Professional ethics involve a strong sense of what is morally right and wrong, along with the ability to explain and defend those values when the time comes. None of this comes naturally, and an ethical career takes skill at every step.

A surprisingly difficult first step involves noticing an ethical issue. Sometimes a good person acts without even realizing she has stepped over a legal or moral line. Things get more complicated when two important values create an ethical dilemma.

Most people will say hurting others is wrong, telling the truth is good, and stealing is never okay. Most people also have hurt another’s feelings, told a white lie, or used something they didn’t own. The rules seem easy, but life gets complicated.

Lack of information If you don’t know much about a person, you can hurt her feelings without even realizing it. Or, maybe you don’t know there’s a tax law or professional code that prohibits an action. You might not realize that the information you’re giving out is incomplete or even false. An ethical professional avoids error by making an effort to keep learning about the company, the industry, and the people she works with.

Fuzzy definitions When does the “lie” turn white? There are many shades of grey in the real world. Sometimes HR ignores a parking “regulation” when employees are sick or injured. Does that mean the rule is just a “suggestion” for everyone? At one company, each person owns her own work and receives merit pay for creative writing; across town, a writing team pulls whole paragraphs from each other’s documents. An ethical professional thinks about the big picture.

Trusting the wrong people You have probably realized by now that your parents and teachers make mistakes. The same is true of bosses, mentors, and senior colleagues. This doesn’t mean you can never trust a person who’s made a mistake; for most of us, that’s how we learn to be ethical. Still, when there are red flags—or even just a gut feeling that something isn’t right—the ethical professional thinks for himself.

Sometimes the ethical path is obvious; there isn’t much excuse for cheating a customer or abusing an employee. The ethical professional simply chooses to do the right thing. Ethical choices only become hard when two seemingly right choices contradict, creating an ethical dilemma. Four dilemmas face every human community. An ethical professional recognizes these choices can be very, very hard, but they’ll never go away.

Truth versus Loyalty The important value of truthfulness calls for honest words and full disclosure of the truth. An equally important value of loyalty calls for support of your employer, family members, or community. What do you do when telling the truth to a customer will harm your company’s reputation or profitability? What do you do when your company prohibits family members from both working for the company, but your sister—now married and with a different last name—has been offered an amazing position by the firm?

Short-term versus Long-term An immediate solution to an important problem creates costs or conflicts with future goals or investments. Reducing today’s student tuition costs, for example, insures that their children and grandchildren will pay higher taxes. Or, approving several new vendors means you can negotiate a lower price for the product, but ultimately drives profitability down so much that your most reliable vendor will be forced to stop producing the product you need.

Individual versus Community One person is harmed to save the entire community, or saving one person costs the community greatly. Classic stories involve heroes sacrificing themselves for the good of the squadron, and a professional can also be challenged to pass up a huge quarterly bonus on a pending sale in order to preserve the client’s overall business with the company. Or, a manager might offer a special medical plan to an employee with a heart condition, which creates a higher premium for everyone else working for the company.

Justice versus Mercy Equally enforcing a rule can show a lack of compassion or empathy for an individual. Most Americans agree that laws should be enforced fairly, but nearly everyone has seen a situation that called for an exception for an individual who seemed to deserve a break. A company could have a policy of terminating employees who have been convicted of any criminal act; should that include the warehouse worker whose 11-year old kid downloaded pirated music files onto the family computer?

Figuring out an ethical path to take might seem like the hard part, but actually taking that path requires another set of equally challenging skills. Once their decisions are made, professionals need to explain and defend the choice to others.

Making an ethical decision requires gathering the facts, understanding the issues and implications of the choice, and identifying who will be affected. Then comes the hard step of taking responsibility for the choice.

Responsibilities of the job: What appear to be ethical failures can sometimes be traced to employees who simply didn’t take their own job responsibilities seriously. Every job involves legal and functional responsibilities to guard the organization against harmful consequences. You might need to avoid risky investments, expensive mistakes in bidding contracts, or grammar errors that damage corporate credibility. If you see something, say something.

Responsibilities of the profession: Many professionals have been certified or belong to an association that subscribes to a code of ethics. Violating that code can bring sanctions, possibly even losing the right to practice in the profession. Even a suggested or informal code of ethics can matter; your personal reputation among others in the field can affect job offers, advancements, and the ability to attract clients.

Responsibilities to the company: Every company has policies and procedures, and every employee has a responsibility to understand and follow them. In many industries, federal or state regulations call for additional compliance policies designed to avoid fines or other sanctions. Companies protect their own financial information and intellectual property with non-disclosure and confidentiality agreements. The company’s valuable public reputation can call for policies around social media use, environmental practices, or community service.

Responsibilities to others. Aside from organizational codes and policies, every professional has ethical responsibilities to and for other human beings. Co-workers, supervisors, vendors, employees, customers, and members of the local community should all be treated with respectful decency. Sometimes the toughest ethical choices involve stepping in when an individual has been mistreated or ignored.

Any decision made or action taken by a business professional will require coordination and communication with others. Simply keeping busy people informed of day-to-day decisions can be a challenge, but when ethical dilemmas are involved, the communication can be uncomfortable or difficult. Finishing the ethical job can call for clearly explaining your decision and possibly trying to convince others to support the same choice.

Making the case: Most people approach ethics in one of a few basic ways. You’ll be able to convince others when you explain things in one of these commonly accepted philosophies of moral reasoning. 

  • “There are universally moral rules that apply in all cases.“ Examples of rules include the Biblical Ten Commandments, a professional code of ethics, or the Golden Rule. You might explain your decision by pointing out how a moral rule fits the situation. 
  • “A moral action must lead to moral outcomes.” Choices often depend on predicted outcomes, as when you decide it is wrong to drink and drive or that it is ethical to donate to charity. You can explain why you believe a certain outcome is likely, or why that outcome would be good or bad.
  • "Virtuous people act in consistent ways." People might define virtue in different ways, but still respect another person’s choice. Consistently applying a rule in every situation demonstrates integrity, which is crucial to convincing others that the choice was a moral decision.

Developing moral courage The first attempt at any difficult task will always be the hardest. After making many speeches or climbing several rock walls or reprimanding a few employees, courage develops. It's then easier to be brave when audiences grow larger or the rock walls more challenging. Similarly, as the problems get tougher, the professional grows into the job, getting braver about making hard choices with every new challenge.

Taking small ethical stands can build the moral muscle that allows bigger decisions later on. A young professional practices with academic honesty, standing up against bullying or insulting language, or speaking to a roommate or classmate about problematic behavior. These difficult first steps begin the path toward an ethical professional career.

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