Ask an average person, “Would you voluntarily do something that is unethical or illegal?” Generally, he or she will reply something like, “Heavens, no!” People naturally prefer to do the right thing. However, when faced with enough pressure, some people will be tempted to cross the line.
In my work as a professional ethics consultant and advocate, I have seen many good, well-intentioned people make bad choices. They take one step on the slippery slope of unethical activity and, once there, they often take a full slide down the hill.
The process of making an unethical choice can begin with a simple, almost thoughtless decision. How do I know? Well, I am living proof that good people can make bad choices with devastating consequences. I am not proud to admit this, but my unethical choices led me to spend time in federal prison. I know a thing or two about taking one step on the slippery slope that leads to a life that is changed for the worse.
Common yet unethical behaviors
In most ethical lapses, people don’t start off with the intent to lie or defraud. Instead, they get caught up in a messy situation and compromise their ethics to fix a particular problem, such as too much credit card debt. What begins as a seemingly minor infraction spirals out of control over time. Their one lapse can lead to more breaches, and soon they are caught in a continuum of unethical behavior.
Tax evasion. Small business owners can be especially tempted to act unethically or illegally when they fail to report all their income for taxes. “Wait! Time-out! You’re treading on dangerous ground here,” a seminar participant recently shouted at me. “The government gets way too much and, after all, I don’t agree with how they’re spending my money. It’s my money!”
Whether you like it or not, Americans are subject to paying tax on all income unless specifically exempt by law. Week after week, I read about examples of business owners who would never steal from others; nevertheless, they knowingly underreported income from work they performed. The truth is, stealing from Uncle Sam is commonplace, and therein lies the problem. Making unethical choices is easy when they seem to be socially acceptable.
Code violations. The installation of awnings, canopies and tents is subject to codes established by various municipal jurisdictions. The rules govern how a tent is to be installed, and compliance is not optional. Or is it? In a previous conversation with an IFAI member, I was told that code violations were a major issue. “Some folks just feel that the codes are a bit overdone. They’ve been doing this for years. They know the short cuts, the ways to speed up the process, so they can be more efficient with their time and thereby reduce costs. It’s done all the time.”
“It’s done all the time” is a rationalization and a tell-tale sign that a person may have stepped onto the slippery slope of unethical behavior. Cutting corners might seem logical until there’s an accident; then the resulting costs of not following codes can be catastrophic.
Embezzlement. Sadly, the most trusted people are often those who are most likely to embezzle from businesses—if their lives get out of balance. Margaret was a church secretary and treasurer for 30 years, and she was a pillar of the congregation. She had seen pastors come and go, but she stayed through thick and thin. No one would ever have suspected her of being unethical.
Margaret’s life got out of balance when her three-year-old granddaughter developed a rare form of cancer that required treatment outside of the U.S. Deciding that God wanted her granddaughter to live, Margaret crossed the line and began systematically taking from the church coffers to provide for her granddaughter’s medical treatment.
The potential for embezzlement is always present. Be aware of an employee who refuses to take a vacation, is insistent that no one else can do his or her job, and keeps all vendor communication to himself or herself. Be vigilant and recognize that putting too much trust in one person can potentially pave the way for theft or embezzlement.
Life out of balance
People tend to make good, ethical choices when their personal finances, relationships and health are going well. However, when life is out of balance—when one’s finances are topsy-turvy, a relationship goes bad or one’s health is challenged—some people will be tempted to make unethical choices and risk negative consequences.
It’s human nature to cling to what’s most familiar. Humans naturally resist the loss of comfortable routines and relationships that define their lives. When people’s financial security, health or relationship status is challenged, their sense of well-being is at risk. The threat of loss can leave people open to making unethical choices.
Three components of bad behavior
It’s not just power or position that contributes to the fall of smart people. If you look at any ethical failure, there are three components that are always present in some form: need, opportunity and rationalization. Research has shown that these three factors are at the core of what can cause an otherwise good person to make an unethical and illegal choice. These components are like the legs of a three-legged stool. If a person grabs one of these legs, the stool will collapse.
Need. Need is the first and critical component of what motivates a person to stray from ethical behavior. Need comes in a variety of forms. The person who is in too much debt likely experiences financial strain–which was the root of my need. Margaret, the church secretary described earlier, found her need triggered by her granddaughter’s diagnosis of cancer. In the case of Bernie Madoff, the convicted investment advisor, his need was certainly not money; likely, he was motivated
by the need to be infallible. Whatever the pressure, need can push a person into making an unethical choice.
Opportunity. Whatever one’s need may be, if a person does not have the opportunity to satisfy it, the unethical or illegal choice will fail. Without opportunity, there is no fuel for the potential unethical fire. I was a trusted employee, and with that trust came opportunity. Likewise, Margaret was so trusted that no one saw her as capable of unethical activity. Madoff took opportunity founded in trust within the Jewish community to a new level.
Rationalization. Need combined with opportunity provides a firm foundation, but rationalization is the factor that cements unethical activity. Most people who are found guilty of unethical or illegal behavior say they rationalized their actions as legitimate. I, for example, rationalized that I was not stealing money, because I intended to pay it back. I further justified this mental game by paying back some of the money. Surely, I thought, I am not guilty of stealing money as long as I pay it back.
My justifications and rationalizations were clear examples of what I call stinkin’ thinkin’. I combined need with opportunity, then rationalized my unethical behavior as acceptable, creating the perfect storm for committing illegal acts.
Creating an ethical culture
Leaders of organizations need to remember that an ethical culture is created through walking the walk—that is, through modeling the behaviors and attitudes that are expected of all team members. Merely talking the talk through policy documents and training materials will have mixed results in creating an ethical culture.
Business leaders who want to create a culture of ethical behavior can start by understanding how good employees can be tempted to make bad choices. Offer an effective training program that reinforces ethical choices and accountability. Keep in mind that employees are valuable assets of an organization, and those employees’ choices have business consequences. Ultimately, business leaders need to recognize that their management choices set the tone of an organization and help employees always act in ethical ways.
Chuck Gallagher is president of the Ethics Resource Group and an international expert in business ethics. He provides training, presentations and consultation with associations and companies on ethics and creating ethical cultures.