Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 2, Issue 33;   August 14, 2002: It Might Be Legal, but It's Unethical

It Might Be Legal, but It's Unethical

by

Now that CEOs will be held personally accountable for statements they make about their organizations, we can all expect to be held to higher standards of professional ethics. Some professions have formal codes of ethics, but most don't. What ethical principles guide you?

With the non-controversial topics out of the way, they moved on to what they all knew was the most difficult issue. Everyone felt the tension, though perhaps no one felt the pressure Trish did. She knew that whatever they announced publicly would affect the share price, and the critical factor would be her estimate of the delay on Metronome. Everyone in the room would feel the pain.

"On to Metronome," Jack pronounced. "Trish?"

The rabbit that went down the rabbit-hole

The rabbit that went — late — down the rabbit-hole. A colorized illustration from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll, from the original illustration by John Tenniel. Online editions of Alice are available at various Web sites, but this illustration is from the edition at www.gasl.org.

Here we go, she thought. The dates were bad news, but the estimates were Peter's, and Peter was the best. The dates were right. "As you all know, the news isn't good. The estimates are June 30th, best case, but possibly as late as November."

Silence. Warfield, as usual, spoke first. "That's unacceptable. What are your plans for replacing Peter?"

"I have no plans for replacing Peter, or anyone else," Trish replied. "They've all done a marvelous job with what we gave them, and it's up to us now to manage this."

In some organizations, Trish's recommendation is unusual. Rather than blaming someone for an organizational failure, Trish believes that the company must tell the public the hard truth. What would you have done?

Now that CEO's will be personally accountable for statements they make about their organizations, we can all expect to be held to higher standards of professional ethics. Some professions have codes of ethics, but most of us don't even have professional associations we could join, let alone formal codes of ethics to guide us.

When you doubt the propriety of an action or decision, what principles guide you? Whether or not you can turn to an association for ethical guidance, writing down a code of ethics for your job can help. Try it. Here are some principles to get you started.

Unethical behavior
need not be proactive.
In some situations,
doing nothing
can be unethical.
Beware personal benefits
If you would personally benefit from an action you're about to take, it could be questionable. Examine such actions carefully.
Appearance counts
The appearance of unethical behavior is as damaging as actual unethical behavior. Avoid even the appearance of crossing the line.
What you don't do can be damning
Unethical behavior need not be proactive. In some situations, doing nothing can be unethical.
Be open about key phrases
If you intentionally use a key phrase, explain its significance to the listener. Relying on listeners to grasp the importance of innocent-sounding words could be a way of misleading people.
Consulting an attorney can be a red flag
Legal standards are usually less restrictive than ethical standards. Excessive concern with the legalities of your actions might mean that you're in danger of ethical transgression.

Start a discussion of ethics in your organization. Being open about the issue is a critical first step. Go to top Top  Next issue: Smart Bookshelves  Next Issue

See "On the Appearance of Impropriety," Point Lookout for December 2, 2009 for a bit more on the appearance of impropriety.

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

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Related articles

More articles on Ethics at Work:

MX MissileBudget Shenanigans: Swaps
When projects run over budget, managers face a temptation to use creative accounting to address the problem. The budget swap is one technique for making ends meet. It distorts organizational data, and it's just plain unethical.
A nervous dogThe Power of Presuppositions
Presuppositions are powerful tools for manipulating others. To defend yourself, know how they're used, know how to detect them, and know how to respond.
A TSA Officer screening a passengerVirtual Termination with Real Respect
When we have to terminate someone who works at a remote site, sometimes there's a temptation to avoid travel — to use email, phone, fax, or something else. They're all bad ideas. Terminating people in person is not only a gesture of respect. It's good business.
Archibald Cox, Special Watergate ProsecutorDifficult Decisions
Some decisions are difficult because they trigger us emotionally. They involve conflicts of interest, yielding to undesirable realities, or possibly pain and suffering for the deciders or for others. How can we make these emotionally difficult decisions with greater clarity and better outcomes?
The Costanza MatrixThe Costanza Matrix
The Seinfeld character "George Costanza" is famous for having said, "It's not a lie if you believe it." What if you don't believe it and it's true? Some musings.

See also Ethics at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

C. Northcote Parkinson in 1961Coming September 27: Meeting Troubles: Collaboration
In some meetings, we collaborate not in reaching objectives, but in preventing our doing so. Here are three examples of this pattern. Available here and by RSS on September 27.
A typical standup meetingAnd on October 4: Meeting Troubles: Culture
Sometimes meetings are less effective than they might be because of cultural factors that are outside our awareness. Here are some examples. Available here and by RSS on October 4.

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The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

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