Most of us think of ourselves as good people. We set out to be ethical, and we hope that in pivotal moments we will rise to the occasion. But when it comes to building an ethical career, good intentions are insufficient. Maryam Kouchaki and Isaac H. Smith explain.
Decades’ worth of research has identified social and psychological processes and biases that cloud people’s moral judgment, leading them to violate their own values and often to create contorted, post hoc justifications for their behavior. So how can you ensure that from day to day and decade to decade you will do the right thing in your professional life?
The first step requires shifting to a mindset we term moral humility — the recognition that we all have the capacity to transgress if we’re not vigilant. Moral humility pushes people to admit that temptations, rationalisations, and situations can lead even the best of us to misbehave, and it encourages them to think of ethics as not only avoiding the bad but also pursuing the good. It helps them see this sort of character development as a lifelong pursuit.
The paywall is down
Save $220 and receive a free copy of ‘The Nordic Edge‘ book
Our best offer
We’ve been conducting research on morality and ethics in the workplace for more than a decade, and on the basis of our own and others’ findings, we suggest that people who want to develop ethical careers should consider a three-stage approach: (1) prepare in advance for moral challenges; (2) make good decisions in the moment; and (3) reflect on and learn from moral successes and failures.
Planning to be good
Preparing for ethical challenges is important, because people are often well aware of what they should do when thinking about the future but tend to focus on what they want to do in the present. This tendency to overestimate the virtuousness of our future selves is part of what Ann Tenbrunsel of Notre Dame and colleagues call the ethical mirage.
Counteracting this bias begins with understanding your personal strengths and weaknesses. What are your values? When are you most likely to violate them? In his book The Road to Character, David Brooks distinguishes between résumé virtues (skills, abilities, and accomplishments that you can put on your résumé, such as “increased ROI by 10% on a multimillion-dollar project”) and eulogy virtues (things people praise you for after you’ve died, such as being a loyal friend, kind, and a hard worker). Although the two categories may overlap, résumé virtues often relate to what you’ve done for yourself, whereas eulogy virtues relate to the person you are and what you’ve done for others — that is, your character.
So ask yourself: What eulogy virtues am I trying to develop? Or, as the management guru Peter Drucker asked, “What do you want to be remembered for?” and “What do you want to contribute?” Framing your professional life as a quest for contribution rather than achievement can fundamentally change the way you approach your career. And it’s helpful to consider those questions early, before you develop mindsets, habits, and routines that are resistant to change.
Goal setting can also lay the groundwork for ethical behavior. Professionals regularly set targets for many aspects of their work and personal lives, yet few think to approach ethics in this way. Benjamin Franklin famously wrote in his autobiography about trying to master 13 traits he identified as essential for a virtuous life (including industry, justice, and humility). He even created a chart to track his daily progress. We don’t suggest that everyone engage in similarly rigid documentation, but we do suggest that you sit down and write out eulogy-virtue goals that are challenging but attainable. That is similar to what Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School advocated in his HBR article How Will You Measure Your Life? After battling cancer, Christensen decided that the metric that mattered most to him was “the individual people whose lives I’ve touched.”
Even the most carefully constructed goals, however, are still just good intentions. They must be fortified by personal safeguards — that is, habits and tendencies that have been shown to bring out people’s better angels. For instance, studies suggest that quality sleep, personal prayer (for the religious), and mindfulness can help people manage and strengthen their self-control and resist temptation at work.
We also recommend “if-then planning” — what the psychologist Peter Gollwitzer calls implementation intentions. Dozens of research studies have shown that this practice (“If X happens, then I will do Y”) can be effective in changing people’s behaviour, especially when such plans are voiced aloud. They can be simple but must also be specific, tying a situational cue (a trigger) to a desired behavior. For example: If my boss asks me to do something potentially unethical, then I will turn to a friend or a mentor outside the organisation for advice before acting. If I am solicited for a bribe, then I will consult my company’s legal team and formal policies for guidance. If I witness sexual harassment or racial prejudice, then I will immediately stand up for the victim. Making if-then plans tailored to your strengths, weaknesses, values, and circumstances can help protect you against lapses in self-control, or inaction when action is required. But be sure to make your if-then plans before you encounter the situation — preparation is key.
