By Jenny Schade
— Arnold Schwarzenegger decided not to tell his wife or top aides until last week about the child he fathered 13 years ago with a member of his household staff. Former Berkshire Hathaway executive David Sokol traded shares in Lubrizol Corp. while pitching the company to boss Warren Buffet as a takeover target, netting $3 million in profits.
Headlines abound with the ethical breaches of the rich and famous. But what about the day-to-day ethical decisions faced by small business leaders and employees?
While the widely known ethics breaches of Enron leaders and Bernie Madoff certainly get the most attention, we all face common ethical decisions every day. Often, they might seem relatively minor, yet they impact our reputation. In the same way that it’s not possible to be “kind of pregnant,” I believe it’s not possible to be “kind of ethical.” Either you are, or you aren’t.
Making ethical decisions and gaining a reputation as an ethical person builds slowly over one career. It begins the day you start your first job and are confronted with situations and decisions. You don t always realize that you re faced with an ethics breach. But you might get a bad feeling in the pit of your stomach that you either heed or ignore. If you ignore it, you might find yourself in a similar situation subsequently, and it will be easier to look the other way.
I ll never forget one of the first meetings I attended as a young account executive for a public relations firm. Our client asked why we were recommending conducting an event in Boston, and my supervisor replied, Research has shown that Boston is a trend-setting city. Our client agreed to proceed with our recommendations.
Afterward, my supervisor said to me, I totally made that up. With that experience, I began to wonder exactly what I was getting into. After a few similar situations, I requested a change of supervisors.
Years later, I faced an unethical request from an important client. After interviewing 25 of his most important customers, I explained to this company president that the customers had significant issues with his firm’s service. Suddenly, he demanded to listen to the recordings I had made of the interviews. But I had assured the customers interviewed that I would keep their identities confidential and only I would hear the tapes.
The company president became incensed when I explained that I could not provide the recordings. I have to hear the actual interviews, he insisted. I suggested providing a transcript of the interviews as a compromise, which would allow him to see the respondents’ actual words but would respect their confidentiality. He angrily continued to demand to listen to my tapes.
Seeking to understand what was behind his reaction, I asked him why he needed to hear the tapes. He acknoledged that he wanted to try to recognize the voices of the customers interviewed and confront them about their comments. Once this intent was out in the open, he backed down and stopped asking for the tapes.
Can unethical behavior be undone?
In the movie, Doubt, a priest tells a story of a woman seeking absolution after having spread some gossip. The priest tells the woman to cut open a pillow on the roof of her apartment building and shake out the feathers. Then he tells her to pick up each feather “ an almost unattainable goal, like arresting the spread of gossip. Undoing the damage of unethical behavior is similar to finding each feather released from that rooftop. It becomes very difficult to take it back.
The decisions we make every day of our careers reflect our own sense of ethics. Sometimes doing the right thing comes at a temporary cost, such as when someone else gets a promotion. But the value of developing a reputation as an ethical person is priceless.
Jenny Schade is president of JRS Consulting, Inc., a Chicago-area consulting firm that helps organizations build brands and attract and motivate employees and customers. Subscribe to the free JRS newsletter at www.jrsconsulting.net/newsletter.html. Contact Schade at jenny.schade@JRSconsulting.net.