Surprising Truths About Ethics #3

The profit motive is not to blame. There are as many unethical actions in government and the non-profit sector as there are in business. Even though the profit motive can drive people to get ahead no matter what, so can political and bureaucratic motives. Does anyone doubt that the drive for position, power and fame is as ethically deforming as the drive for profit? It is only when seeking profit means seeking profit at any cost that you are likely to find ethics issues. But seeking power or fame at any cost has the same consequence. This is discussed in more depth in my book, Make an Ethical Difference.

Surprising Truths about Ethics #2

Here is a second and important surprising truth about ethics:

Technology can undermine ethics. Our ethical instincts arose to help us cooperate in hunter-gatherer groups. When you did something that hurt another member of the group, you were to feel some of that hurt yourself – conscience. But these ethical instincts work best when you are forced to directly experience the consequences of your actions. Today technology enables us to do harm at a great distance and essentially anonymously. Consider the taunts and lies promulgated via social media just because they can be delivered anonymously. One reason that drone warfare worries us is that it detaches the act of killing from any experience of it. Our technological reach has outdistanced our ethical reach.

Surprising Ethical Facts

I have spent thirty years discussing ethical issues with business people, doctors, and lawyers. While you might imagine high-minded discussions of complex issues, it is more often a matter of someone trying to escape responsibility for what they already know to be wrong. In ethics, it is usually not a matter of not knowing what is right. It is a matter of doing what you know to be right. Over the next series of posts, I will share some surprising ethical facts starting with this one:

  1. Ethics is often simple. Most people who do wrong things are perfectly well aware they are doing wrong things. Yes, there are challenging ethical puzzles but they have little to do with the choices we make in our daily lives. Does anyone imagine that the individuals who knew about the life-threatening ignition switches in GM cars did not know that selling these cars was wrong? They knew perfectly well but chose not to do anything about it to protect their positions in the organization. The question is not one of knowing right from wrong; it is a question of what made the organization so sick that knowing right from wrong didn’t matter.

By the way, this is one of the surprising ethical facts that I explain in Make an Ethical Difference.

Retaliation

Retaliation is the enemy of ethics (and innovation) in organizations. There is a good discussion of retaliation and why it so very hard to reduce/eliminate in the Globe and Mail at http://tinyurl.com/o4ex72r.

The Ethics Strategy: AMA

Those who have enjoyed the exchanges on ethics and strategy may want to look at the unified piece in the American Management Association’s “Playbook.” It is available at http://playbook.amanet.org/5-competitive-strategies-of-successful-and-ethical-companies/

In an Ethics Crisis Find the Root Cause

In an ethics crisis, it is not enough to know what happened; you need to know why it happened. Most organizations can survive a single ethics crisis. But if the same conduct is repeated, even if by different individuals, this will fix the negative impression of the organization in cement. Organizations tend to want to keep changes to a minimum, as big changes seem to be a further admission of culpability. But you need to be sure that you have changed personnel and systems sufficiently that the same conduct does not recur.

Publications of Interest

I have found two recent publications that may be of interest. The first is on ethics and business success and pretty much follows the discussion here. It can be read at http://tinyurl.com/q55rash. The second is on a new topic which is how to build ethics into a start-up. This one is by Martin Zwilling and can be read at http://tinyurl.com/nb6jdug. Enjoy and comments are always welcome.

In an Ethics Crisis Assume the Government Will Be Involved

When an organization does something viewed as unethical, the public wants someone to do something about it. And that someone is likely to be “the government.” Most organizations are open to some level of government oversight. When the government comes knocking, you can expect to hand over most everything you know about the crisis. Why? Even though some of the material may be covered by legal privilege, the government will find you uncooperative if you “hide” information. Your reasoning about the crisis needs be premised on when the government finds out rather than whether the government finds out.

In an Ethics Crisis Consider the Impact on Your Employees

A big risk in an ethics crisis is that your own employees will conclude that unethical conduct is the norm in the organization or at its highest levels, and adjust their behavior accordingly. In an ethics crisis, employees often learn about the crisis from the media. Organizations tend not to communicate openly with their employees about such matters, leaving employees to believe what others are saying. You risk an unplanned change in corporate culture unless you credibly communicate the organization’s position to its employees.

In a Crisis Investigate Quickly, Objectively and Thoroughly

In an ethics crisis, you need to know what happened, who did what and who knew about it. An investigation into an ethics crisis cannot follow the usual internal investigation protocol since those running the investigation may be implicated in the crisis or in covering it up. You need an independent investigation. Even if you conduct the investigation under legal privilege, anticipate that the investigation may become public and that you may eventually be required to share the investigation with regulatory or enforcement authorities.