Avoid the Slippery Slope of Unethical Behavior

May 29, 2012
6 Min Read

The image most of us have had of the U.S. Secret Service is one of stern-looking agents, whispering into their shirt cuffs and ready to throw their bodies in front of the president or other important officials to protect them from harm.

Drunk agents, cavorting with prostitutes and acting like frat members at a kegger is not the standard image, yet one that has penetrated our consciousness as stories of agent misdeeds in Columbia have surfaced.

In a recent Senate hearing, Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan testified that the behavior – including agents going to a strip club – is not indicative of a widespread ethics problem.

He was met with skepticism by some Senate members and as a result, there will be a wider probe into the agency’s culture.

Still, the question remains that if highly trained Secret Service members can pull such unethical and unprofessional shenanigans, what is happening in other workplaces?

Kirk Hanson is the executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University and has been helping companies deal with ethical dilemmas for decades. He says the Secret Service debacle shows the “failure by an institution to think about what are unavoidable ethical dilemmas.”

“You drop these people in another country for three weeks. They have a lot of free time on their hands and a substantial amount of money in their pockets,” he says. “It seems to me that it’s pretty likely they may get involved in some temptations and those kinds of activities need to be dealt with in a deliberate way in training.

“When faced with those situations, what are the choices and decisions that need to be made?” he says. “These are all things that employees must be trained for. They have to decide how they’re going to react when the time comes.”

Hanson says that even Secret Service agents are human, and there are some who will “take advantage of the slightest temptation” while others will have a stiffer morale backbone.

Code of Conduct

How do you think you would react if in a similar position as the agents in Columbia? Would you go along to get along? Would you have been outraged and reported your colleagues immediately to higher-ups?

While not all of us are faced with such risqué behavior while traveling on business, there are times when we may face an ethical quandary on the job.

Hanson has some recommendations on how to avoid going down a slippery slope to bad behavior:

• Listen to your instincts. Don’t disregard that disquieting feeling when something doesn’t feel right or you’re being asked to do something that makes you uncomfortable.

• Look for backup. Approach someone within the organization that you believe has a good “moral compass,” and whose values will stand strong in the face of bad behavior, Hanson says. “Sort of sound them out by saying something like, ‘It seems kind of odd to me....”

• Collect information. “You don’t want to come out and say I think these people are a bunch of unethical so-and-sos, but just say ‘hey, I’d like a little bit more information,” Hanson says. “You may make your own judgment that even though it is acceptable behavior in your organization, you’re not going to do it.”

• It’s never too late to pull back. Even if you’ve engaged in behavior that may be unethical – such as padding an expense report – you can stop the behavior and start being honest. While you may still have to own up to bad decisions, “the point is that once you either get morale clarity or you realize the risk you’re taking, then you can change your behavior,” Hanson says.

Still, even if you decide to avoid unethical behavior, the biggest problem may be the pressure from colleagues who remind you that you previously “went along” with the behavior before and now question your “goody two shoes” attitude, he says.

“Just tell them that you’re personally uncomfortable with the behavior, but don’t make it a judgment on them,” he recommends. “Carve out your own morale space.”

Have you been confronted with ethical dilemmas at work? How have you handled it?

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