Why Is This Whole Corporate Ethics Thing So Damn Hard?

Our sense of corporate ethics is so damn skewed that doing the right thing seems to be the exception to the rule.

Everywhere you turn there are examples of business leaders and employees doing really wrong things: Madoff. Corzine. Castro-Wright. Dunn. Enron and Murdoch’s News Corp. And let’s not forget those freakin’ stoonads who wrecked the Whole. Damn. Economy.

This doing-the-wrong-thing thing is so endemic that it seems people might need a decision-making aid of some sort, to help them avoid acting like the above-mentioned paragons of virtue. So, as a public service, Carge77.com presents the Three-Part Unethical Jerkbag Test. You know, to help you through these difficult times.

Two things I need you to be aware of, before we do this test:

First, it’s Mother’s Day 2012 as I write this. I hope everyone had a great day, celebrating with (or in memory of) their mothers. This post is totally inspired by my mom, who raised me and my sister to always do the right thing, no matter what.* Keep your mom in mind, too, as you read this – she’s going to make an appearance, a few paragraphs below.

*Our dad also was instrumental in this and deserves lots of credit, but it’s Mother’s Day, so she gets top billing. Sorry, Pop…luck of the draw.

Secondly, no matter how snarky or self-righteous I get in this blog post, I’m really not judging you. I’m human, just like everyone else. Over the years, I’ve said and done and been party to some things of which I am not at all proud. Hey, gang, I’m far from perfect, but at least I’m man enough to admit it, to hold myself accountable and to enforce regular gut-checks and reality-checks on myself as I move forward.

And make no mistake. This is a deadly serious issue. There are just too many ways for bad behavior to sink your business, even if they don’t become public knowledge.

I should hope that bit there in big red letters would be sufficiently obvious by now, but a look at the news seems to indicate that not everyone is getting the message here. I’ve suggested in my piece about the impact of values & actions on culture that unethical behavior at the leadership level will be noticed and mimicked and expanded upon at the management and line levels, and that it is essential that leaders of the new digital enterprise promote for values as much as vision (if not more!). Because, aside from the risk of getting caught up in legal entanglements with law enforcement or regulators, the effective result of unethical behavior running unchecked and unstopped in an organization is destruction – either by slow subtle spiral or by abrupt cataclysmic meltdown.

I’m not kidding you, guys. I’m a consultant by trade and a voracious collector of stories, intelligence and data by personality. I’ve got plenty of secondary research and stories about – and have seen firsthand, too – what happens when unethical people are allowed into organizations and allowed to stay. I’m not going to betray any confidences or tell any stories out of school, but trust me: some of this stuff is horrifying, all the more so because in some cases the disasters caused were totally preventable. So…

Check yourself before you wreck yourself, people – use this handy Three-Part Unethical Jerkbag Test to prevent major difficulties:

Before taking an action (or agreeing to a group decision) of any consequence, ask yourself three questions:

1. If someone told your mom about this, would she be proud? Or would she hang her head in shame? Would she bust out cookies and milk, or would she bust out the wooden spoon and dispense some justice on your hindquarters? (or would she stare at you coldly and say “you wait ’til your father gets home and hears about this…”)

2. If this made it on to the front page of the New York Times, would you be proud? Would the result of your actions and its ramifications be the public-at-large calling for your head on a pike? Or Would you be able to walk proudly down the street, smiling with your head held high?

3. Imagine that you’d have to honestly explain – without any spin, omissions or obfuscation – your actions and the ramifications thereof to an impartial jury of twelve 2nd Graders. When you were done, would the verdict be that you were a good guy or bad guy? Would they shun you on the playground, or invite you to play kickball? (Think 2nd Graders aren’t capable of rendering a qualified decision? Think again. They know right from wrong and they’re pretty black and white about it, too. They’ll tell you whether you’re getting a gold star or a time-out, in no unclear terms.)

If your answers aren’t Yes, Yes, and Obviously I’m the Good Guy! you need to really reconsider what you’re planning on doing – because you’re in danger of being an unethical jerkbag. And remember: your people are watching and will model their behavior after yours.

Look, y’all, I know the real world is hard. No one’s perfect. But it is imperative upon us to do the goddamn best we possibly can and to always have “do the right thing” as our mantra. Think that sounds lame or weak or Pollyanna-ish? Good for you. Continue on as normal. We, the people who commit to living, leading and promoting “the right thing,” will be stepping over your firm’s still-warm corpse in the not-too-distant future.

This is the dawn of a new era, calling for new business models and new thinking and new ideas and new ways of doing things, but there’s always room for old-skool values – plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – and chief among those is the idea of doing the right thing.

Do right. Do right by your customers, do right by your team & employees, and do right by yourself, in that order.

Be prudent and act properly; profits, prosperity, and long-term value will follow.

Seth Cargiuolo

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