Mentors, too, can help you avoid ethical missteps. When expanding your professional network and developing relationships with advisers, don’t look only for those who can hasten your climb up the career ladder; also consider who might be able to support you when it comes to moral decisions. Build connections with people inside and outside your organisation whose values are similar to yours and whom you can ask for ethics-related advice. Both of us have reached out to mentors for advice on ethical issues, and we teach our MBA students to do the same. Having a supportive network — and particularly a trusted ethical mentor — may also bring you opportunities to make a positive impact in your career.
Once you’ve made a commitment to living an ethical life, don’t be shy about letting people know it. No one likes a holier-than-thou attitude, but subtle moral signaling can be helpful, particularly when it’s directed at colleagues. You can do this by openly discussing potential moral challenges and how you would want to react or by building a reputation for doing things the right way. For example, in a study one of us (Maryam) conducted, participants were much less likely to ask an online partner to engage in unethical behavior after receiving an email from that partner with a virtuous quotation in the signature line (such as “Success without honour is worse than fraud”).
Direct conversation can be tricky, given that people are often hesitant to discuss ethically charged issues. But if you think it’s possible, we recommend engaging your coworkers, because ambiguity is a breeding ground for self-interested rationalisation. Tactfully ask clarifying questions and make your own expectations clear: for example, “I think it’s important that we don’t cross any ethical lines here.”
We are all shaped more by our environment than we realise, so it’s also critical to choose a workplace that will allow if not encourage you to behave ethically. Not surprisingly, employees who feel that their needs, abilities, and values fit well with their organisation tend to be more satisfied and motivated than their misaligned peers, and they perform better. Of course, many factors go into choosing a job — but in general people tend to overemphasize traditional metrics such as compensation and promotion opportunities and underemphasise the importance of the right moral fit. Our work and that of others has shown that ethical stress is a strong predictor of employee fatigue, decreased job satisfaction, lower motivation, and increased turnover.
Some industries seem to have cultural norms that are more or less amenable to dishonesty. In one study, when employees of a large international bank were reminded of their professional identity, they tended to cheat more, on average, than nonbanker counterparts given the same reminder. This is not to say, of course, that all bankers are unethical, or that only unethical people should pursue careers in banking (although it does highlight how important it is for banks to prioritise hiring morally upstanding employees). We do suggest, however, that anyone starting a new job should learn about the organisation and the relevant industry so as to prepare for morally compromising situations. Job interviews often conclude with the candidate’s being asked, “Do you have any questions for me?” A possible response is “What types of ethical dilemmas might be faced in this job?” or “What does this company do to promote ethical business practices?”
Research also shows that elements of a work environment can enhance or diminish self-control, regardless of cultural norms: High uncertainty, excessive cognitive demands, long days and late nights, and consecutive stretch goals all correlate with increased rates of unethical behavior. Such pressures may wax and wane over time in your workplace, but during periods of intensity you should be extra vigilant.
Making good decisions
Even if you’ve planned for an ethical career and established safeguards, it can be difficult to face moral challenges in the moment. Sometimes people overlook the implications of their decisions — or they find fanciful ways of rationalising immoral, self-interested behavior. In other instances, they face quandaries in which the right decision isn’t obvious — for example, a choice between loyalty to one’s coworkers and loyalty to a customer, or a proposed solution that will produce both positive and negative externalities, such as good jobs but also environmental damage. There are several ways to manage moments of truth like these.
First, step back from traditional calculations such as cost-benefit analysis and ROI. Develop a habit of searching for the moral issues and ethical implications at stake in a given decision and analyse them using multiple philosophical perspectives. For instance, from the rule-based perspective of deontology (the study of moral obligation), ask yourself what rules or principles are relevant. Will a certain course of action lead you to violate the principle of being honest or of respecting others? From the consequence-based perspective of utilitarianism, identify potential outcomes for all parties involved or affected either directly or indirectly. What is the greatest good for the greatest number of people? And from the Aristotelian perspective of virtue ethics, ask yourself, Which course of action would best reflect a virtuous person? Each of these philosophies has advantages and disadvantages, but addressing the fundamental decision criteria of all three — rules, consequences, and virtues — will make you less likely to overlook important ethical considerations.
Note, however, that the human mind is skilled at justifying morally questionable behavior when enticed by its benefits. We often tell ourselves things such as “Everyone does this,” “I’m just following my boss’s orders,” “It’s for the greater good,” “It’s not like I’m robbing a bank,” and “It’s their own fault—they deserve it.” Three tests can help you avoid self-deceptive rationalisations.
(1) The publicity test. Would you be comfortable having this choice, and your reasoning behind it, published on the front page of the local newspaper?
