How to tackle ethics at work

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In the ever-changing world of work the only constant is what you stand for, writes Ksenia Zheltoukhova, research advisor at CIPD, the professional body for human resources and people development.

Taking a lead on ethics at work

It seems that more and more individuals and organisations today are having conversations about business ethics. Of course, the questions of right and wrong have always been relevant and important. However, the increased connectivity of the world of work means that inconsiderate corporate decisions can quickly lead to loss of trust and, ultimately, loss of profits. If acting unethically is so damaging, why do we still take the risk?

While few would disagree that “doing the right thing” is important in principle, ethical choices can be quite difficult to make in practice. Individually, ethical behaviour can be costly, especially when we have to take a stand for our values at work, risking our relationships with others, and possibly our careers. For organisations, decisions that are morally right might not always coincide with imperative of increasing profit margins.

In my conversations about ethics I noted the reasons people most often used to explain why being ethical was difficult or impossible. Let’s look at them in turn.

Nice guys finish last

There is now sufficient evidence to indicate that helping others results in a range of benefits, including feelings of personal fulfilment, as well as more tangible outcomes, such as receiving help or gratitude in return. For businesses, investment in corporate social responsibility activities can help support their brand image, gaining approval and loyalty from the customers.

The same research, however, suggests that these benefits are most likely to be realised in the longer term. Most famously, Adam Grant’s work Give or Take advocates that success is underpinned by the principle of “paying it forward”. Setting aside time and resources to help others, and encouraging them to do the same, creates a network of valuable relationships that you can rely on in the future.

So, if your main question about ethical decision-making is “what is in it for me?”, prepare to make some sacrifices. But, if you are in it for the long-term, there is a good chance that this initial investment would give you an unexpected advantage.

It’s too hard

Another important dilemma is whether we should strive to make moral decisions, when it is difficult enough to just keep afloat. For every research describing the potential benefits of ethical decisions, there is a statistic demonstrating that the reality is much more prosaic. Jeffery Pfeffer, a management thinker, makes this point in his book Leadership BS, highlighting the gap between the rhetoric of good leadership and the reality of leadership practice.

Indeed, most organisational decisions involve multiple stakeholders, often holding conflicting views about the best resolution of the problem that would meet their interests. Identifying and reconciling these perspectives can be cognitively and emotionally demanding, and so it appears unrealistic, given the pace at which businesses operate today.

The good news is that the practice of ethical decision-making does not assume you will do the right thing every single time. But, it comes with a responsibility to try at the very least. You might start by ensuring you consider all the possible courses of action, and their likely consequences, appreciating and justifying any compromises made.

I’m only one person, what can I do?

Even if you see the benefits of being ethical and maintain hope for a better world at some point in the future, the trickiest part is taking action. Especially, as most of overestimate our own integrity, relative to others. If you think you are the only one playing by the rules, it takes real courage to go against the group culture, or – at the organisational level – risk losing competitive advantage to someone who is prepared to cheat.

What some of us might not realise is that putting up with bad practice is an ethical choice in itself. Ignoring unethical decisions, or passing accountability (“everyone else is doing it”) represents an implicit agreement with those values.

This is why holding yourself to the highest standard is the highest level of maturity when it comes to ethics. Being ethical when you get something back, or when that’s the norm makes rational sense. But, it’s sticking to your cause despite everything else that takes courage. As with anything, if we are to create a better world we must start with ourselves.

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