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Ethics, the Ultimate Fail-Safe Mechanism
By Chris Banescu - January 30, 2004

Ethics must form the backbone of any organization. It is imperative that management and employees at all level of an enterprise rely on a strong ethical commitment in decision-making and depend on a strong ethical commitment in conducting the day-to-day business of an organization. Whether such decisions are based on personal religious or moral standards or universal right-wrong principles, such management approaches are the only means possible to promote a healthy internal environment and insure a long-lasting ethical environment, that has the proper checks and balances to help organizations maintain a healthy internal environment and avoid many different kinds of disasters.

In order to maintain a culture of character, an intentional effort to make ethics a part of everyday business is absolutely necessary. Ethics must be included in the continuing conversation and integrated into important organizational activities, such as performance appraisal systems, management training and disciplinary process.

Laura Nash emphasizes this in her book, "Good Intentions Aside", when she quotes Elemer Johnson, former VP from General Motors: "In the end you don't take the ethical road because it makes money or makes sense from a company morale standpoint. You take it because you know it's right. At some point you have to feel that it's important for you to do the right thing." (Nash, 1990)

I personally agree with such an approach. I believe many of the problems we have seen and continue to see in corporate America could be addressed through a closer relationship between an individual's actions and their moral/ethical responsibility. Companies must place a high priority on the values of trust, integrity, honesty and openness and be ready to stand behind those values no matter what. Human beings are very astute at spotting hypocrisy, so if the organization and its executives are simply going through the motions of preaching values that they themselves do not practice, employees will catch on very quickly. That in turn can have devastating consequences on the "ethos" of the workplace.

In business, ethics must be everyone's business. If your employees see you acting in an unethical manner, they will perceive being justified in behaving the same way. Therefore, if you treat customers or venders poorly, don't expect your employees to behave any differently. The way you act sends a far stronger message to your employees than what you tell them to do.

From many personal experiences, I can attest that nothing can demoralize a workforce more rapidly and bring chaos inside a company than observing unethical actions and decisions being made by other employees, management, or senior leadership, and seeing that there is no action taken by the organization (or its management) to reprimand the offending parties, prevent the activities from continuing, and restoring "law and order."

Strong personal ethics make a very big difference inside an organization. Nothing can demoralize a work force more rapidly than disclosing an unethical action (or even the appearance of an unethical action) by management or senior leadership.

Without ethics acting as a "fail-safe" mechanism, people can use correct principles and then proceed to abuse them in order to achieve their own means. This is especially true in most organizational settings (corporate, government, religious, educational institutions, etc.) where it is much easier to distance oneself from the "faceless" enterprise. That's why so often people who would otherwise claim to abide by a high ethical standard can instead toss it and act contrary to those beliefs.

As Laura Nash so eloquently explains in Chapter 1, Why Business Ethics Now?, page 12,: "History and developmental psychology have indicated that members of almost any group, though individually well intended, can sink to immoral depths they would never dare test as individuals." It is very tempting for individuals to "hide" behind an organization and act as if they actions are justified because "everyone is doing it" and the larger group size reduces the likelihood of personal accountability for those acts. Such an attitude can be found in companies where groups of employees follow the leader(s) and mimic what is expedient and individually beneficial, rather than what is ethical, right, and proper for the long-term health, prosperity, and profitability of the enterprise.

Emotional responses divorced from common sense and rational thinking can also be significant contributing factors that facilitate the circumvention of ethical processes in organizations. This is akin to mob mentality situations where people act without thinking and get carried away by the unfolding events. They jump on the bandwagon because everyone is caught up in the moment or superiors are condoning the behaviors. Uncontrolled passions and emotions can easily over-ride rational thought and circumvent an individual's strong personal ethical standards and commons sense. This in turn can leads to actions that are not only unethical, but can many times cross over into criminal territory. Left unchecked and uncorrected the cumulative effect of unethical acts inside any enterprise can eventually lead to catastrophic results for both the individuals involved and their organization as a whole.

Ultimately, organizational disasters are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to gradual departure from ethical conduct. The societal and global consequences of unchecked and unrestrained unethical actions by large groups of individuals within any society that can slowly deteriorate into culture-wide criminal and murderous acts have indeed been catastrophic. History has shown us countless examples of the enormous evil and dangers stemming from unethical egocentric and charismatic leaders (Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Castro, David Koresh, Pol Pot, Osama Bin-laden, etc.) that slowly acquire more power and sway large numbers of people into gradually acting in unethical, emotional, and irrational behavior, and eventually lead their followers into criminal, murderous, and eventually horribly murderous conduct.