ethics

The future of ethics

The news seems to document a consistent parade of unethical behavior by executives. You see it both in “startups” (Uber, Theranos) and in more traditional large corporations. Even if you ignore Enron, Tyco, and the well-known cases, they’re in the news almost every week. Have you ever wondered how so many people with a severe lack of ethics managed to get into leadership / ownership positions? The reasons add up.

You hired them.

My answer? “You hired them.”

OK, maybe it wasn’t you specifically. Think back through your career. Any of us who have hired someone can probably think back to a time when something happened related to a hiring, a firing, or a delivery of discipline – and we let something go.

Without thinking hard about it, your natural response is probably “Nope, not me.” I suspect that would be my answer as well, so I decided I should think back a bit and provide some examples.

Was there ever a time when a resume didn’t seem 100% up and up? Maybe there was “a little something” that made you wonder. Did you investigate? If not, did you hire them anyway?

Was there ever a time when you didn’t speak with every reference on a resume? How many hires have you made where you didn’t talk to ANY of a candidate’s references? 

Have you ever assumed a degree listed on a resume was legitimate and decided not to take the time to confirm it? 

You didn’t fire them.

Have you decided not to fire someone who deserved it – and not because of paperwork or contract requirements? 

Have you ever said “No” when someone asked if they could work from home, even for a day? If you said no, was it because you didn’t believe they would actually work? Or perhaps because you didn’t believe they’d give you a full day’s work? If you can’t trust them to do that, how can you trust them at all?

Have you kept someone who deserved to be fired, only to see them repeat the behavior that you didn’t fire them for? 

While you might’ve thought that you were doing someone a favor, you may have encouraged them to continue that behavior. It’s also possible that you helped them see the light & turn things around. Only they know for sure. 

Hiring and not firing adds up

OK, so we can probably all remember maybe one of these situations. Perhaps you can recall seeing it happen as someone more senior overrode a decision you made. Or you watched them make the decision as a leader elsewhere in the company, but you had no input into it.  You might even have been a line employee who watched it happen with a new employee. Maybe you were told to “get a warm body ASAP” and pressured to make a hire before you were ready. 

No matter how it happened, it reinforces the bad and/or unethical behavior.

Thinking back, these little things may not seem important. They put something on their expense report that really shouldn’t have been there. It’s OK, they were on the road, etc, etc.

Reinforced bad behavior creates more instances of bad behavior.

Eventually, the size and scope of this behavior will increase as success is repeated. Why? When someone gets away with these things, they gain confidence to do it again. The more it happens, the more it seems normal. The more confidence they get, the bigger the reach.

But that isn’t the worst of it. What could be worse? Like many things, ethics has a network effect.

The network effect works for good & bad. Team members with poor ethics (at any level) likely have more tolerance of bad behavior from others. Once they get into a leadership role, are they going to come down on that sort of behavior?

Everyday ethics sends signals

Recently I suggested that when people tell you who they are (in words or via behavior), believe them. Everyday behavior sends signals to indicate how they’ll behave when you leave the room. IE: how they’ll act when you’re at lunch, out of town, or sick.

Which of your people do you feel you can trust while you’re gone? Discuss it with them. They need to know how you feel. It sends signals about your leadership.

PS: The rest of your team already knows about these folks.