(2) The generalisability test. Would you be comfortable having your decision serve as a precedent for all people facing a similar situation?
(3) The mirror test. Would you like the person you saw in the mirror after making this decision — is that the person you truly want to be?
If the answer to any of these questions is no, think carefully before proceeding.
Studies also show that people are more likely to act unethically if they feel rushed. Very few decisions must be made in the moment. Taking some time for contemplation can help put things in perspective. In a classic social psychology experiment, students at Princeton Theological Seminary were much less likely to stop and help a stranger lying helpless on the ground if they were rushing to get to a lecture they were scheduled to give — on, ironically, the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan, which is about stopping to help a stranger lying helpless on the ground. So be aware of time pressures. Minding the old adage “Sleep on it” can often help you make better moral decisions. And delaying a decision may give you time to consult your ethical mentors. If they are unavailable, practice a variation on the mirror and publicity tests: Imagine explaining your actions to those advisers. If that would make you uncomfortable, be warned.
But taking an ethical stand often requires challenging coworkers or even superiors, which can be excruciatingly difficult. The now infamous Milgram experiments (wherein study participants administered potentially lethal shocks to innocent volunteers when they were instructed to do so by an experimenter) demonstrated how susceptible people can be to pressure from others — especially those in positions of power.
How can you avoid succumbing to social pressure? The authors of The Business Ethics Field Guide offer a few questions to ask yourself in such situations: Do they have a right to request that I do this? Would others in the organisation feel the same way I do about this? What are the requesters trying to accomplish? Could it be accomplished in a different way? Can I refuse to comply in a manner that helps them save face? In general, be wary of doing anything just because “everybody else is doing it” or your boss told you to. Take ownership of your actions.
And don’t forget that many ethical challenges people face at work have previously been confronted by others. As a result, companies often develop specific guidelines, protocols, and value statements. If in doubt about a certain situation, try consulting the formal policies of your organization. Does it have an established code of ethics? If not, ask your ethical mentor for guidance. And if you’re dealing with something you view as clearly unethical but fear reprisal from a superior, check to see whether your organization has an ombudsman program or a whistle-blowing hotline.
Reflecting after the fact
Learning from experience is an iterative, lifelong pursuit: A lot of growth happens after decisions are made and actions taken. Ethical people aren’t perfect, but when they make mistakes, they review and reflect on them so that they can do better in the future. Indeed, a wide array of research — in fields as diverse as psychology, computer science, nursing, and education — suggests that reflection is a critical first step in learning from past personal experiences. Reflecting on both successes and failures helps people avoid not only repeated transgressions but also “identity segmentation,” wherein they compartmentalise their personal and professional lives and perhaps live by a very different moral code in each.
But self-reflection has limitations. Sometimes ethical lapses are obvious; other times the choice is ambiguous. What’s more, people can be hemmed in by their own perspectives as well as by their personal histories and biases. That’s why we should seek the counsel of people we trust. You can approach this as you would job performance feedback: by asking specific questions, avoiding defensiveness, and expressing gratitude.
Finally, you can engage in what Amy Wrzesniewski of Yale calls job crafting: shaping your work experiences by proactively adapting the tasks you undertake, your workplace relationships, and even how you perceive your job, such that work becomes more meaningful and helps you fulfill your potential. You can apply job crafting to your ethical career by making bottom-up changes to your work and the way you approach it that will help you be more virtuous. For example, in some of the earliest studies on job crafting, Wrzesniewski and colleagues found that many hospital housekeepers viewed their work in a way that made them feel like healers, not janitors. They didn’t just clean rooms; they helped create a peaceful healing environment. One custodian used her smile and humor to help cancer patients relax and feel more comfortable. She looked for opportunities to interact with them, believing that she could be a momentary bright spot in the darkness of their ongoing chemotherapy. She crafted her job to help her develop and cultivate eulogy virtues such as love, compassion, kindness, and loyalty.
You may feel that it isn’t all that difficult to be an ethical professional. As your parents may have told you, just do the right thing. But the evidence suggests that out in the real world it becomes increasingly difficult to remain on the moral high ground. So take control of your ethical career by cultivating moral humility, preparing for challenging situations, maintaining your calm in the moment, and reflecting on how well you’ve lived up to your values and aspirations.
(c) 2020 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Licensing Group
Our best offer. Save 50%
For two weeks only, we’re making all our Premium content completely free. Sample then subscribe to Premium with our best offer and save 50% ($220).
Offer ends midnight 2 August 2021. 50% discount available on an annual subscription only.