Doing The Right Thing

In light of recent news reports suggesting that pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly downplayed the side effects of Zyprexa, their top-selling drug for schizophrenia, in internal memos to managers and sales associates, the question of ethics in the workplace continues to be a concern — with ramifications that extend beyond embarrassing media coverage. Ask Henry J. Bruen, a former top-level WorldCom executive who is still suffering from the stigma of having been an employee of that firm, now known for the biggest corporate fraud case in U.S. history.

“Questions of ethical behavior come up all the time, regardless of your position,” he says. Bruen, an African American executive with more than 25 years of experience, was among those who testified against ex-WorldCom chief executive Bernard Ebbers, who was sentenced to 25 years for his role in the $11 billion accounting fraud.

But the satisfaction of seeing justice served does little to remedy how this scandal has affected Bruen on a personal and professional level. “Besides the loss of my savings, it takes a personal toll, both emotionally and physically. Bruen confesses that it was most difficult to listen to the news coverage of fraud at the company that had employed him. Professionally, he is also suffering. Bruen is still unable to find a job.

“Ethical behavior is essential if a business is to function effectively,” says Frank Ross, a visiting professor at the Howard University School of Business. Ross adds that more and more business schools, including Howard, are incorporating ethics into business courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels. And with the passing of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act in 2002, publicly traded companies are required to disclose information about their accounting practices that would make it difficult to carry out this level of corruption in the future.

Still, when employees are faced with unethical situations on a day-to-day basis, choosing the best course of action can be difficult. “The truth is, and always has been, that black employees and businesses don’t have the luxury of assuming that penalties will be equally and evenly applied when companies and industries decide to crack down on corrupt behavior,” says Michelle T. Johnson, author of Working While Black (Chicago Review Press; $14.95). There are a few red flags to look out for when trying to determine if the tasks you are asked to perform are ethical: If a supervisor or co-worker justifies behavior by pointing out that everyone else is doing it, be careful. Being pushed to the extreme to achieve unrealistic goals might be another clue. And if it simply feels wrong to you, it probably is.

“When you someone asks you to be unethical, you can say, ‘That’s just not something I would do,'” Bruen suggests. “That’s a hard line to take, but … if your boss requires you to [act disreputably], you need to be looking at moving out of that chain of command.”
Ross offers the following tips for maintaining ethics in the workplace:

Establish a hotline where anonymous complaints can be made and make sure they are adequately