When Position Power and Ethics Collide

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Our responsibilities as citizens, workers, leaders, and family members require us to choose ethics over loyalty. Yet, when we do, it can surprise people. Maybe that’s because it is not the easiest path to take. Here’s a story about a situation I faced very early in my career, when I was in my 20s.

The Character Test

I was a low level supervisor, and a department manager from another area stopped by my office and asked me to make an exception to a policy for the employee. After taking a look at the paperwork and asking a few questions, I determined that an exception wasn’t warranted. The employee had not been with the company long enough, and there were no extenuating circumstances. The manager was trying to use his position power to get me to do something for his employee that went against company policy. Making an exception for his employee wouldn’t have been fair to the other employees, and I couldn’t make an exception for everyone.

As I stood there, facing one of my earliest moments of truth, I looked him in the eye and said no. Actually I said something like “I’m sorry, I will not be able to approve it now, but please resubmit the paperwork when the employee is eligible.” The manager was shocked and angered when I didn’t give in to his request, and he stormed out of my office.

Ethical Boundaries Define Who We Are

There are a number of things that can go wrong if we bow down to position power. Blind loyalty to someone based on position power can result in agreeing to anything they say, and doing anything they say. When a person violates ethical boundaries, and we follow along, we’re violating them too.

I have shared with my students in Applied Ethics class that by saying no (politely but firmly) that day, there was an unexpected positive outcome. I ended up creating something like an “invisible force field” around myself that protected my ethics for the rest of my 13 year career with the company. How is that possible? After that incident, word got around. It probably sounded something like “Don’t ask her to do anything wrong. She won’t do it.” I had made the rest of my career easier by establishing a reputation for doing the right thing early on.

If we put position power before ethics, we need to be ready to bear the risks and consequences of that choice (and the flood of additional requests we’ll get when they realize we’re willing to honor their position power with blind loyalty).

When asked to do something you’re not comfortable with, ask yourself:

1. Is it worth it to damage my character and reputation to go along with this?
2. What if this thing I am being asked to do (and about to do out of loyalty) is illegal or unethical?
3. If it turns out to be illegal or unethical, how do I feel about the consequences that may happen to me (blind loyalty is not a good defense in court).
4. What are the options I have (besides doing this thing I’m not comfortable with), and which one is the best, most responsible choice?

Avoid What Appears To Be The “Easy” Solution

We will all be tested. If we decide to put ethics before loyalty to those in positions of power, that will define our personal character in a positive way that will enhance our lives and careers. Agreeing to an unethical request may seem easier for the 5 minutes we’re dealing with it, but always remember that it will be much more difficult when the next request comes (and the next, and the next and the next…).

Unleash the Positive Power of Ethical Leadership


© 2009-2023 Leading in Context LLC

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