Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 2, Issue 33;   August 14, 2002: It Might Be Legal, but It's Unethical

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?"

The rabbit that went down the rabbit-hole

The rabbit that went — late — down the rabbit-hole. A colorized illustration from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll, from the original illustration by John Tenniel. Online editions of Alice are available at various Web sites, but this illustration is from the edition at www.gasl.org.

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

See "On the Appearance of Impropriety," Point Lookout for December 2, 2009 for a bit more on the appearance of impropriety.

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

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More articles on Ethics at Work:

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Some decisions are difficult because they trigger us emotionally. They involve conflicts of interest, yielding to undesirable realities, or possibly pain and suffering for the deciders or for others. How can we make these emotionally difficult decisions with greater clarity and better outcomes?
Lt. Col. John Paul VannManaging Personal Risk Management
When we bias organizational decisions to manage our personal risks, we're sometimes acting ethically — and sometimes not. What can we do to limit personal risk management?
Harry Stonecipher, former CEO of The Boeing CompanyPersonnel-Sensitive Risks: Part II
Personnel-sensitive risks are risks that are difficult to discuss openly. Open discussion could infringe on someone's privacy, or lead to hurt feelings, or to toxic politics or toxic conflict. If we can't discuss them openly, how can we deal with them?
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Deception at work probably wasn't invented at work. Most likely it is a continuation of deception in the rest of life. But the technologies of the modern workplace offer new opportunities to practice the art. Here's Part II of a handy guide for telephonic self-defense.

See also Ethics at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Firefighter lighting grass using a drip torchComing January 25: How to Get Out of Firefighting Mode: Part I
When new problems pop up one after the other, we describe our response as "firefighting." We move from fire to fire, putting out flames. How can we end the madness? Available here and by RSS on January 25.
FlamesAnd on February 1: How to Get Out of Firefighting Mode: Part II
We know we're in firefighting mode when a new urgent problem disrupts our work on another urgent problem, and the new problem makes it impossible to use the solution we thought we had for some third problem we were also working on. Here's Part II of a set of suggestions for getting out of firefighting mode. Available here and by RSS on February 1.

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