Sunday, 17 February 2013

The Slippery Slope :: Ethical Decision Making at Work

Many years ago I read an article on how New York City (in the 1990s) managed to reduce its crime statistics under Mayor Giuliani. One of the critical ideas for achieving this was to create ZERO tolerance for crime by leveraging the “Broken Window Theory”. This theory is based on the premise that when citizens observe that an environment or object (building or car etc.) is maintained properly they get the signal that inappropriate civic sense (criminal behaviour such as vandalism) would not be tolerated. In simple terms, disorder (in the form of a broken window; pilling up rubbish; dirty streets and graffiti) can encourage low civic sense (and lead to criminal behaviour).

In the context of ethics, the concept of Slippery Slope is a reference to how behaviour or decisions that at first appear to be harmless ethical aberrations or violations can lead to even more ethically dubious decisions i.e. a down-ward spiral where each subsequent ethical violation sets a new benchmark in what is acceptable (i.e. what was considered as off-limits is now within limits). The parallel to this is the age-old adage “One lie leads to another lie.”

In the corporate world, I have also come across situations where I would see employees bend or break the rules in how they executed on their tasks. It is also my opinion, that those employees who ultimately get disciplined (punished and potentially also leave an organisation) have over the course of time started off with ethical misdemeanours on a small scale that then led to “bigger” and “grander” ethical misdemeanours and violations. 

Being a person of integrity is not based on a personal assessment of one’s integrity but more importantly based on the assessment by other people of your integrity. I lose sleep when I see individuals taking ethical short-cuts and then profit from the same. It does not mean that most ethical infractions occur only for personal gain. On many occasions you will be faced with an ethical dilemma as you debate the decision and the related gain(s) it offers to the organisation. Sophocles was right when he said "Rather fall with honour than succeed by fraud!"

An ex-manager of mine while addressing a team of new hires stated -- “I would rather be fired for not making my sales target than be fired for cutting corners at work. I can explain not making my target to a future employer but how will I explain cutting corners?” This sentiment expressed to the newest of recruits in an organisation sets the tone very early and helps new comers navigate the slippery slope.
In my job in the corporate world, I support the sales force. It is understood that winning the deal and getting the order on occassion can mean that the sales person will over commit on his capacity (and/or the organisation’s capacity) to deliver. This becomes more difficult to manage when the sales person and his entire chain of command then align to deliver on the commitment (knowingly or unknowingly). Winning the deal becomes more important than how the deal is won. If this becomes the norm and takes on bigger dimensions then it takes not just the sales person but the entire chain of command further down the slippery slope!

When an employee at work is faced with an ethical dilemma how can he or she ensure that do not spiral downwards? Typical training in organisations on the matter of ethics and integrity takes the approach of asking employees to understand what are ethical violations against a pre-set code of conduct and explains the potential outcome or punishment that is available as well as provides channels (anonymous as well) to report unethical behaviour. One of the missing ingredients in my opinion is the focus of organisations in making their employees aware of the slippery slope i.e. how ethically dubious decisions if allowed to perpetuate can be harmful. Discouraging smaller infractions and related punishment needs a culture that to nips the smallest ethical infraction and maintains the courage to do so in perpetuity.

I know of many people who have told me that they adapt their decision making criteria on ethical issues by looking at the probability of being caught. Someone may not catch you but you know what you did…right? The lower an individual is on the slippery slope their moral compass is now relative. What was unacceptable earlier will now become acceptable and set a new benchmark for the next dubious ethical decision. However, the degree of punishment available to the employee is a function of the severity of the ethical violation. So be warned! It is likely that the lower you are on the slope (i.e. have made ethical violations the norm or developed a thick skin) the more severe the punishment that can be expected. Remember that the “devil made me do it” (or related justifications) is not a successful argument both in the corporate world and the sporting world! “Ethical behaviour is doing the right thing when no one else is watching, even when doing the wrong thing is legal” Aldo Leopold.

