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:
- Budget 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.
- Non-Workplace Politics
- When we bring national or local political issues into the workplace — especially the divisive
issues — we risk disrupting our relationships, our projects, and the company itself.
- The 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.
- 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.
- Personnel-Sensitive Risks: I
- Some risks and the plans for managing them are personnel-sensitive in the sense that disclosure can
harm the enterprise or its people. Since most risk management plans are available to a broad internal
audience, personnel-sensitive risks cannot be managed in the customary way. Why not?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming August 22: Dealing with Credit Appropriation
- Very little is more frustrating than having someone else claim credit for the work you do. Worse, sometimes they blame you if they get into trouble after misusing your results. Here are three tips for dealing with credit appropriation. Available here and by RSS on August 22.
- And on August 29: Please Reassure Them
- When things go wildly wrong, someone is usually designated to investigate and assess the probability of further trouble. That role can be risky. Here are three guidelines for protecting yourself if that role falls to you. Available here and by RSS on August 29.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- 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.