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Consider this scenario:

Glenn has an assignment to write a report on a new business process that his department is considering using.  He is under a time crunch.  Luckily, he found an article on the Internet that is exactly what he needs.  He copies and pastes the article into a Word document, makes a few changes to it, puts his name on it, and turns it in to his manager.

And this one:

Anna was having a great weekend getaway with her old college friends, and was not ready for it to end.  Her friends persuaded her to stay one more day.  On Monday morning, Anna called her supervisor and told her that she could not come to work that day because she had been ill all weekend with a stomach virus.

We can easily recognize that the behavior in both scenarios is unethical, can’t we?  In the first scenario, Glenn committed copyright infringement by copying an article from the Internet without the author’s permission and then committed plagiarism when he turned it in as his own work.  Anna lied to her supervisor about the reason for her absence from work.

People are faced with ethical decisions every day.  In many aspects of our work and home lives, we are faced with the decision to tell the truth or not, to be honest in our dealings with others or not, to avoid a conflict of interest or not, or to treat others fairly or not.

If presented with a scenario and asked whether they would make the ethical choice, most people would probably say that, of course, they would do the right thing.  Most of us learned the difference between right and wrong at an early age, and for the most part we align our choices with our sense of morality and rightness.  But when the choice stares us squarely and abruptly in the face, we sometimes make split-second, spur of the moment decisions that may not line up with what we say we believe.

Here, I am referring to those ethical issues that are of the “right vs. wrong” variety. These are not true ethical dilemmas because we are not faced with two or more competing ethical decisions, any of which could be the right thing to do under the circumstances.  Ethical issues of the “right vs. right” variety pose the true ethical dilemmas.  A “right vs. right” dilemma might involve, for example, a choice between doing justice by disciplining an employee for poor performance or showing mercy by giving her a second chance. It might involve the choice between making a decision that benefits one person versus a decision that benefits a large group of people.  In those cases, the right thing to do depends on the circumstances and the goals to be accomplished.

But, when there is a clear choice between right and wrong, what prevents us from making the ethical one?  Largely, we confuse an ethical dilemma with an ethical temptation.  There is no dilemma because we know the right thing to do, but we are faced with an overwhelming temptation to make the unethical choice.

Temptations come from many sources.  We may feel pressure from our boss, peers, customers, or others to make certain choices.  In our competitive work environments, we may desire to get a competitive advantage for ourselves.  Sometimes, people make unethical choices in order to avoid negative or unpleasant consequences, embarrassment, or harm to themselves or others they care about.  In organizations with low ethical standards, it may be easy or expedient to make an unethical choice because of low expectations of ethical behavior or lack of support for doing the right thing.  Making the ethical choice is sometimes inconvenient or time-consuming.  For those with a vengeful nature, the unethical choice may derive from a desire to get even with the company or to get what they believe they deserve.

At the moment of decision, there often does not seem to be a stark contrast between right and wrong; it seems to be a matter of degree.  We succumb to the temptation largely because we believe it’s no big thing.  We rationalize:  It’s just a little lie; I only took home a few office supplies; the article on the Internet said what I was thinking anyway; my boss would be mad if I told the truth about wanting an extra day off.  It’s no big thing.

I’m reminded of a story in The Integrity Advantage by Adrian Gostick and Dana Telford about how people lose their integrity:

There’s a story about two frogs placed in a pot of warm water to make soup. The first smelled the onions, recognized the danger, and immediately jumped out. The second frog hesitated – the water felt so good – and decided to stay and relax for just a minute.  He rationalized that he would jump out before too long.  As the water temperature increased, the frog adapted, hardly noticing the change – until it was too late. Alas, he was made into very delicious frog-leg soup.

An unethical decision seems like “no big thing” at the time, but these small, incremental, ethical lapses make it easier for us to make the bigger and bolder unethical decisions later.

How can we guard against succumbing to these temptations to make the unethical choices in our daily lives? Nobody’s perfect — we make mistakes all the time.  We falter despite our best intentions.  So, here are a few simple guidelines to help you make the ethical choice in the face of temptation.

  • Understand Your Purpose.  Purpose relates to understanding the road you choose to travel in life and the type of person you want to be, and then making decisions accordingly. If you keep your purpose in mind, you will be more inclined to act in accordance with your values and beliefs.
  • Act with Courage.  Acting with courage requires standing firm for what you believe, even if it means going against the flow. Others may not agree with your decision, but you will earn their respect. Acting with courage involves making a commitment to do the right thing, not just having the intention of doing the right thing.
  • Develop and Use a Support Network. Associate yourself with others who you believe have high moral and ethical standards.  Use your associates or a mentor as a sounding board and as a source of encouragement and support for ethical behavior.
  • Accept Accountability.  Take responsibility for your choices and actions. If you hold yourself accountable for your behavior, rather than blaming your actions or circumstances on other people, you will have more resolve to do the right thing.
  • Be Persistent.  Behaving ethically is not a one-time event; it is a lifelong commitment. You must choose to do the right thing in every circumstance, not just sometimes or when it is convenient.  At times you will falter or be tempted to make a bad choice. At those times, you should use the principles listed above to help you make the right decision.