements they make about their organizations, we can all expect to be held to higher standards of professional ethics. Some professions have formal codes of ethics, but most don't. What ethical principles guide you?

With the non-controversial topics out of the way, they moved on to what they all knew was the most difficult issue. Everyone felt the tension, though perhaps no one felt the pressure Trish did. She knew that whatever they announced publicly would affect the share price, and the critical factor would be her estimate of the delay on Metronome. Everyone in the room would feel the pain.

"On to Metronome," Jack pronounced. "Trish?"

A rabbit late for a very important date

A rabbit late for a
very important date

Here we go, she thought. The dates were bad news, but the estimates were Peter's, and Peter was the best. The dates were right. "As you all know, the news isn't good. The estimates are June 30th, best case, but possibly as late as November."

Silence. Warfield, as usual, spoke first. "That's unacceptable. What are your plans for replacing Peter?"

"I have no plans for replacing Peter, or anyone else," Trish replied. "They've all done a marvelous job with what we gave them, and it's up to us now to manage this."

In some organizations, Trish's recommendation is unusual. Rather than blaming someone for an organizational failure, Trish believes that the company must tell the public the hard truth. What would you have done?

Now that CEO's will be personally accountable for statements they make about their organizations, we can all expect to be held to higher standards of professional ethics. Some professions have codes of ethics, but most of us don't even have professional associations we could join, let alone formal codes of ethics to guide us.

When you doubt the propriety of an action or decision, what principles guide you? Whether or not you can turn to an association for ethical guidance, writing down a code of ethics for your job can help. Try it. Here are some principles to get you started.

Unethical behavior
need not be proactive.
In some situations,
doing nothing
can be unethical.
Beware personal benefits
If you would personally benefit from an action you're about to take, it could be questionable. Examine such actions carefully.
Appearance counts
The appearance of unethical behavior is as damaging as actual unethical behavior. Avoid even the appearance of crossing the line.
What you don't do can be damning
Unethical behavior need not be proactive. In some situations, doing nothing can be unethical.
Be open about key phrases
If you intentionally use a key phrase, explain its significance to the listener. Relying on listeners to grasp the importance of innocent-sounding words could be a way of misleading people.
Consulting an attorney can be a red flag
Legal standards are usually less restrictive than ethical standards. Excessive concern with the legalities of your actions might mean that you're in danger of ethical transgression.

Start a discussion of ethics in your organization. Being open about the issue is a critical first step. Go to top Top  Next issue: Smart Bookshelves  Next Issue
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See "On the Appearance of Impropriety," Point Lookout for December 2, 2009 for a bit more on the appearance of impropriety.

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Related articles

More articles on Ethics at Work:

Mark Twain in 1907When You're Scared to Tell the Truth
In the project context, we need to know that whatever we're hearing from colleagues is the truth as they see it. Yet, sometimes we shade the truth, or omit important details. Here's a list of some of the advantages of telling the truth.
A nervous dogThe Power of Presuppositions
Presuppositions are powerful tools for manipulating others. To defend yourself, know how they're used, know how to detect them, and know how to respond.
Shaking an orange treeWhen You Aren't Supposed to Say: Part III
Most of us have information that's "company confidential," or even more sensitive than that. Sometimes people who want to know what we know try to suspend our ability to think critically. Here are some of their techniques.
A Julius Caesar coinOn Organizational Coups d'Etat
If your boss is truly incompetent, or maybe even evil, organizing a coup d'etat might have crossed your mind. In most cases, it's wise to let it cross on through, all the way. Think of alternative ways out.
A bristlecone pine in the Great Basin National ParkExtrasensory Deception: Part II
In negotiating agreements, the partners who do the drafting have an ethical obligation not to exploit the advantages of the drafting role. Some drafters don't meet that standard.

See also Ethics at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Magic Lantern Slide of a dog jumping through a hoopComing May 4: Just-In-Time Hoop-Jumping
Securing approvals for projects, proposals, or other efforts is often called "jumping through hoops." Hoop-jumping can be time-consuming and frustrating. Here are some suggestions for jumping through hoops efficiently. Available here and by RSS on May 4.
Dr. Ben Carson speaking at CPAC 2015 in Washington, D.C., on 26 February 2015And on May 11: Characterization Risk
To characterize is to offer a description of a person, event, or concept. Characterizations are usually judgmental, and usually serve one side of a debate. And they often make trouble. Available here and by RSS on May 11.

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