Are Your Ethics Fixed or Situational?

by Michael Haberman on February 9, 2012 · 0 comments

Sitting around with several friends and fellow HR instructors at lunch we got into a discussion about ethics. The question we were exploring is whether ethics are fixed or situational.  It is a topic that we discuss in class with our students. The books make you thinks ethics in the workplace are hard and fast rules, and with how many laws are written there is some concreteness to how you respond to certain situations. We would like to think ethics is like I show in the first picture. An example would be you find out that your boss has lied to you and is lying to others. The promised promotion will not be coming so you walk in and resign.However, as we discussed it further we talked about a number of situations where right and wrong, or ethical and unethical, becomes much more unsure. I felt that people’s ethics are often situational. Resigning a position because of an ethical violation on the part of your manager will end up depending on a number of things, such as the economy, your personal financial situation, your self confidence, the perception of how easy it will be to get another job, etc. In that situation the ethics chart used above ends up looking much more like this one. So the question became “when do you pull the ethical trigger?” I think the answer to that question is situational for many people. As much as we would like to say we have a set ethical standard in reality the application will depend on circumstances. These circumstances include:

            • Corporate culture- Is wrong-doing overlooked? Is reporting it encouraged?
            • Corporte history- What happened to the last person who reported unethical behavior?
            • Your personal situation- How long have you been there? What is at stake if you leave?
            • The nature of the outside world- Is it easy to find another job?

Many, I might even say most, will be very hesitant to pull the ethical trigger if it means losing their house, putting their family in financial straights or leaving themselves with no income. They will tolerate the situation until it makes them so ill that they finally do have to pull that trigger. But that toleration level will vary by individual.

It was an interesting discussion and I would like to include you in the discussion. Do you think ethics are, or should be, situational? If you were teaching an new HR person about ethics, or even your children, what do you tell them?

For those of you interested there is an interesting discussion of ethics and the variety of schools of thought surrounding ethics found on Wikipedia. Here is some guidance on Ethics in the Workplace. Author John Sporleder has a quote that is an example of what I talked about above.

We humans tend to weigh the benefits and consequences of our actions and we look for the path of least resistance, where we will suffer the fewest consequences. When we are deciding what to do with our error, we need to ask ourselves, “Do I really value honesty like I say I do? If I am willing to lie to cover up my error, what am I really valuing?” When we lie to cover up our error, we are doing so to protect ourselves from the consequences of our actions. So, what is the greater value to us, honesty or self-protection?

In this post  Federal Air Marshals Face A Hostile Work Environment, ABC News Reports we see an example of unethical behavior that many people tolerated.

So participate in the discussion and give us your views on ethics in HR.

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