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Ethics as Usual

Ethics as Usual

By Frank Sonnenberg

One of the first things we learn as children is the difference between right and wrong (the punishment being the time-out chair). Yet as we grow up, we too easily forget the simple lessons that we learned in kindergarten, and the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior gets blurred.

This lack of ethical clarity — our inability to maintain rigorous standards of right and wrong — is not only confusing, it also erodes trust, damages relationships, destroys moral leadership, and weakens the fabric of our society. It’s time to put an end to ethics as usual and restore our standards of decency and trust.
What are the catalysts of this breakdown?

Do as I say. While politicians create laws, many ignore them; while bosses create the rules, many subvert them; and while parents teach children values, many breach them. How can rules be taken seriously when the creators of the standards don’t embrace the values they espouse?

To whom do the rules apply? The sad truth is that ethical standards are not applied equally. Athletes, actors, rock stars, politicians, and corporate chieftains serve as “role models” for our children. While we may find it entertaining when some of these people adopt “wild” lifestyles, we are appalled when our kids mimic their behavior.

We pay top dollar to attend concerts and sporting events headlining people routinely accused of drug possession, marital infidelity, inexplicable language, and driving while intoxicated, yet society hails them for their performance while excusing their actions. Would you be judged the same way if you committed these offenses?

At the same time, we continue to support politicians who come up short on ethical probes, tax audits, or standards of human decency. Yet as citizens, we get the book thrown at us if we neglect to pay a parking ticket on time. George Orwell got it right in Animal Farm when he wrote, “All men are equal, but some are more equal than others.” The fact is, we send mixed messages when some people are reprimanded for their actions, while the privileged few either buy their way out of a punishment or get off with a mere slap on the wrist.

The finish line keeps moving. How can we be expected to abide by a moral code of conduct when actions are inappropriate one day and appropriate the next? I clearly remember a time when foul language on TV set off alarm bells, yet over the years, it has become commonplace. Furthermore, even though we’ve learned that it’s wrong to tell a lie, some “role models” believe that nuances such as a “white lie,” exaggeration, or “spinning the truth” don’t count.

The problem is that most of these infractions don’t attract sufficient attention. Over time, however, the cumulative effect of these transgressions is significant — and the bar is lowered as a result.
Just don’t get caught. Some people believe that an indiscretion is allowed as long as you don’t get caught. When we try to evade individual responsibility by outsourcing our conscience to bureaucrats and pundits, our conscience begins to atrophy.

You’re Either Part of the Problem or Part of the Solution.

Being a role model carries responsibility. If you’re a teacher, clergyman, actor, executive, athlete, politician, or parent, people look up to you as a role model and imitate your behavior. Are you proud of the signals that you’re sending? If not, it’s time to get your act together! No one is asking you to be a saint, but living a life of commendable ethics and values is a good place to start.

Enough is enough. Where’s your outrage? (Yes, you!) It’s time that we stop excusing the unacceptable behavior of people masquerading as role models and expose them for what they really are –– ethical derelicts. When people are held accountable for the wake of destruction they cause through ethical negligence, they’ll have a choice…change their ways or face the consequences.

Stop looking the other way. Every person can make a difference by shining the spotlight on inappropriate behavior. In fact, according to psychological research, one person’s opinion can sway the views of an entire group. The rationale is simple: People assume that if a lot of people do something, it must be “okay.” That’s because the autopilot switch in all of us instructs us to follow the crowd. It’s well known that a herd mentality works best when a group is isolated from all external factors so that its members can’t be influenced. (Think Jim Jones.) All it takes is one person to question the logic (in the company of others), and the entire group may begin to question the logic. Remember, if we don’t expose the group’s unacceptable behavior, we are condoning its actions.

Actions have consequences. If we don’t hold people accountable for their behavior, we are creating a slippery slope. Understandably, it’s difficult when the newly elected politician, most valuable player on the team, award-winning performer, or most-productive employee turns around and discredits the organization with his or her actions. We shouldn’t have rules for one person and a different set for others. When we bend the rules and make “exceptions,” norms shift and poor behavior can be viewed as acceptable.

Leaders must start leading. Leaders must live up to the definition of the term “leader.” They must serve not only as positive role models themselves but must hold their colleagues accountable for their actions. The fact is, if a member of the organization commits an egregious act, it is a reflection on the violator and the organization the violator represents, as well as on the leader. If the leader defends an ethical deviant, turns a blind eye to the action, or sweeps the act under the rug, the behavior is condoned. This sends a signal to others that ethical standards are not priorities, and that short-term performance is more important than the reputation of the organization.

Your character matters most when nobody’s looking. I long for the day when honor has meaning. In this world, most people do the right thing because they know that what goes around comes around. And if it doesn’t, they know they’ll get paid back in karma points.

In the new world I envision, people follow the spirit as well as the letter of the law. This is a world in which shaking someone’s hand is as good as a contract and where one’s reputation is a valued asset. This is a world in which people go to great lengths to protect their family name, and leaders see their first responsibility as strengthening the trust and credibility of their institutions. In this world, people do the right thing not only because it’s considered acceptable behavior, but because they know every action affects another action. In this world, people won’t be policed by bureaucracies because everyone will see it as their duty to call out unacceptable behavior — ethical derelicts will be disgraced and shunned for their misdeeds. In this world, people are accountable to a higher power — themselves — letting their own conscience be their guide.