Business Ethics: Are you on the edge…or over a ledge?

Finding the line between right and wrong

The debate about business ethics isn’t new. Since the beginning of commerce, there have been good decisions and bad, right and wrong. Plus lots and lots – lots – of gray areas.

Lance Armstrong’s decision not to fight doping allegations simply brought the issue to the forefront of public opinion once more. Most people even mildly familiar with the issue had an opinion one way or the other: “He should fight if he’s innocent,” “He must be guilty,” or “What a shame an innocent man was harassed so unremittingly.”

Whatever your opinion, one thing is clear: the lines between good and bad can be fuzzy.

Of course, we all think we know where it is. Our mommas raised us right. We’re moral ethical, upstanding citizens. For people like us, it’s easy to take a stand when watching the news and the media is on someone else’s front lawn.

“I’d never do that,” you think smugly.

Or would you?

These things start small. The toe first crosses line in the sand, which could have just as easily been drawn a few inches to the left. And the justification begins:

“Everyone is doing it”….”We have to do it to keep up with our competitors”….”It was only one time”….
“Nobody got hurt”….”The culture requires it”….

This rationalization of bad decisions may sound OK at first. That is, until the infraction is uncovered. Stepping into the spotlight of a criminal investigation or a media frenzy has a way of changing one’s perspective.

Living on the edge

With the intense competition of business being magnified by ongoing economic malaise, more and more people are looking for a competitive edge for their company. In the all out quest for success, sometimes it’s hard to see that line, and even harder to stay on the right side.

Our culture celebrates those who live on the edge, people who push the envelope, working hard to get ahead, finding ways to work around obstacles and overcome challenges.

Living on the edge is one thing. It’s another to go a step too far, seeking an unfair advantage by bending rules or conventionally accepted morals to the breaking point.

Unfortunately, more and more people are putting themselves out on a dangerous ledge, taking risks and embracing the mindset that “big risks lead to big rewards.”

I meet people with unfortunate frequency who express concerns over their organizations pushing the boundaries of ethical behavior. This seems to be more prevalent in public companies, where in spite of the oversight of regulators and investors, there’s plenty of pressure to perform.

Public companies are under the gun to deliver growth to shareholders consistently, quarter to quarter and year-over-year. When a company misses the mark, there’s intense scrutiny, media insight and often, job cuts.

In this environment, questionable decisions can easily be rationalized. From fudging expense reports to paying brides in  foreign countries, it’s easy to find “reasons” to explain away poor judgement. But that doesn’t turn wrong into right.

How do you avoid going too far?

There’s a saying in PR that you should not  say or do anything that you wouldn’t want your grandmother  to read about in the newspaper. That’s a pretty good test, unless your grandma is a real rebel.

When faced with a decision that gives you pause, if you think that what you are doing would not withstand the light of day, it’s the wrong choice.

Another good marker is what makes you loose sleep. If you’re thinking about something when you wake up at night, worrying about  “what if…” that’s a good sign you’re about the cross the line (unless you already did).

Ultimately, you are the only one accountable for your actions. The “everyone” who’s doing it won’t be there to cheer for you when your name is on the front page or your court case comes to trial.

From minor issues to major ones, follow your own moral compass. Don’t risk sacrificing your dreams and goals for a quick success, a boss who sets a bad example or a peer who pushes you to play along.

Walk the line.

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