During the dot-com heyday, many executives witnessed their company’s employees go from being Internet millionaires on paper to standing empty-handed when the bubble burst and being laid off en masse.
“As a young executive, at first I didn’t understand what the president meant when he said that we weren’t to reveal the real numbers. I later found out we actually had two sets of books,” says a professional who worked for one such doomed company. Now an executive for Latina magazine, he has learned an important lesson in speaking up against an unethical situation—even at the cost of losing a job. “You’ll lose your job anyway,” he offers, “and may end up doing jail time as well.”
A recent Public Agenda report on the state of the American work ethic and its relationship to America’s economic vitality entitled A Few Bad Apples? found that those who participated in the study had concerns about declining values and increasing greed that are widespread throughout society.
“There’s a misconception that ethics is something we only have in our heart, that we learn from our parents or from our church, and that businesses don’t need to concern themselves with it,” says Marjorie Kelly, founder and editor of Business Ethics magazine. “We are very aggressive as a business culture at creating institutional forms that encourage the kind of behavior that we want, but we have not done that with ethics. In fact, businesses have done quite the opposite by setting [overly] aggressive growth and sales goals and then sending the message that you better hit the mark no matter what,” she adds. In such a precarious environment, falling short is not tolerated. “That’s a setup for unethical behavior,” Kelly explains.
Despite The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, which sets a standard for corporate accountability and penalties for wrongdoing in response to the increasing number of corporate and accounting scandals, some experts believe that the responsibility for maintaining an ethical environment is up to management. “Business ethics is never going to be successfully regulated. There are bad people who are always going to want to do bad things,” says Martin L. Taylor, vice president of organizational services for the Institute for Global Ethics.
You can set a standard for good behavior. Experts offer the following advice on creating a climate of integrity:
Set an example through strong leadership. “Ethics programs are generally aimed at employees when it’s management who are the ones in trouble,” says Taylor. Employees expect supervisors and managers to set an example. Perhaps that’s why half of the employees surveyed in a study sponsored by the Ethics Officer Association and the American Society of Chartered Life Underwriters & Chartered Financial Consultants admitted to acting unethically or illegally while on the job. Approximately 60%, however, believed that ethical dilemmas are an avoidable consequence of doing business.
Set realistic goals. “Set your goals in conjunction with your team members,” urges Kelly. “Don’t sit in your office with a calculator and a spreadsheet and think about what’s going to make your stockholders and