This month (March) is “National Ethics Awareness Month”, which represents an additional opportunity to focus on and discuss ethical behavior. This topic is especially important to me as someone who took a stand against unethical behavior in several organizations --- even though my ethical behavior unbelievably led to inconceivable personal costs. Regardless of the anguish experienced, I would do the same things again today. My strong belief is that a choice to remain silent about or be complicit to wrongdoings – regardless of the potential consequences – is never an acceptable option.
The following characterizes the impact of ethical choices (good and bad) on the lives of two high school friends that led to considerable turmoil for both of their lives. One would be dead months after being terminated by their employer after alleged discrepancies in expense reimbursement requests were discovered. In public records, the company terminating their employment communicated that the expenses weren’t properly reimbursable or were reimbursements requested in excess of the amounts actually spent. The other individual would be moments from death-by-suicide after being negatively impacted due to making several difficult choices to not participate or be complicit to unethical behavior --- including workplace bullying. These experiences are shared to highlight the issues, impacts, and devastation that can result for anyone who faces or confronts ethical dilemmas --- created by themselves or forced upon them by others.
During high school these friends had a lot of good times together, but were on different paths. One excelled and was academically inclined; the other was mischievous and not academically focused. Even though they took different educational and career paths, both had ambitious dreams. A while after high school, these friends didn’t reconnect until a coincidental meeting at a university. At this point, one friend was driven to become a corporate mogul while the other struggled to connect with their academic pursuits. Regardless of these differences, both of their academic and professional ambitions drove them to achieve future successes.
Years later their paths crossed again. Up until this time, both of them achieved numerous academic, professional, and personal successes; although, their lives and pursuits continued to be vastly different. One of them achieved the prestige of becoming a financial broker and living a flashy New York lifestyle of the rich and famous, which many individuals desire. The other struggled to rebuild their life after voluntarily leaving successful careers in organizations that had cultures, values, and authority figures who were unethical and desired to win at any cost. These beliefs and highly questionable efforts to achieve success didn’t align with their concepts of ethical behavior or decent treatment of people.
Ethics is something that’s stressed throughout many people’s lives by their families/friends, churches, schools, organizations, and employers. It’s something that’s communicated as being responsible and valuable; however, the personal and sometimes professional costs to achieve and maintain ethical standards aren’t always considered worth it. It’s this kind of carefree mentality that results in too many incidents of purposeful, known, and ignored ethical violations. This type of conduct is too often permitted due to those who choose to be involved, are intimidated into silence, or determine the potential costs of involvement aren’t worth it. The challenge is that complicit behavior (direct or indirect) is driven by a fear of getting involved, retaliation, or being labeled a “snitch”, which can prevent mindful actions that could stop wrongdoings, prevent a recurrence, and sometimes save lives if reported (even anonymously).
One of the biggest issues with ethical compliance is the presence of opportunity. The implementation of policies and procedures are a good starting point, but neither of these administrative items will prevent ethical misdoings without having ongoing independent process and procedural reviews. Another preventative action to minimize the chances of administrative cover-up is to rotate individuals who are responsible for significant process, financial, operational, or audit controls. By periodically shifting individual and/or organizational responsibilities, there are reduced opportunities to manipulate controls due to certain individuals using their insider knowledge for deceptive purposes.
There are various reasons for ethical violations, such as greed, power, intimidation/workplace bullying, personal challenges, retaliation, or other factors. These plentiful motivators can’t always be identified until after the fact; nevertheless, there must be proactive and reactive mechanisms to quickly resolve any challenges prior to the emergence of bigger and more pervasive issues.
Ethical and unethical behavior can have negative costs and outcomes. While thinking about unethical behavior, individuals usually and easily understand the impacts, such as damaged reputations, broken friendships, lost jobs, public scrutiny, emotional damage, depression, and death. Conversely, individuals don’t often consider or can’t imagine the negative impacts of ethical behavior, which interestingly can have similar consequences.
Ethical decision making is ultimately a personal choice; although, environmental influences (e.g., friends/family, religious institutions, organizations, or cultures) can impact someone’s willingness, desires, and actions. However, a decision to engage in unethical behavior is still an individual activity. Everyone should remember that “ethical behavior is pretty clear; the part that’s grey is individual interpretation”. Moreover, it’s almost always better to review an earlier situation longing for a better outcome than to reflect on past actions with regret. The reason(s) someone chooses to be unethical covers a large spectrum, but many times it’s tied to greed, self-esteem issues, and a desire to live beyond someone’s means without honestly earning it. Notwithstanding, ethical behavior is a choice, an individual responsibility, and a reflection of the way someone wants to live their life.
My high school friend’s reasons for choosing to be unethical might not ever be known. However, based on their various communications and Facebook messages prior to their death, there appeared to be a strong desire to project an image of status and extreme success. The unfortunate thing that many individuals realize too late is that material possessions are only a reflection of someone’s financial status, but cannot and will not reflect anyone’s intrinsic worth. For my choices to be ethical and behave ethically, I lost a lot personally, professional, and financially – including almost losing my life. Even though my experiences as a result were an arduous journey, I still have a strong belief and desire to do the right things regardless of any potential consequences --- although I occasionally make bad choices. In spite of all of the devastatingly painful moments I experienced, I’m a better, more focused, socially conscientious, and driven man because of it.
Challenging moments and tough decisions are part of the human experience, but choosing to be unethical or being complicit to unethical behavior isn’t a winning solution. Short-term gains can be achieved by and through unethical acts, but… are the long-term consequences (direct/indirect) for yourself and others worth it? In the case of my high school friend, it appears that their unethical choices and behaviors led to the loss of a life. As for me, the tough decisions I made led to reclaiming mine --- along with validating to myself and others that I am the man I say I am. The value, freedom, and confidence of this last consideration is absolutely and ethically priceless!
award-winning educator, mental health advocate, social entrepreneur, inspirational speaker, author/writer, program executive, and radio host