Acting Ethically is the Only Option

Originally published by: EHS TodayOctober 27, 2011

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When the choice is to feed your family or break the rules, your decision isn't tough. Who could blame Jean Valjean in Les Miserables for his choice to feed his family? We even applaud Robin Hood for stealing. But when you are the boss and you have to decide whether to fire employees or fudge numbers so you can keep them on board, the decision might be more difficult.

Being ethical has a higher cost in hard times than in good times, which makes being ethical difficult in our current economic climate. But even good times can encourage bad behavior as one might get a sense of invincibility when the money is rolling in.

Philosophers and theologians make abstract appeals to a higher good that lose their force when confronted with real world choices. Those things that are immediate and tangible have a greater impact on our decisions than those that are obscure or distant.

In addition to all the reasons academics, philosophers and ethicists give for being ethical, there are persuasive reasons you for being ethical, particularly when times are tough. And when times are good, you may find that acting ethically may even help prevent a turn for the worse.

Acting Ethically Will Make You Money

There is no doubt that one can make a quick buck by being dishonest. However, when one takes a long-range outlook, this policy has a detrimental impact on the bottom line. Companies thrive off new ideas and innovation. If company policy states an employee must report an idea to a superior before pitching it to the entire company, there is a risk that the immediate superior may co-opt that idea as their own. This creates an atmosphere of distrust in which the best ideas are not being circulated for fear they might be stolen. Or worse, the company may lose their young rising stars to the competition and be left only with the burnouts whose best ideas are behind them.

Managers must create a safe environment for those who generate ideas to be recognized for them; encouraging them to work harder and to pursue their best ideas. Operating in this fashion will allow your company to stay on the cutting edge and not get run over by the competition.

Acting Ethically Will Save You Money

Think of all the money your company has spent on accounting, HR and the legal department because at some point in the company's history, some people thought it would be a good idea to act badly. Compliance-related expenses cut into your bottom line and steal resources from more lucrative ventures.

If you are in a position of authority, it is your job to exhibit the type of behavior you desire from your employees. Reconsider participating in bad behavior – the short-term gains will lead to long-term losses.

Acting Ethically Will Save You Time

When you act unethically, not only are you wasting money, you are wasting time. You might even be reading this article in the middle of some compliance meeting if you haven’t already fallen asleep by the third PowerPoint slide. Loss of time leads to a loss of productivity, which leads to a loss of money. Time itself is a valuable commodity.

When people spend their time on endeavors that are productive and rewarding, they will enjoy their jobs and be better at them. If a workplace effectively can create an environment that encourages ethical behavior – through incentives and rewards that focus on process rather than output, by hiring the right people, and by placing people who act ethically into positions of power – it will have employees who want to be there.

Acting Ethically Will Allow You to Relax

When we do something wrong, we feel guilty about it. Psychologists have shown that even when we rationalize bad behavior, guilt affects us physically and emotionally. When we feel guilty we are tense, nervous, distrust others, lose sleep and our appetite. We enjoy life much less when we act badly, even if acting badly gives us those things we first thought would make us happy.

Likewise, if a workplace permits bad behavior, those in the office will feel a lack of trust among one another and are unlikely to collaborate and share ideas that may improve the company’s performance. In such an environment, employees, even the ones who do the right thing, will worry that they always have to be on the lookout for someone to take advantage of them. This saps people of time and energy.

There are many reasons one should act ethically, most of which draw on sophisticated appeals to a higher good. There is nothing wrong with those. However, before we can consider more lofty reasons why we should act ethically, it is only reasonable that we think of the practical consequences first. So if you ever wonder why you should be ethical, don’t feel the need to consult an obscure philosopher or book. Just think about this: being ethical is good for you and good for business.

About the Author – Dr. Kyle Scott is a visiting assistant professor at Duke University, with a Ph.D. in Political Science: American Political Theory and Public Law. He has authored three books and the latest, Federalism: Theory and Practice, has just been released. Kyle has taught American politics, political theory and public law at Miami University, University of North Florida and the University of Houston. He can be reached

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