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:
- It Might Be Legal, but It's Unethical
- 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?
- When You Aren't Supposed to Say: I
- Most of us have information that's "company confidential," or possibly even more sensitive
than that. When we encounter individuals who try to extract that information, we're better able to protect
it if we know their techniques.
- When You Aren't Supposed to Say: III
- Most of us have information that's "company confidential," or even more sensitive than that.
Sometimes people who want to know what we know try to suspend our ability to think critically. Here
are some of their techniques.
- Ethical Influence: I
- Influencing others can be difficult. Even more difficult is defining a set of approaches to influencing
that almost all of us consider ethical. Here's a framework that makes a good starting point.
- On Reporting Workplace Malpractice
- Reporting workplace malpractice can be the right thing to do. And it's often career-dangerous. Here
are some risks to ponder before reporting what you know.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 22: Red Flags: I
- When we finally admit to ourselves that a collaborative effort is in serious trouble, we sometimes recall that we had noticed several "red flags" early enough to take action. Toxic conflict and voluntary turnover are two examples. Available here and by RSS on July 22.
- And on July 29: Red Flags: II
- When we find clear evidence of serious problems in a project or other collaboration, we sometimes realize that we had overlooked several "red flags" that had foretold trouble. In this Part II of our review of red flags, we consider communication patterns that are useful indicators of future problems. Available here and by RSS on July 29.
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