For Global Ethics Month, Consider the ABC’s of Ethical Failures


February is Global Ethics Month. With trust in business and government at historic lows and consumers questioning everything, ethical behavior is critical. As the Notre Dame Center for Ethical Leadership reports, doing the right thing takes time. In our hyperconnected society and 24/7 business culture, time is getting harder to find. This is why we need to practice pausing, breathing and reflecting before making important decisions.

The ABC's of ethical failures below can help. Reviewing this list regularly can help make sure you and your colleagues are not falling victim to any of them.

Apathy. If we look the other way or don’t speak out, we are implicitly aiding unethical behavior.

Bias. Everyone has biases and underlying assumptions. This is one of the greatest challenges to creating effective AI.

Conflicting goals and duties. Who is most important? Ourselves? Our employer, clients, or community? Codes of ethics and training can really help here.

Desperation. Do you take an ethical shortcut when you are going to miss a performance target, lose a deal, or your job or bonus is at stake?

Envy. Thinking, 'I want what they have. How can I get there the fastest?' leads to many poor ethical decisions.

Fear. Worrying that we will be fired if we speak out, or that being a Boy Scout will cause others to ostracize us can be a powerful motivator to look the other way.

Greed. Long-term greed is good. Short-term greed can lead to unethical decisions.

Hubris. It can be tempting to think, ‘The rules don’t apply to me. I’ve been here a long time. I can cut corners.’

Ignorance. Do you and your team know the code of conduct and code of ethics? Ethics training is like taking a vitamin. It is no good if you do it once a year.

Jealousy. Wanting what someone else has can tempt us to take shortcuts or even spread misinformation to take it away from them.

Knavery. No matter what we do, there always will be some bad actors who decide the rules and laws do not apply to them.

Lying. One white lie can beget other larger ones until people find themselves in a deep ethical hole.

Malfeasance. Unfortunately, knowingly breaking the rules and putting our needs above the needs of others is not uncommon.

Nebulous. When guidelines are vague, and we think we have tacit approval to behave unethically, we can feel we have permission to do whatever we have to.

Obedience to Authority. It is easy to assume that someone else has decided our actions are ethical. But following orders blindly, rather than trusting our consciences, can lead to poor decisions.

Panic. Thinking, ‘OMG! If I don’t do this, something horrible will happen,’ can mean we don’t consider the consequences of our actions.

(Lack of) Questioning.  To make ethical choices, we can’t assume our data is correct, or do what everyone else is doing.

Rationalization. We can talk ourselves into sub-optimal decisions by thinking, ‘In the scheme of things it is not really that bad,’ or, ‘I see others doing much worse,’ or even, ‘If we don’t do it, we will be at a competitive disadvantage.’

Silos. If you don’t communicate across departments, you may replicate the biases and unethical assumptions others make.

Temptation. When people think they won’t get caught, the temptation to cut ethical corners grows.

Unrealistic expectations. Overpromising to win business can force us into difficult situations. We might need to fudge a few things or take shortcuts to save face. Cyberpunk 2077, anyone?

Violating codes and policy. A code of ethics isn’t only a poster on the wall. Organizations need to live their values.

Weak. Avoid being bullied into overlooking ethical lapses.

Xenophobia. Devaluing others can make us think we can cheat to get ahead. This is common when competing with foreign companies.

Yearning. The desire for affirmation, rewards and acceptance can overwhelm an ethical compass.

Zeal. Feeling we must win at all costs leads us away from choosing what is right.

Mark McClennan is GM of C+C’s Boston office