Most of us recognize that ethical standards are more stringent than legal ones. Sometimes, though, even the ethical standard isn't tight enough — we must also avoid the appearance of impropriety. Although some find it frustrating, it's essential in complex societies.
Here's an example.
You're selecting a vendor. Familiar, Inc., has often worked with your firm, but they're expensive. New Guys, Inc., a recent entry in the market, has low prices, fresh ideas and great references. Since executives from Familiar founded New Guys, you're sure they know their stuff. For many, New Guys would be a tempting option — daring, but probably worth the risk. A reasonable choice.
Let's consider a slightly different situation. Suppose that the New Guys sales rep is your boss's sister. What's your choice now?
Without the sister factor, choosing New Guys is probably a good business decision. But if you're concerned about the appearance of impropriety, and possible accusations of nepotism, the sister factor makes New Guys an impossible choice, no matter how good they are.
Concerns about appearances can require us to forgo what otherwise would be excellent business decisions. Sometimes we must make choices that yield results inferior to other options because they could create appearances of impropriety, even when nothing improper is involved. This can be frustrating, and some are tempted to ignore appearances, especially when accounting for appearances is expensive.
Why must we be concerned with appearances? We live in societies in which we transact business with people we don't know well. Our relationships often lack the intimate familiarity of a village or small town. In effect, we've traded away that familiarity for the benefits of the complexity of our large societies.
In place of familiarity, we need something else to ensure that the people we interact with are behaving ethically. The standard of appearance provides this. When we meet the standard of avoiding even the appearance of impropriety, others can be more certain that we're behaving ethically.
But appearance is hard to define. Although some have put forward concise definitions of the appearance of impropriety, none is universally accepted. Reasonable people can disagree about whether a particular action appears improper.
To understand Although some have put forward
concise definitions of the
appearance of impropriety,
none is universally acceptedappearance, we must be willing to see things from the vantage points of others, including those who lack full knowledge of our decision processes. We must abandon our personal judgment of the appearance, and accept, however temporarily, the perspectives of others, including those with whom we disagree.
My personal approach is to take positions that I believe will be acceptable to a wide array of people, recognizing that from time to time, there will be some who are perturbed or even incensed about my choices. Sometimes I get it right, sometimes I have to backtrack, and always I am human. Top Next Issue
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See "It Might Be Legal, but It's Unethical," Point Lookout for August 14, 2002 for a bit more on the appearance of impropriety.
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More articles on Ethics at Work:
- Currying Favor
- The behavior of the office kiss-up drives many people bats. It's more than annoying, though —
it does real harm to the organization. What is the behavior?
- Dubious Dealings
- Negotiating contracts with outsourcing suppliers can present ethical dilemmas, even when we try to be
as fair as possible. The negotiation itself can present conflicts of interest. What are those conflicts?
- Virtual 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.
- Counterproductive Knowledge Work Behavior
- With the emergence of knowledge-oriented workplaces, counterproductive work behavior is taking on new
forms that are rare or inherently impossible in workplaces where knowledge plays a less central role.
Here are some examples.
- Full Disclosure
- The term "full disclosure" is now a fairly common phrase, especially in news interviews and
in film and fiction thrillers involving government employees or attorneys. It also has relevance in
the knowledge workplace, and nuances associated with it can affect your credibility.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 18: The Trap of Beautiful Language
- As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.
- And on December 25: Disjoint Awareness
- In collaborations, awareness of how our own work might interfere with the work of others is essential. Unless our awareness of others' work — and their awareness of ours — matches reality, the collaboration's objective is at risk. Available here and by RSS on December 25.
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Many people 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.