Another argument to justify unethical or dubious decision making is that the return on investment far outweighs the consequences. This sounds like someone who is speeding in his car and gets a traffic fine but is ok with the fine as the reason for him speeding will lead to an outcome that is far greater than the negative monetary consequence of the fine. The issue is not the recipt of a monetary fine to act as a deterrent. One needs to understand that they did not get the fine due to some sadistic traffic officer but because you endangered your life and that of others. If you keep driving recklessly in the long-term (while paying the speeding fine consistently) you are likely to get hurt (as there is a higher probability of getting a negative outcome due to continued irresponsible risk taking). 

Listen to your instincts. If it does not feel right and makes you uncomfortable then it probably is not right. Consult on the issue broadly. Most ethical violations occur because those conversations are kept “hush hush” and are covert. Anonymity raises the risk of unethical behaviour. Surround yourself with people who are sound in judgement and have a reputation for honesty and integrity. Let them be the devil’s advocate to help you in debating/discussing matters where ethical considerations are paramount. My own experience is that “hidden” transgressions will be exposed in due time in this world of instant communication where every word you say or write is stored in perpetuity (even law requires this) and available instantly.

Be pragmatic enough to understand that not all ethical concerns translate into real problems. This is where consulting broadly can help you learn whether the ethical decision being made will lead to any negative consequences.Be mature enough to be transparent in all your dealings. Believe in full disclosure and be open to scrutiny. If you have nothing to hide then you will exude openness and willingness. Two very potent means to stop you from taking the wrong decision.

Develop a culture where you shy away from covering up lies or errors. Even the small ones. Do not design or undertake actions designed to cover up for mistakes. This is another way to move down the slippery slope. 

Maintaining integrity is the most important thing especially where your ethical stand may bring you under tremendous pressure at work. Be courageous when faced with moral dilemmas at work or when you come across evidence of unethical practices. Many of us have no desire to rock the boat and that means that we close our eyes or look the other way. Be patient and realise that ethics and morality are not negotiable but they extract a huge price in the short-term. This needs character. Unethical decisions do not happen in a vacuum. Do not remain silent or inactive in the presence of injustice. Evil triumphs when good men do nothing!

Re-examine the basis of your loyalty to the organisation and the individuals you work for. Is your job so sanctimonious as to demand blind loyalty from you? Are your decisions driven by a sense of blind loyalty or sycophancy? I have found that in every situation where a subordinate blindly followed a leader and undertook a dubious ethical decision the subordinate usually had their reputations sullied while the leaders (who fostered blind loyalty) grew disproportionately in the organisation with nothing sullying their reputation.

As an employee, when faced with an ethical dilemma leading to a decision that seems like a minor infraction, do ask yourself a few simple questions. How would you feel to see that decision being published on the headlines of a newspaper being read by your mother? How would you feel if you were to be caught and have to explain the negative outcome your decision to your family? Learn to answer these questions or you are going to move from minor infractions to major ones i.e. commence the down-ward slide!
In closing, remember that “there is no right way to do something wrong. What is wrong is wrong!”


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  1. It is very often that people use the ethics stand when it suites them. While it has not been my experience in your team or your dotted lines, but at other points in my career, at times, employees are sometimes asked to "go slow" on customer deployments, and it very often happens that one guy is trained on something and the other guy is made to implement it. The problem with ethics is that one cannot use it "upwards", the lowest employ has to be the most ethical and the highest, perhaps the least :o)

    -Alok Dubey

    1. is the chain of command that is a worthy variable of study when discussing ethics...

  2. Sometimes you might be influenced by your boss to take the stand of unethical decision in order to ensure your team target. But if you still want to be ethical, you will no longer be a team player and lose your peer support in future. The way this dilemma is handled will have major impact on one’s career and personal relationship with his team. More over organisational culture is also a major factor in taking ethical decision making in work place