Are You Ethical?
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Are You Ethical? by Kevin McManus

First published in Industrial Magazine February 2004

In recent months, we have continued to hear about the ethical dilemmas that are being uncovered at the top of our organizations. Those of us who have suspected all along that Enron or Tyco was more of a commonality than an anomaly are of course both self validated and unsurprised by this news, but we still wonder when a lot of the unethical stuff that we see each day in the middle of our companies will progress towards extinction.

Before we get too comfortable thinking that the problem is only ‘above us' in the corporate board rooms, we might want to take a look at the practices we as managers and engineers execute each day from an ethical perspective. When I sit back and reflect on this topic, there are three key areas where I see ethics consistently coming in to play as daily decisions are made – job assignments, vendor relations, and performance reporting. While I won't attempt to prescribe what should be done in these cases, I do want to pose some questions that might help us realize that we have our own ethical challenges to resolve as middle managers.

Each day we make decisions about where people should work, either on a temporary or full time basis. Our job placement decisions affect the family lives of our people, in addition to their compensation. For example, is it ethical to ask someone to climb down into a trash compactor to fix a broken shaft? It is ethical to ask someone to work overtime on Saturday at the last minute? Is it ethical to pay a manager three times what we pay our front line people, even though he sits at a desk or in a meeting room most of the day and can take a break whenever he wants to?

The type of work we have our people do each day affects their personal well-being and their state of mind. By making our people to do certain types of work, we are also affecting their desire and ability to make a quality product in a safe manner. Are such concerns of an ethical nature however? How much do you consider the ethical ramifications of your job assignments when you make them?

Similarly, we all know that we should get comparable quotes when we work with our suppliers. We are also aware of the fact that we should not accept certain types of gifts from these people, as doing so might affect our ability to make unbiased purchasing decisions. Accepting a pair of baseball tickets may not come close to an Enron level of ethical compromise, but to some people, it is still an unethical practice.

I have actually witnessed debates in a company on this topic, where the owners were trying to make it a rule that no sales people could take such gifts. They did try to enforce this policy, but of course, a policy is only as good as the ethics of those who are expected to enforce it or adhere to it. Because ethical issues are rooted in the mental models and behaviors that we each possess, but they are tough to both detect and enforce.

What constitutes an ethical violation? How unethical does someone have to be before action is taken to address the issue? Simply coming up with a consensus definition for the question "What is ethical?" is tough enough, let alone trying to align all behaviors in an organization with that definition. That said, if we really want to raise the level of ethics in our companies, we do have to have many conversations about what ethics means to us as leaders in our organizations. We also need to regularly measure leadership behaviors.

My third example of ethics would not get much press in the ‘real' world. While few of us as managers keep two sets of books, we are tempted to compromise our personal ethical beliefs on a daily basis whenever we are doing performance analysis or reporting. To some, something as basic as understating downtime or rework amounts, or neglecting to report that $500 material loss that occurred, would be considered to be unethical. Conversely, the way we might be treated if we ‘told the truth' might be unethical in its own right.

Thus the dilemma. On one hand, we are expected as managers to behave in an ethical manner and to promote the need for ethical behavior on the part of all of our people. At the same time, we run up against the potential for receiving unethical treatment if we are frank in reporting all performance negatives. People usually act in a manner that helps them avoid pain. Do you think that the unethical treatment of people actually results in additional unethical behaviors as we attempt to stay out of trouble?

Writing up a nice sounding policy and having people sign it will not make your workplace more ethical. Sending everybody in your facility to a four-hour ethics course will also most likely be a non-value added investment in terms of the results you will actually see. Creating an ethical workplace begins with hiring ethical people, but in most cases, we can't start over and hire a new workforce. What can we do to bring ethics to a higher level at work?

To me, finding the solution begins with looking for current sources of unfairness. By changing those systems that result in one group being treated differently or compensated differently with little justification for doing so, we can make our workplaces more fair. As the perceived level of fairness rises, the temptation to behave in an unethical manner will decrease to some degree.

We as leaders can also do our best to set ethical examples. I once came across a quote that reinforces this need – what you tolerate you encourage. Each time we allow someone to behave in an inappropriate manner, we are essentially telling that person that such behavior is okay. By simply speaking up, we might have a significant impact on that person and their desire to repeat the behavior in the future.

I believe that this topic will become more of a focus before it begins to go away. By improving systems that are perceived as unfair, by setting a good example each day, and by challenging those behaviors that are inconsistent with the directions we have established as leaders, we can begin to raise the standard in our own work groups or locations. In doing so, I feel that we will eventually make ethics more important and consistent at work … if we choose to do so.

Would You Like to Learn More?

Great Systems! can help you design and improve your key work systems in three ways – system assessment, one day system design workshops, and ongoing system evaluation and improvement coaching. If you are interested in learning more about these services, please send Kevin McManus an e-mail at or give him a call at 206.226.8913. Keep improving!

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