By Paula Lau
“I don’t know!” I snapped at one of my sons. For what seemed like the one hundredth time, he was asking me a question about his Lenten fast. Last year for Lent our entire family had given up the same thing. This made Lent fairly straight-forward and we all helped one another along in our endeavor. For those of you who may not know, Lent is a season of time within the Christian Church before Easter in which Christians may choose to give up something to keep in mind our Lord’s sacrifice. Last year we had all chosen sweets. This year my husband and I decided to let our three boys choose their own fasts. For two of them, they chose sweets and soda. The other one decided on internet and video games. This brought in some new issues and he kept asking me to discern between what he could or could not do. Keep in mind Lent had begun only four days ago and part of the reason I snapped at my son was because of all the questions, but mostly it was because I gave up caffeinated beverages.
But nevertheless, these past few days have proven a very interesting point. We all seem to do better when we know the rules, when the boundaries are clearly marked out for us. What always seems to get us in trouble in one way or another is when we don’t know for sure where the boundary is or what the rules are. I have been doing a number of Ethics presentations for business and local organizations as of late (late being the operative word). One newspaper headline after another has told the stories of individuals and organizations who forgot where the boundaries were. They forgot the rules. They ignored the guidelines set down by their predecessors or disregarded them all together. As a result, we are being inundated with an overwhelming number of individuals and organizations admitting to less than stellar ethical standards.
I think most of us can readily identify with this old adage — experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you want. Unfortunately, when one has been caught in a violation of ethics, the road out is not easy or fun. In Seven Signs of Ethical Collapse, Marianne Jennings points out common and often repeated mistakes that companies engage in that bring about the ultimate demise of either their reputation or their organization. Too often in businesses there is tremendous pressure to produce numbers, to keep stockholders happy and keep that profitability margin high. At other times there is a climate of fear and silence where the CEO becomes untouchable and no one is willing or able to point out to him/her that the road being taken is a dangerous one. One of the most interesting points that she makes is that often an organization will rationalize their unethical behavior like this, “Well, we may be cooking our books, but look at all the charities we support with our gain!” Ms. Jennings recommends that these companies would have been far better engaged had they protected their pension funds and the employees who dedicated their lives to making the organization successful.
Just as my son is deliberating what exactly falls into the category of “internet or video games,” companies need to take a good hard look at what their ethical policies are. Ethics are not job descriptions or responsibilities. Ethics are determined by the organization and need to clearly define what the rules are concerning good behavior and good business. I would love to say that we are all guided by the same moral compass in today’s society, but the reality is far from it. Too many today are like the George Costanza character on Seinfeld who, after having sex in his office with the cleaning lady and getting caught, asked the question, “Was that wrong?”