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Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?

Workplace Ethics and Doing the Right Thing

I have blogged before about why good people sometimes do bad things in the workplace. Otherwise ethical people make the wrong turn or are influenced by others that are ethically-challenged. Perhaps people take the easy way out and don’t stand up for what they think is the right thing to do. They may fear retaliation or worse.

Good people strive to do the right thing. They recognize that their actions have consequences. They are aware of the rights of others and act in ways that are consistent with the way they would like to be treated. This is the essence of The Golden Rule.

Good people think with their head and act in concert with their heart, and they apply the knowledge and wisdom gained through a lifetime of experiences. Good people are honest, trustworthy, fair-minded, and empathetic towards others. Good people accept responsibility for the consequences of their actions and strive to improve their behavior throughout their lifetime.

Good people sometimes do bad things in the workplace. That does not mean they are bad people. Instead, circumstances may arise where they feel pressured by superiors to deviate from ethical standards.

The culture of a workplace creates the boundaries for acceptable and unacceptable conduct. Managers should set high standards and hold employees to them. Consistency breeds acceptance and personal responsibility establishes ethical obligations in the workplace.

In my experience, the most frequent case of being good but not doing good is when an employee feels he/she has been unfairly singled out by a superior. In some cases, it may be warranted but in others a kind of bias develops in the relationship between the two. Moreover, sometimes what seems right to do is questionable because of pressures in an organization so the line between right and wrong gets blurred.

The ethical challenges come not from one’s own ethics but from the ethics of people around us and the organization of which we are a part. At work, a person may be called upon to do things that turn out to be unethical or even illegal. Why-do-bad-things-happen-to-good-people-blog-post

According to Oliver Sheldon, assistant professor of management and global business at Rutgers Business School and co-author of a study of these issues published in the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. “We think part of the explanation for why people occasionally don’t behave ethically is their failure to confront and realize there’s a temptation”

In addition to acknowledging the temptation, the study suggests that people have to see it as one they might have to struggle with repeatedly, and that could potentially jeopardize their reputation and integrity. “Just thinking about temptation generally in advance essentially helps them to counteract temptation when they encounter it,” Sheldon said.

It is important to understand that most ethics scandals typically involve a number of people who are included in the decision-making process at each stage. As a result, responsibility becomes diffused among these individuals, making it difficult to attribute blame to or impose accountability on any particular person.

Although people may feel uncomfortable with what is happening as they move down the “ethical slippery slope,” they convince themselves that “so long as it is legal, it is ethical” or that they are doing what is expected of them.

Rationalization — the ability to justify our behavior — is one of our greatest moral failings. Behavior that would clearly be considered unethical by an outsider becomes acceptable to those involved because “that is the way it has always been done” or “it doesn’t really hurt anyone” or “that’s the way they do it at Firm X.”

So, ethics can be dangerous to your career if you have not been trained to identify and analyze ethical problems and to resolve them effectively. Ethics can also be dangerous to your career if you work in an organization that does not support ethical behavior or, worse, encourages misconduct.

Finally, we should recognize that anyone can get caught up in unethical conduct under the right circumstances. Organizational forces are strong and people have psychological weaknesses that make them vulnerable to wrongdoing. Steps can be taken to improve both organizations and the individuals in them, and we should take those steps. But the dangers cannot be eliminated entirely.

Good people can largely avoid doing bad things by clarifying their own values and acting on them whenever possible. We become ethical people by practicing ethical actions. We become kind by practicing kindness; fair-minded by seeing all sides of an issue; and trustworthy by keeping our word. Honest people do not exaggerate the truth for their own benefit, nor do they deceive others by omitting important information another party has a right to know.

Good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around the laws. This is the challenge to ethical behavior in life and the workplace.

Posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on August 13, 2020. Dr. Mintz recently published a book Beyond Happiness and Meaning: Transforming Your Life Through Ethical Behavior that is available on Amazon. You can sign up for his newsletter and learn more about his activities at: https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/. Follow him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics.