Ethical Behavior – Individual Responsibility

Individuals learn about and discuss ethical behavior as a conceptual exercise; however, the number of individuals that face a significant, personal ethical dilemma may not be as large.  Therefore, an individual’s beliefs about an action that might be taken during these exercises might not always reflect reality while faced with an ethical dilemma.

Many ethical training classes provide a description of an ethical situation along with guidelines on ways to respond to ethical violations.  Although, often times, these classes do not factor into the decision making process the reason(s) that ethical decisions should also include a consideration of personal ethics, and not business and societal ethics alone.

At times, some might wonder if the individual(s) that lead ethical discussions would actually follow the desired behavior espoused.  Unfortunately, the answer is not always ‘yes’, as there are well documented cases of individuals that were supposed to lead by example but instead used their power or influence to achieve personal gains.

Another consideration is related to an individual’s analysis as to whether a behavior reached a level of a punishable offense, which can be a major factor with unethical behavior or enforcement.  Therefore, one of the biggest challenges with

ethical compliance is related to the individual(s) authorized to be the enforcer(s).

Consistent ethical enforcement is critical, as it provides an example of punishable behavior and is also a deterrent for unethical actions or behaviors.  However, enforcement is not always possible.  Sometimes a decision is made within policy guidelines, but the decision stretches the policy’s intent – especially if the decision to be unethical benefits an external stakeholder and the decision does not hurt the company that the individual is supposed to protect (e.g., directing work primarily to a friend’s consulting company).  In this illustration, business ethical standards may not be violated per se; however, the actions of the decision maker(s) are extremely questionable.

Enforcement is not the biggest factor with ethical compliance; the major factors in compliance are related to individual

character and intent, as the application of ethical behavior is ultimately a personal choice.

For example, in December 2011, Mitch Gilbert found two (2) unmarked Caesars Palace envelopes that contained $10K in cash[1].  Mr. Gilbert actively searched and ultimately returned the money to a grateful individual – Ignacio Marquez – who lost the

money while running to catch a flight.  In this scenario, Mr. Gilbert’s personal ethics led to the correct decision to return the money to the owner.  The outcome of Mr. Gilbert’s decision will have a much greater impact due to the illustration of outstanding character to his children and also as an example of superior morals for all that learn about Mr. Gilbert’s extremely ethical behavior.  This is a very good demonstration of personal ethics.

A business example of ethical behavior is related to an employee working on a contract for a State agency (“agency”).  In this example, an agency’s representative requested that the audit results be changed to support the agency’s budgetary, strategic,

and political needs.

The issue with this request is that the audit findings did not reflect the requested changes.  The consultant presented the agency’s demand to the company’s executive team.  The executive team initially agreed that the requested changes should not be made.  However, after the agency threatened to put the company into default if the changes were not made as requested, the company instructed the employee to change the results to reflect the State agency’s wishes.  The agency’s request to alter the audit results – to reflect the agency’s needs instead of the results – was refused by the employee.  Then, the employee chose to resign instead of making the changes because the requests were considered by the employee to be unethical, along with being

against the employee’s morals, character, and values. 

An individual with a motivation to be deceptive or unethical will do so regardless of the potential to be caught, the immediate impact, or the long-term consequences of the decision.  Conversely, an ethical individual may or may not act appropriately based on a business’ operating practices, but will act appropriately based on an individual’s moral and ethical beliefs.

Ethical training should teach individuals to not abdicate personal responsibility to make honest, ethical decisions that may be unpopular.  The fortitude to stand-alone and make a difficult ethical decision – and not engage in inappropriate behavior (e.g., for money, job security, or other factors) – takes a lot of guts, courage, and will ultimately be rewarded as a strength of character that is beyond reproach.

Ethical training must emphasize the importance of individual responsibility to make an appropriate, honest, and ethical decision; otherwise, ethical dilemmas may be determined by social or office norms instead of an individual’s ethical consideration.

Ethics training must continue to detail company policy, but should also stress individual responsibility and decision making to resist any direction to engage in questionable or inappropriate behavior – even if the direction is received from a senior leader.  Otherwise, ethical dilemmas might be determined by inappropriate factors instead of a decision made based on appropriate, honest, and ethical behavior.

[1] Source: “Traveler Returns $10K in Lost Gambling Earnings“,, CNN Wire Staff; retrieved 9/19/13

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