By Bruce Anderson
The news and Internet are full of examples of ethical lapses. There are nearly daily reports on corruption in sports, cheating scandals, even deaths caused by malfunctioning equipment that continue after companies are well aware of the situation. At times unethical behavior seems so pervasive that you may wonder, does anyone act ethically?
Part of our mandate as Ethics and Compliance officers is to help people make better decisions, guiding organizations to avoid harm, be fair, and act in ways that deserve trust. One way to engage our workforce is to look at everyday cultural experiences where people actually engage in ethical behavior and probably don’t know it.
In everyday life we make decisions continually about what is right or wrong. Most of these decisions are made quickly and without a lot of thought or reason. Life is too complex and the pace too fast for us to deeply consider every situation. Also depending on context, we may at certain times take issue with a colleague over planned decisions or comments made, but under duress we may not. It’s just a fact, fortunate or not, that we humans are inconsistent and variable. We are constantly navigating our lives and impacting others in a way that could harm or betray or oppress to cite three types of negative outcomes.
Having a discussion about ethics is also challenging. We all live according to a moral code, with varying degrees of awareness about it. Research also shows our values change over time and with that the way we speak up (or not) and how we act. Often that means that someone’s (even our own) internal moral code is changing. When the context is ambiguous and people may be unaware or are undergoing a development in their own thinking and reasoning, it makes our job to engage them ethically even more daunting.
For help, we can turn to the ethical greats of the past who people may remember from a philosophy course they took years ago. But in communicating with the general population, I find it is difficult to forge a path toward shared understanding with words and concepts those philosophers so loved, like consequentialism or deontology. We need another approach.
When working with employees, I like to have conversations that would be understood at a local coffee shop. And there are great examples of how we in society actually do act according to ethical principles. I’d like to use one, as an example, to show people, that they already act according to a significant ethical principle, and that they may do this daily for hours at a time.
I live in the Los Angeles area and put around 23,000 miles per year on my car. Like many Angelenos I spend hours a day behind the wheel. What I notice here and in other cities is that the vast majority of people drive their cars the way they want everyone else to drive. Few people are aiming to ram another car. While I see rear-ending accidents nearly weekly, it’s due to driver inattention and not intentionally aiming for the car in front of you.
For me, this is an example of Kant’s Categorical Imperative at work. To put this in coffee shop terms: it means to act in a way that everyone else should act, from the perspective of what is good for everyone at all times. Here is how the great philosopher Immanuel Kant first expressed it:
“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”
If Ethics and Compliance officers spoke like that, we wouldn’t get very far. That’s why part of our job is to translate complex ideas into easy action. Later on, Kant revised this two more times, but for our purpose of demonstrating how people already put this into action (and aren’t aware of it), this version suffices.
You could say that as a driver, I have a duty to drive safely. And here we can make a parallel for our work in Ethics and Compliance. It’s the basic question: what are the duties of our organization? To whom do we owe loyalty to our value proposition? How do we demonstrate that we care for our customers and employees, and maybe everyone our organization touches? How do we make sure we fulfill our duties in difficult times and when a person or party may be disadvantaged—think market forces that may lead your organization to lay off employees.
When driving, our duty is to safety—ours and everyone else’s. It is part of our American culture, that if, for example, someone makes a mistake regarding right-of-way, that doesn’t give everyone else the right to hit the car and teach the errant driver a lesson. Instead, we drive in a way that keeps us all safe. And we do that by exercising self-restraint.
So much of ethics is the practice of self-restraint. Road rage is just plain bad. If someone cuts you off, exercising self-restraint (from anger and doing something you’ll regret) is the better course of action. Self-restraint also means taking time to evaluate the potential effects of your actions and prepare a way to discuss them in terms that could be easily understood over coffee.
By using the story of driving defensively, we can show our employees that they already engage in ethical behavior and use that as a launching point for similar activities of how each of us “drives” the business we are in.
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