Ethics–The Lost Art?

Image by Stuart Miles

Image by Stuart Miles

As you read job descriptions and qualifications there is one that won’t show up under the bullet points, but is just as important to bring to the table to build a successful career. These are qualities that are hopefully planted in your early years by your parents, your church, your culture, even life experience, and grow over time as you nurture them. They are a reflection of your character, your brand, your reputation. I’m talking about your ethics.

Sadly, I am encountering more and more people who seem to lack integrity and morals. After a couple of candidates failed to show up for interviews and another was less than honest about a termination, I found myself frustrated by the lack of professionalism and character constantly popping up—and not just at work. Any Mystery Diner fans out there? On a recent episode (well, frankly, all episodes) after an owner discovered some questionable behavior–servers stealing tips from their co-workers and rigging some of the games played in the bar–he fired them, and rightfully so. The surprising part comes at the end where the guilty person not only feels zero remorse for their actions, but can’t seem to understand why they’ve been fired, even while much of their rant against their unjust dismissal is riddled with curses.

If you ask someone to define ethics you just might get a blank stare, but everyone has that standard they measure themselves against to determine what they feel is right or wrong. Or, at least, they should. When I was a manager in my organization every product that left my store had my name on it. It was a reflection of me, so it was important that it was a quality product. The same goes for every candidate I send on in the interview process.

So why does it seem so few people feel the same way? Perhaps the answer lies in the feedback from some of my ethics presentations. Check out these scenarios.

  • You leave the movies and notice another one you really want to see is just beginning. Do you slip in without paying?
  • As you walk out of a store you see a lady with a cart full of merchandise, obviously stolen since she has no bags, making her way to her car. Do you report her?
  • You go into your bank to make a substantial withdrawal. When you get into your car and count the money, you discover the teller has given you double the amount expected. Do you take the money back?

Tough questions for some people. After I share the examples the students and I have a lively group discussion.

Pay for another movie? They charge so much everyone should get to see two. Especially if the first one was the pits. One student reasoned in a similar example, “Hey, the movie’s playing regardless. My admission isn’t going to make or break anything.”

The lady with the cart? Some stated they would confront the person directly or tell security while others said, “It’s not my problem. Doesn’t affect me”. That group relies on karma to take care of the guilty. “But what do you think happens when a store suffers losses?” I ask. Is there an accounting fairy that comes along and makes it all better? No, that cost gets passed on to other consumers—a.k.a. you. And me.

The third scenario happened to me. If you’d been in my place you might reason that free money was an answer to prayer. In fact, you’d be doing the teller a favor by keeping it since she obviously can’t count. Once she gets fired, she’ll be free to discover her true calling. Only a couple of bold students have said they’d keep the money (I usually ask that student’s name and joke that I’m making a mental note not to hire him.).

Most, to my relief, have said they’d return it. Not because it’s the right thing to do, acknowledging the money is not theirs. Nope. It’s because they wouldn’t want the teller to lose her job. I’m still deciding if that’s admirable or disturbing. Shades of gray.

No, not the book. It’s the idea that there is no black or white and everyone makes their own choices. Doing something that would cause another person to lose their job is a no-no, but skipping out on paying for the movie is perfectly fine. For some reason it doesn’t register that both are stealing.

Overall, the students made the right decisions. In spite of that, some people feel it’s okay to lie on an application. To say they have skills they don’t have or deny they’ve been terminated. Some cheat on tests and skip out on group projects leaving three ticked off team members in their wake to pick up their slack.

Candidates who’ve lied about terminations actually still expect to get the job. I know because I receive emails after sending out rejection letters that ask, “Can you please give me feedback as to why I wasn’t selected?” Frankly, it scares me. Because that line that some wouldn’t dare cross—like the bank incident above—gets more and more blurry with every “gray area” decision.

You might be rolling your eyes by now, thinking, Get a grip. What’s the big deal? Everyone cuts corners here and there. But that’s a discussion for another post. See you next time when we’ll talk about it.