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Keeping a Good Work Ethic When Working in an Unethical Environment

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There is a tangible value to keeping to one's own moral compass even when working in an environment laced with (or even seeping in) unethical behavior. Sometimes this can be tough, as superiors may ask their employees to do something they are uncomfortable with, putting employees in a position where it is hard to say no. But the end result can be worse if they say yes. Those who stick to their proverbial guns and refuse to engage in unethical behavior will find their careers thanking them in the long run.

It's not always easy to cope in this kind of situation, but if you find yourself faced with it, it is to your benefit to keep true to yourself as you make your own decision. People typically know their own conscience well and, if something just feels to be wrong, you can rest with the knowledge the decision you made will be right.

A boss or colleague may try and dissuade to think otherwise and that the action is part of doing business, but one’s own conscience typically doesn’t lie.

Credit: Mark Morgan via Flickr/CC by 2.0 https://www.flickr.com/photos/markmorgantrinidad/17339051805/

Business Ethics or Personal Ethics?

Companies, such as Enron, have forever tainted the general public's perception of business. The media is quick to pick up on negative stories and showcase unethical business behavior. As a result, a poor perception of business has rippled through society.

How often do you hear people say the idea of business ethics is an oxymoron? These kinds of statements give a pretty good idea of how many people feel negatively towards business and how they question if honest philosophies in big business exist.

There are some who may try to separate business ethics from personal ethics by claiming there is a difference, when it comes down to it, is it really possible? There is typically no one person in business that makes decisions since a company is comprised of several people making choices on a routine basis. In essence, when it comes down to it, business ethics equates to personal ethics, because it is people who are the decision-makers, regardless of their position in an organization.

Strong work ethic
Credit: Regan76 via Flickr/CC by 2.0 https://www.flickr.com/photos/j_regan/15130395431

How often have you heard the excuse "but it's how the system works"? While there is a "system", it is decision-making individuals that shape these processes, meaning there is plenty of room for change if these processes include shady or are just clearly wrong.

Organizational Culture Affects Ethical Makeup

A company's ethical makeup starts with the individual and, when meshed with other people working for the business, makes up organizational ethical philosophy. Essentially, leadership should define organizational ethics philosophy and establish a policy to be adhered to, but the reality is this doesn't always happen. Some leaders may just not pull this policy together and/or  may simply ignore any that might exist.

In the absence of a policy or, when working in a culture that does not follow its established ethics policy, people begin to make their own choices and decide whether an act is unconscionable. What happens if you work with people who take the wrong path? And then ask or indirectly try to pull you in the same direction?

Keeping to One's Own Moral Beliefs

While ethics are not always black and white and at times carry levels of subjectivity, in many cases there is a general (or clear) line of what's wrong and right. Knowing not to cross that boundary is important.

Credit: Walt Stoneburner via Flickr/CC by 2.0 https://www.flickr.com/photos/waltstoneburner/6170496511

For instance, in the United States, it is considered unethical and/or illegal to engage in activities such as insider trading, bribery and fraudulent or “cooking” of the company's financial books, to name a few. Yet, unfortunately these kinds of acts do sometimes occur and employees might be recruited to help engage in these wrongful activities. In fact, it’s happened enough where the government has stepped in and created laws to increase transparency.

A person’s moral compass is what helps make up the overall company's culture when it comes to ethics. Understanding which kinds of lines should not be crossed is essential in a career. The reason for this is because decisions often made will not only impact the employee, but his or her colleagues too.

In addition, depending on the industry or the breadth of the decision, choices made can potentially impact the general public too. This is a good reason to take precedence and pride in a having a strong work ethic. Even if you work in an environment with people who make obviously poor ethical choices, it is important not to follow their mindset.

Who Gets the Blame?

Think about it, if something goes wrong and goes public, who's going to be the scapegoat? In the interest of self-preservation, those who are calling the shots when making unethical decisions will feel no guilt passing the blame to another person who contributed to the situation. Those employees who followed poor leadership will most likely end up paying the price.

A 2010 piece in the New York Times titled, "Does That Request Pass the Smell Test?", discusses ways employees can approach the situation if a boss ask them to do something they feel isn't right to try.  Even if the act isn't illegal, it could be problematic. And it can also create a toxic environment in the workplace. 2

If you find yourself in this type of situation, listen to your gut. It knows of what it speaks.

There is value to keeping to a good work ethic when working in an unethical environment. Not only for self-preservation, but also for the greater good of society. When unethical choices are made, the impact can be significant and widespread. However, those that abide to their own conscience can walk away feeling good about themselves and know they did not contribute to any wrongdoing.

And, if this happens in your organization, when the ax eventually falls - which in these days, a good chance it'll happen depending on the seriousness of the act(s) - you'll safely be out of harm's way.



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  1. "Does That Request Pass the Smell Test?." New York Times . 23/10/2010. 30/05/2016 <Web >
  2. "A Proactive Approach to Addressing Unethical Behavior in the Workplace ." Entrepreneur. 20/01/2015. 30/05/2016 <Web >

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