Ethical Decision-Making: The Fork In Your Career Path

by Pete Loscocco on 20 August 2016

“I want you to dig up all the dirt you can find on that company and send it to the media,” the CEO said. And with that, my career came to an ethical fork in the road.

I was sitting in the CEO’s office with the Chief Legal Officer when the conversation occurred. “Say something, Legal Guy,”I pleaded in my head. “Tell him how wrong this is!” But our top lawyer just sat there looking at me expectantly.

The company in question, a direct competitor, had experienced a plant explosion and fatality. The CEO wanted me to gather information about other issues they had and, under cloak of anonymity, use the media to compound their problems.

Now I liked and needed my job. But I saw the fork in the road. One path, I make the correct and ethical call. Could be fired, could keep my job, but my integrity remains intact. Other path, I do as asked, but my integrity is impaired, and if our actions become public, so is my reputation.

So I told the CEO I wouldn’t do it. I explained it wouldn’t pass the “light of day” test, and could harm both his reputation and that of the company. After a heated argument he left the room, and I went back to my office not sure what would happen next.

Later in the day the CEO stopped by my office, cracked a joke about our conversation, and we went on as if it never occurred. The dirty trick never took place. By the way, he was relatively new in the top job. He went on to be a very good – and very ethical – leader. I like to think my counsel helped in a small way.

Many people believe there is a big gray area between right and wrong. I view it as a narrow stripe – in fact, the difference between right and wrong usually is crystal clear. Making ethical decisions in business should be clear as well. The slope is slippery for those who don’t. Some examples of this I’ve encountered:

* The senior leader, with a major six-figure salary, who cheats for a few hundred dollars on his expense report and gets fired.

* The senior executive who buys 4 new tires for his personal vehicle using company money. When discovered, he explains this was OK because he had a flat in the company’s parking garage. Also fired.

* The corporate leader, fired for purchasing materials and services from an unrelated business his wife owned.

* The executive who allegedly was on a sales trip in Brazil, but in reality was having a romantic fling on the Mexican Riviera with the company’s travel agent on the company dime. That didn’t work out so well for either of them.

All true stories, about real people, whose careers were smashed due to poor ethical choices. And there are so many more.

These cases are crystal clear, but how do you feel about the following:

* A minor chemical spill occurs at your operation and is promptly cleaned up. There is a safety bonus for all plant personnel that will be at risk if the spill is reported to corporate. What should you do?

* A colleague makes overt sexual remarks about female co-workers to you. Do you report this behavior?

* You learn from a manager that some product “sales” are booked ahead of actual sale to improve month-end numbers. This is outside of your work role, and the sales manager is an experienced and respected leader. Do you say anything?

* A customer is using your product in an unsafe manner. After discussion and training, they continue to do so and refuse to change their practices. Do you continue to sell them the product?

Take a moment to think about your own experiences and your current workplace. What ethical choices might you may face? How will you handle those decisions?

What will you do when you come to your fork in the ethical road? Your future, and perhaps your career, will rest on your choice.