Your ethical reputation is your most valuable professional asset. So how do you build the right muscles to protect it?

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Dr Attracta Lagan is a specialist in behaviour ethics, having worked alongside leaders in corporate, not-for-profit and public sector organisations. Here she outlines the seven workplace traps that get used as an excuse for unethical behaviour.

Personal reputations have never been more valuable or vulnerable. How can you protect your reputation in a workplace where time pressure, budget pressure, peer pressure and personal pressure conspire to dull our senses about what is the right thing to do?

Given the ethical dimension that accompanies every action, how do we build our ethical muscle so that we can instinctively use our potential to impact positively or negatively and are alert to the need to take remedial actions to minimise harm? It’s easy to be full of good intentions, but ethics is about doing, not just thinking.  Your actions speak much louder than any words and tell others what sort of person you are.

Building ethical muscle means preparing ourselves for ethical challenges and learning how to cope with the impacts of our decisions.  We need to be vigilant to the following workplace traps:

  1. Context: We know from field research that context has a stronger impact on actions than character.  When you recognise or feel pressure to “go along to get along”, an ethical warning bell should be ringing in your head. Social pressures can lead to unethical behaviour, including turning a blind eye to others’ misdoings. When under pressure, ask yourself: will my action enhance or diminish my reputation in the eyes of others? In an interconnected world, we’re all “on show” and everything we do can find itself in the public arena.
  2. Goals: One of the main reasons people slip into unethical behaviour is the pressure of unrealistic goals. If you find yourself justifying your behaviour because you think it’s necessary to achieve your goals, recognise that you are on a slippery slope that leads to more unethical behaviour. You should stop and ask yourself two questions: how far am I prepared to go to get the business done; how will this impact on my reputation? If you don’t know what you stand for, you will fall for anything.
  3. Loyalty: Ironically, people find themselves acting unethically because they are trying to protect a boss, friend or employer. Then they rationalise their actions by saying they had nothing personal to gain, even if it involves lying to customers or fudging figures to assist with cash flow. These actions impact negatively on others and are therefore unethical. When someone asks you to do something you are uncomfortable with, tell them how much you value your reputation and ask them to explain how the proposed action won’t put this in jeopardy.
  4. Tune into excuses: People behave unethically up to the point where they are unable to make personal excuses for their behaviour. These “excuses” — or rationalisations — are the stories we tell ourselves: everyone’s doing it; no-one gets hurt; my friend is dependent on me; there’s too much time pressure; he/she deserves it, or whatever other stories we create to justify our actions. Before making important decisions, tune into the story in your head and then ask a trusted friend if the action you are thinking of seems appropriate.
  5. 5. Our state of well-being: We’re prone to act unethically when we are tired or under stress, or when we experience unfair treatment or exclusion. In these situations it pays to slow down and ask someone you respect whether your proposed action is the right ethical choice.
  6. Framing:  The way decisions are made can include or ignore the ethical dimension. For example, if you hear yourself saying “x told me to do it” or “it’s not my decision” or “it has always been done this way”, chances are you aren’t neceessarily about to make the right ethical decision. There is no single filter when humans make decisions, so you should consider a range of perspectives in all decisions.
  7. Be wary of friends and family: Be on alert when friends or family ask you to do something, because your loyalty to them may override your duty to your employer. Remind your friend or family that your workplace code of conduct prohibits conflicts of interest and, because you have a personal relationship with them, their request could be considered a breach of your workplace code of conduct.

Often our greatest professional ethical challenges are the result of competing values. These conflicted decisions can include telling the truth … being loyal to a colleague … protecting an organisation at a cost to the community … achieving results in the short term that bring adverse long term consequences … or being overly demanding of staff rather than sympathetic to their needs.

Your reputation is too valuable to go unprotected. More than ever, we need to tune into what sort of person we want to be. That’s because actions determine destiny. Developing the skills to make the right ethical decisions at work, so we can protect our reputation, is a critical life skill in a low trust world.

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