People who appear to hold a strong ethical line gain more trust and respect than those who have less clear ethical boundaries. For this reason alone, maintaining strong personal ethics becomes a key to successfully working with others.

People who cannot determine the difference between good and evil or right and wrong human actions are not the people we gravitate toward. Those people can be unpredictable, if not downright dangerous. On some level we know it and tend to instinctively steer away from them as much as possible. Imagine the effect of this steering away in a team environment.

In concept and discussion, ethics seem black and white. The list of things we will and won’t do is easy to create in the abstract. In reality, the difference between black and white is colored with a great deal of gray.

Further complicating these ethically challenging situations is how no signpost alert us to when we are about to cross the line. It’s not like the Mason-Dixon Line, which seems to be clearly noted on practically every north-south route between Maryland and Pennsylvania.

As a journalist, I can remember pontificating in college classes on the “obvious” ethical choice in a series of complex journalism situations. Information can’t be verified (don’t use it). Lying about who you are or what you are writing about to get access to information or people (don’t do it). Paying for information (don’t do it).

Those situations arose in my career as a reporter, editor and executive editor more than I would have imagined. Other ethical lines that seemed easy to cross because they became less clear involved using anonymous sources in important stories where no other options existed and allowing advertisers to have a greater say in our coverage decisions than best practices might suggest.

In the real world, too many times we made ethical decisions on the fly, unaware that we even were right up against the ethical line or crossing it until it was too late.

Once you cross the line, it’s hard to walk things back (a beautiful political phrase that says exactly what we want to do but struggle to accomplish).

If a line clearly defines good versus evil, then once you cross it, you can never restore your good. Right?

The drivers pushing us toward that line may be the powerful appeal of a promotion, a new opportunity or a bigger role in decision-making, not to mention a bigger paycheck. These reasons are often cited when someone moves a personal ethical line closer to evil.

For me, more often than not, I didn’t even see the line I was close to crossing. It seemed to happen long before I realize what was happening.

Once alerted to the situation, I experienced something akin to buyer’s remorse. You know the feeling: You bought that two-for-one thing that shows up on TV for $19.99 every time you stay up late. It looks cool. It’s just $19.99, plus separate shipping for each. Who wouldn’t do it? You do it and when it arrives, you immediately see the bad decision you made.

Crossing an ethical line, wide or narrow, feels the same way, but the repercussion can far exceed the hit to your checking account for that cool late-night offer.

The only answer after bad decisions on both an ethical dilemma and a foolish online purchase is to attempt to recalibrate. These questions can offer some guidance.

  • What was the ethical line you crossed?
  • Did you cross it, or was your prior understanding of the line faulty? (It happens.)
  • What was the first and subsequent actions that led to crossing the line?
  • If you didn’t see it coming, what are the signposts you can erect to ensure it doesn’t happen again?

Determining where and when the ethics actually became compromised can help to ensure that if the situation arises again (it rarely does), we might make a different choice.

No wonder we assign so much trust and respect to the people who seem to avoid stepping over the ethical line. My guess is that at our core, we wonder how they do it and we hope it rubs off on us.

Want more on ethical decisions? Listen to Episode 49 of our Serious Soft Skills Podcast, which explores in more detail the ethical implications of decisions.

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