As I sit down to write this piece, I am reminded of a student who had been caught cheating. Despite the evidence to the contrary, she insisted that she couldn’t have been cheating because she was a good person. In fact, she presented several letters written by the people in her life who could attest to her good character. This was, as she told us, proof that she hadn’t cheated.
We’ve all been there. We’ve done something wrong or something so “out of character” that we need to pretend (for our own sanity) that we didn’t do it or that we did it for the right reasons. Or we tell ourselves – “what I did wasn’t unethical because I’m a good person”.
But the truth is, even good people can do bad things.
Consider Deborah Crowder, a low-level University of North Carolina administrator. For almost twenty years, Crowder was a lead player in a “shadow curriculum”, an institutionalized scheme to help athletes stay eligible for play by cheating. The students enrolled in a class that didn’t exist and, for credit, submitted one paper (usually poorly written or plagiarized) to which Crowder assigned the grade needed by the student in order to stay athletically eligible.
There is no evidence that Crowder was a criminal mastermind, with a history of unethical conduct. It appears that she was simply someone who wanted to “help” – she wanted to help UNC, she wanted to help the athletes, and she wanted to help the coaches. But by “helping”, she (and others) created and perpetuated an unethical culture in the workplace, harming thousands of people and the reputation of UNC.
So, why did Crowder do it? Why do any of us act unethically even though we think of ourselves as good people or even though the majority of the time, we act like good people?
In their book Blind Spots, Bazerman and Tenbrunsel brilliantly illustrate how it is a lack of awareness that allows the ethical dimensions of a situation to fade from our perspective, enabling us to continue to make the decision we wanted to make in the first place. Apparently, we can actually be “blind” to the ethical situation facing us – we can be blinded by the motivation to protect ourselves from harm. We can be blinded by actions so slight that we are unable to foresee long-term impacts of the actions. We can be blinded by an outcome that seems minimal or even positive.
The first secret, then, to acting ethically is to first admit that we are capable of acting unethically (largely because of our blind spots).
Once we take that first step, we have opened ourselves up to actually doing the right thing, despite our blind spots and even despite the pressures and stressors of the moment.
The impact on the stressors and pressures of the moment, especially in business, are not to be minimized. According to Mary Gentile (creator of the “Giving Voice to Values” curriculum), even those who want to do the right thing may be pushed and cajoled to do the opposite or do nothing because “it is standard practice”, the impact is “minimal”, you “owe it to the boss” or “it’s not your responsibility”. These are the rationalizations that others may give you in order to convince you to do something that you feel, deep down, just isn’t right.
So, what is one to do? How can we act ethically (even in business) despite these blind spots and even requests to act unethically or against your own value system?
As Rushworth Kidder always said, you must enhance your “ethical fitness”. Ethical decision-making is a skill, just like learning science, playing basketball or negotiating a deal. It involves strategy and practice. If you don’t use it, you lose it.
Ethical fitness is the second secret to acting ethically.
Okay, so how do you build your ethical fitness?
You need to find an ethical decision-making model that you like (there are many out there), learn it, adopt it as your strategy, and then practice using it over and over again. I teach my students a modified version of Kidder’s model (from his book “How Good People Make Tough Choices”) because I find it is applicable to any situation in life, whether it personal or professional. But, you may find another that suits you better. The key to a good ethical decision-making model is that it helps you: 1) recognize and identify the moral/ethical issue you’re facing, 2) see what responsibility you have for resolving it, 3) resolve the issue according to sound ethical principles, and 4) act on your decision. You can find your model by taking a class, reading books on the subject or looking to your profession or organization (many of which propose ethical decision-making models).
It’s quite simple, then.
The secret to acting ethically is to first admit that you are capable of acting unethically and then develop your ethical fitness. In other words, develop your strategy, and make ethical decision-making an everyday practice, a priority in your life and your profession. This doesn’t mean just avoiding doing “wrong” (according to the law or your organization’s code of ethics). It means being conscious everyday of the ethical implications of any action you take or decision you make. It means, as Gentile would argue, that as you go about your business, making decisions and taking actions, that you see consider ethical implications as equally as important as any other (even financial or political).
A Key Ethical Fitness Practice
Researchers tell us that when we’re facing ethical situations, we make rash decisions (usually to protect our own or our company’s self-interests) and then rationalize our decision. Only later do we recognize that we were facing an ethical, not a financial, business or other type of decision.
Start building your ethical fitness by adopting Bazerman & Tenbrunsel’s key practice – with every situation you’re facing or decision you’re making, slow down and ask yourself “What are the ethical implications of this?”
Doing this regularly can help you stay ethically fit.
Tricia Bertram Gallant, Ph.D. is a Rady School lecturer on personal ethics at work and an Academic Integrity Office Director at UC San Diego. She is also author of Academic Integrity in the Twenty-First Century: A Teaching and Learning Imperative (Wiley’s Jossey-Bass, 2008), co-author of Cheating in School: What We Know and What We Can Do (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), and editor of Creating the Ethical Academy: A Systems Approach to Understanding Misconduct & Empowering Change in Higher Education (Routledge, 2011).
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