It is often far harder to recover from an ethics mistake than an ordinary mistake. While an ordinary mistake may reveal a lack of knowledge or attention, an ethical mistake colors perception of everything a person does. When caught in an ethical mistake, admitting to it often does not settle the matter. Doubt remains about the character of the person who made the mistake.
Suppose you steal a sales lead from a co-worker by intercepting a phone call from a customer that was intended for the co-worker – “She’s not available but, no worries, I can help you with that…. ” You take over the call, steal the customer and get paid incentive for doing so. And then you are caught. Not only will your co-worker never trust you again; she will put out the word that you prey on your colleagues. You made a fatal ethics mistake.
Or suppose you are working on a new drug being tested in clinical trials. The company is gambling a lot on this drug and you are proud of your role in its development. After the closing date for all trials to be reported, a late report arrives indicating problems with the drug. It is the only negative report and you are entitled to ignore it because it is late. You bury the late study. But when the drug is released, there are serious side effects just as predicted by the late study. You made a fatal ethics mistake.
Hindsight is 20/20 and you may conclude that you would never make these mistakes. And yet in my daily work as a consultant, I see many fatal ethics mistakes made by ordinary people. While they almost always regret these mistakes, they have often injured their careers irreparably. In ethics, it is often one strike and you are out.
Fatal ethics mistakes are almost entirely avoidable if you take certain precautions when facing difficult decisions. In a series of posts, I will provide tips on avoiding ethical mistakes based on my experience as an ethics consultant.