Ethical Grey Areas: Our Choices Define Us
August 24, 2011 7 Comments
Grey Areas in Leading Ethically
We see plenty of information about lying, cheating, stealing and other obvious ethical violations. It is more difficult to know what to do when we encounter behaviors that fall into ethical grey areas, particularly in term of relationships with other people.
How We Handle Grey Areas Paints a Border That Outlines Our Ethics
If we allow people to sabotage each other to win rewards, and withhold information from one another to appear more powerful, we are creating a culture that endorses negative interpersonal behaviors. If we “permit” sabotage and withholding information by not noticing and/or not addressing them, are we also endorsing more negative behaviors that people may see as similar, like bullying and employee harassment? We may be unintentionally sending the message that we allow even more negative behaviors in a broader context – are we also endorsing withholding information from customers and other important stakeholders? What about regulators? If we allow people to withhold information at one level, are we unintentionally saying that that behavior is okay anytime, at any level?
How we handle the grey areas in how people treat each other paints a border that becomes the outline of our company’s ethics.
Ignoring Negative Behaviors Allows Them to Flourish
When it comes to organizational culture, not knowing is not a defense. When we ignore negative interpersonal behaviors, we send a powerful message across the company to ‘do more of that’! If we use negative interpersonal behaviors or simply look the other way when we see negative behaviors, employees will too.
Negative behaviors that we choose to ignore don’t typically go away – they multiply when we fail to act because the behaviors are then assumed to be “accepted by leadership.” As leaders we need to walk around, to notice what’s going on, to create high-trust workplaces, to provide opportunities for meaningful communication, to ask people what’s getting in the way of their success, to talk about ethical behavior and to remove barriers to effective ethical performance.
People will follow our lead. When we ignore negative behaviors, we are supporting them.
Cases, Examples and Graphics About Grey Areas in Ethical Leadership
As leaders, we need to regularly discuss the grey areas in what it means to behave ethically. This lets us help employees define ethical behavior clearly and provide input into the choices they make to be sure that they meet the expectations of the company. As we learn more as a society about the impact of our choices and our behavior on others, there will continue to be more areas where employees will need guidance.
The most important thing is to ask employees about which ethical issues they would like to be talking about. Here are some posts to get you talking, followed by more articles for further reading
Case Study: Is Withholding Information From Other Leaders Unethical? Linda Fisher Thornton, Leading in Context® Blog
Case Study: Think Before You Blame (The Culture May Be The Cause) Linda Fisher Thornton, Leading in Context® Blog
Ethical Interpersonal Behavior Graphic (Three Zones of Behavior – Some Ethical, Some Not) Linda Fisher Thornton, Leading in Context® Blog
Unethical and Unwell: Decrements in Well-Being and Unethical Activity at Work Giacalone and Promislo, Journal of Business Ethics
Creating and Sustaining an Ethical Workplace Culture Charles D. Kerns, PHD, MBA, Graziadio Business Review, Pepperdine University
7 Factors That Drastically Increase Workplace Violence Carol Fredrickson, Violence-free.comLinda Fisher Thornton is Owner of Leading in Context LLC, a consulting firm helping business leaders lead responsibly in a complex world. Linda is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Leadership for the University of Richmond School of Continuing Studies. Awards she has won include being named an “Outstanding Young Virginian” by the Virginia Jaycees for her volunteer service in the community and abroad. Her Leading in Context® Store sells training modules, discussion guides and graphics supporting ethical business leadership.