Ethics Still Matter Today
We live in a time and place where it often feels like ethics and values are all too easily and frequently sacrificed. Early on in my program I had a conversation with someone who mentioned that he worked at a company that would fudge the numbers just to make them match their needs. A few days ago, a classmate expressed to me the importance of finding a reputable and ethical business partner or company to work with.
For me, whether it’s your employer, a business partner, a vendor or contractor that you hire, or anyone else you choose to work with, trust, honesty, and ethics are of the utmost importance.
A couple years back I worked for a development company that was raising money from private investors. I mentioned to someone once how seriously I took the responsibility of handling other peoples’ money. As careful as I may be with my own money I explained, I was ten times more prudent and cautious when handling investor capital. If I personally make a financial mistake, I alone suffer the consequences. As bad as that may be, it would be infinitely worse to me to lose someone else’s hard earned money.
Some professionals have a fiduciary responsibility that extends the ethical relationship to a legal one when handling the money of another person. But even without that legal mandate, the ethical and moral implications are very strong. In fact, for me, they’re even more powerful. Unfortunately, not everyone shares that feeling. Different people have different motivations for their behavior.
Origins of Morality
There’s a popular and frequently taught psychological theory known as Lawrence Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development. It suggests that as we age and mature, we behave morally for different reasons. We also adjust what we consider to be moral as we mature. For example, a three- or four-year-old may have little to no concept of right and wrong but doesn’t want to be punished. That child does “right” in order to not be reprimanded. Years later and now a pre-teen, that same child behaves in a societally appropriate manner in order to fit in. Thus, what’s considered moral is relative, and peer pressure can encourage positive behavior just as well as negative behavior.
Teenagers and young adults take it one step further, realizing that behaving well isn’t just about being liked, but it’s also about reciprocation. If I treat you well, you’ll return the favor. Whereas if I act like a jerk around you, you’ll probably treat me likewise. The final stage, which according to Kohlberg, most people never achieve, has more to do with a social or moral consciousness, a universal set of ethics that transcends the individual. This is where you do what’s right even when nobody else is around simply because it’s the right thing to do.
Society uses laws and regulations with adults to promote good behavior, threatening them with punishment, much the way a parent does a child. But adults know that there are things that we can get away with and things that we can’t. As a result, our behavior is often motivated based upon this fact. Odds are for example, that you can get away with speeding. Unless you drive recklessly, you probably won’t get pulled over for going slightly over the speed limit. This is why speeding is so prevalent.
Unfortunately, many people also misbehave in business when they feel relatively certain that they can get away with it. Employees spend time at work checking their social media accounts, steal office supplies, or leave assignments undone, assuming that your boss doesn’t constantly check in on you.
Taken things a little further, lower cost materials may be used in a construction project if the evidence can easily be hidden. Similarly, someone might skimp on details, claiming to have done their proper and thorough due diligence and research when in fact they just briefly glanced at something. Or perhaps, a financial officer decides to skim some money from the company knowing that she’s the only one regularly looking over the finances.
Society should do more to encourage moral behavior at a higher level. That is, instead of trying to scare people into behaving well (like children) by threatening them with legal penalties, fines, the loss of their job, or even jailtime, we ought to encourage people to behave at a moral level. We ought to think about the impact of our choices and actions, including how others may be impacted, even indirectly impacted. If you yell at the waiter at lunch, you may not only upset him, but also the other patrons at the restaurant and anyone else that that waiter may take their frustration out on later in the day. We should also do what’s right even if nobody will ever notice, thank you, share their appreciation, or do anything for you in return.
An Example of Hope
We had the opportunity recently to tour a residential development project. It’s a mid-rise building with studio and one-bedroom apartments. The developer showed us around and shared a few personal stories that told of the struggles he endured early in his career. When asked what he looks for in a partner, he responded by saying that he looks for three things, “intelligence, honesty, and ethics”. What a great answer and a reminder that ethics still matter.