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?"

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

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. Order Now!

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Related articles

More articles on Ethics at Work:

The silhouette of a famous fictional detectiveSome Truths About Lies: Part II
Knowing when someone else is lying doesn't make you a more ethical person, but it sure can be an advantage if you want to stay out of trouble. Here's Part II of a catalog of techniques misleaders use.
A thiefLooking the Other Way
Sometimes when we notice wrongdoing, and we aren't directly involved, we don't report it, and we don't intervene. We look the other way. Typically, we do this to avoid the risks of making a report. But looking the other way is also risky. What are the risks of looking the other way?
A dog wagging her tailSome Things I've Learned Along the Way
When I have an important insight, I write it down in a little notebook. Here are some items from my personal collection.
An actual red herringSome Truths About Lies: Part IV
Extended interviews provide multiple opportunities for detecting lies by people intent on deception. Here's Part IV of our little collection of lie detection techniques.
A dog wagging her tailMore Things I've Learned Along the Way
Some entries from my personal collection of useful and not-so-useful insights.

See also Ethics at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

An outstanding example of the Utility Pole anti-patternComing June 1: Workplace Anti-Patterns
We find patterns of counter-effective behavior — anti-patterns — in every part of life, including the workplace. Why? What are their features? Available here and by RSS on June 1.
An outstanding example of the Utility Pole anti-patternAnd on June 8: The Utility Pole Anti-Pattern: Part I
Organizational processes can get so complicated that nobody actually knows how they work. If getting something done takes too long, the organization can't lead its markets, or even catch up to the leaders. Why does this happen? Available here and by RSS on June 8.

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