Everyday challenges to business ethicsThis is our topic for this week’s #kaizenblog, a weekly Twitter chat that uses the concept of kaizen to critically think about various aspects of business, enhance our skills and deepen our self-understanding. You can join this conversation every Friday at 12pm Eastern.

Do you think you know right from wrong? Are you consistent every time? We’d all like to think so. However, recent research on self-discipline and decision fatigue makes one wonder if there may be a slippery slope we didn’t take into account. It’s easy to identify corporate scandals that involve blatant greed and social pressure. But are there smaller moments when ethics are placed aside?

Everyday temptations

  • Conflicts of interest are probably the most common situations any of us encounter. Competing loyalties and desires can make us squirm. Sometimes we want to please someone. Sometimes we are in an uneven power dynamic and feel we must comply. Maybe we’re in a culture that is foreign or opposed to what we believe.
  • The weight of our values change. Over time, how we value things changes. It isn’t so much that you throw out your “old” values as change the level of importance. Our values can clash with one another as well causing cognitive dissonance. If you haven’t reviewed your values recently, here is a ValuesInventory that I often give to my clients.
  • Who or what in our environment entices us? Many times we are confronted with situations where we want to be in with the “cool kids”. The desire to compete, show off or be part of the glamour tempts us to put our integrity aside. Other situations include using an excessive amount of company time for personal calls, shopping, social media (unrelated to your job) or chatting with co-workers.
  • Expediency can undermine our integrity. How many projects have you been a part of that included giving a customer a product with defects. Maybe it really doesn’t affect the  product is a major way and maybe the customer won’t notice? It’s also fairly common to tell someone what they want to hear so they stop bothering you. The old “the check is in the mail” is a great example of this.

But what makes us put blinders on?

It would be nice to say only “bad” people make unethical choices. It’s not that simple though. Fatigue and stress undermine our ability to make good judgements. Since self-discipline is a finite resource, we might compromise ourselves (on a small scale, I hope) because we just don’t have the juice to see through the more challenging choices.

Maybe it’s the system of capitalism? It’s so easy to say “let the market sort things out”. Although sustainability and social responsibility has become a bigger piece of the business landscape, old habits die hard. The idea that it must be “winner takes all” creates an environment where cutting corners or simply avoiding certain choices makes money. It’s hard to beat that kind of reinforcement. Not that it can’t be done. It merely is a challenge. And as long as there are bubbles in the market (think the dot.com, housing and maybe gold right now?), people will ride those waves and build businesses to answer perceived needs or wants for these markets.

So, how do we encourage ourselves and others to act with integrity?

We could leave all this ethics stuff to academics, ethicists or philosophers. However, the most effective way to get this stuff out in the open is to talk about it. Frankly, a code of ethics written in the employee handbook is not worth much if it is never actually tested with conversations and critical thinking. There are some great suggestions on how to create these conversations on the HBR Blog Network by Francesca Gino. It’s been noted by Dan Ariely and other researchers that we are adept at rationalizing our choices. By stopping to examine our behavior, even if the conversation isn’t about us directly, we are given the chance to build up our ability to act with integrity and courage.

What other everyday temptations occur in business settings?

What do we  risk by making ethical choices?

How would a common code of business ethics work in real life?

What would help each of us to act with more consistent integrity?


Join us for the Twitter chat, #kaizenblog, this Friday, August 26th as we take a look at this topic, “Ethics, Blinders and Business.”  We meet every Friday at 12pm ET/5pm BST/9am PT .