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Avoid the Ethical Slippery Slope

You know how it starts. You tell a lie and then feel pressured to continue down that road to defend your statement or decision even though you know in your gut the initial decision was wrong. Maybe you shade the truth to prevent an improper action from becoming public knowledge. Maybe you cover it up. After all, you don’t want others to find out.

What’s happened here is you took the wrong turn and have begun the slide down the proverbial “ethical slippery slope.” The initial decision leads to another and then another, all to prevent others from discovering the truth about your decision. In fact, you are embarrassed about it but don’t know to extricate yourself from the situation.  ETHICAL SLIPPERY SLOPE

So, what causes a person to take the first step down the ethical slippery slope? The primary reason is not that the decision-maker is a bad person rather that pressures in the workplace can create a workplace environment that leads an otherwise good person to commit a wrongful action or stay silent when others do the same thing.

I have found in my own research and in conducting workshops that an underlying cause for taking the first step down the ethical slippery slope is not knowing what it means to be a truthful person. I think of it in two ways.

Honesty. Expressing the truth (facts) as best we know it and not conveying it in a way likely to mislead or deceive. Honesty in conduct is playing by the rules, without stealing, cheating, fraud and other trickery. The trait of honesty has been valued for centuries, and Shakespeare once wrote, “Honesty is the best policy. If I lose mine honor, I lose myself.”

Full Disclosure. To be honest in your words and actions. To be a truthful person means more than just being honest and not lying. Truthfulness has two components: a lie by commission where you knowingly commit a falsehood, and a lie by omission where you knowingly omit some item of information that another party has a right to know. We can look at full disclosure as an integral part of transparency.

There are many well-known examples of the ethical slippery slope from Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme to Lance Armstrong’s lying about taking performance enhancing drugs. Instances of the ethical slippery slope in organizations occur from time to time as well.

Imagine that one of your workers reports alleged sexual harassment. As the Director of Human Resources, it is your job to decide what to do. You don’t want to tarnish the image of your organization so you dismiss the employee’s concerns. Later, another incident occurs and the employee comes to you again. At this point, many in the organization know of the allegations and the employee has been treated differently, including being harassed and assigned work projects beneath their capability.

The employee decides to file a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in your state. The agency begins an investigation and questions you about the allegations. Since you did not record or otherwise document the facts of the first meeting with the employee, you answer by saying “there was a complaint.” OSHA found there were two complaints because the employee produced an email sent to you to request the first meeting. You responded by providing the place and time to meet. The employee also produces a second email with the subject header “Following-up on My Complaint.” Now you’ve gone and done it by being untruthful. What will you do next?

I have found that the underlying cause of instances like this one is the lack of an ethical organization culture. If workers perceive that managers cover-up bad decisions, they learn it is acceptable for them to do so as well. A company philosophy of “This is the way things are done around here” pollutes the environment.

In discussing how to establish an ethical environment in an organization, Darnell Lattal, CEO and president of Aubrey Daniels International, behavioral science expert, and author of Ethics at Work, says: “Ethical companies use distinct practices to create an environment in which their employees choose to act ethically, including open dialogue, celebrations, and visible recognition of and rewards for appropriate behavior.”

Kirk Hanson the director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, provides excellent advice to avoid the ethical slippery slope.

  • Listen to your instincts: Don't disregard that disquieting feeling when something doesn't feel right or your being asked to do something that makes you uncomfortable.
  • Look for backup: Approach others in the organization that you believe have a good 'moral compass' whose values will stand strong in the face of bad behavior.
  • Collect Information: Gather information to support your own behavior and make it clear that even though an action may be acceptable in the organization you will not act in the same way.
  • It's never too late to pull back:While it is challenging to reverse course on the ethical slippery slope, one can change behavior once the moral issues have been identified and risks of certain behaviors are considered.

It’s been said that ethics is easier said than done. Ethics is all about what we do when no one is watching. The HR Director figured no one would know about the first complaint.

My advice is to establish an ethical tone at the very top that permeates the organization supported by clear policies and consequences for not adhering to the ethics code. It starts with the board of directors or board of trustees and filters down to the CEO and other top company officials. There also needs to be ethics training so all in the organization know how the ethics code applies to them: What are the organization’s expectations? How should they report wrongdoing? How does adherence to the code and company policies influence performance evaluation?   

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on September 12, 2017. Steve is Professor Emeritus from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. To learn more about Steve, visit his website.

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