The question is not if you will ever face an ethical dilemma, the question is when. Ethical dilemmas come in all shapes and sizes and you will inevitably be faced with a situation where you find yourself at a crossroads. Do you choose to do something that is wrong in order to benefit yourself, even if no one will ever know, or do you choose to do the right thing?
“There is no right way to do a wrong thing.”
Last week I wrote about the five P’s of ethical power that Ken Blanchard and Norman Vincent Peale discuss in their book The Power of Ethical Management. In that classic best-seller they also offer an “ethics check,” three questions you should ask yourself when faced with an ethical choice point. Asking yourself these three questions could save you from making a decision that ends your career.
Is it legal? The first of the three ethics check questions goes right to the core of the matter. Is what you are going to do legal? Does it violate civil law, corporate policy, or your own code of ethics? If the answer is No then STOP! There’s no need to even ask the next two questions. To take it a step further, if choosing to proceed could even give the appearance of illegal activity, you should avoid that course of action.
Is it fair and balanced? Assuming you answer Yes to the legality of the decision, the next question to ask yourself is whether or not your action will be fair and balanced to the parties involved. Will your decision or action result in one party being taken advantage of by another to the point of their detriment? Is there a clear winner and loser involved? The parties can’t always win equally in every situation, but you should strive to avoid great imbalances in the fairness of your actions. Ideally you want to strive for decisions that promote long-term fairness and respect in relationships.
How will it make you feel about yourself? If your actions were published on the home page of CNN.com, how would you feel? Would you feel proud of the decision you made or cringe in embarrassment that your actions were on display for the whole world to see? Besides your behavior being publicized, how would your decision align with your own sense of right and wrong? Most of us have a pretty good sense of when we’re on shaky ethical ground, yet we often try to rationalize our behavior in order to feel good about ourselves. I love the quote from John Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach. He said, “There is no pillow as soft as a clear conscience.” If your decision is legal and balanced, yet something about it just doesn’t sit well with your conscience, then it’s probably not the right decision to make.
I’ve asked hundreds of people this question: “What is the most important factor in building trust?” Overwhelmingly the response is “integrity.” Integrity is a leader’s most valuable asset and using the ethics check questions can help you keep it intact and avoid what could be a career ending decision.