Sure You Can. But Should You?

By Tom Rich,Thomas M. Rich & Associates Mountainside, NJ, tomr@thomasmrich.com

I’ve been thinking a lot these days about ethics, particularly of the professional variety. I’ve encountered a few situations recently in which some difficult ethical questions arose. Some of these involved how we recruited research participants, some related to the use of those participants’ personal information, and some were about the interpretation of research findings. In none of these situations was there a single, clear, correct answer. As so often happens, we were working in those all-too-common grey areas. I’m not the only one who’s preoccupied with ethics these days. The European Union and the State of California, to name just a couple, are also interested. Both have passed legislation intended to bring more ethical practices to the treatment of personal information.

As the philosopher Will Durant once pointed out, “We are what we repeatedly do.” His point was that excellence is habitual, but he could have just as easily been talking about ethics—the key to being an ethical person lies in habits. But what, specifically, does that mean? Many years ago, I learned from a very wise man that ethics can be a bit less bedeviling if you get in the habit of asking yourself a series of four questions when you find yourself contemplating a dubious course of action. Here they are:

  1. How does this thing you’re thinking of doing square with accepted codes of conduct?
    Is it legal? Is it allowed by your company’s policies? Is it consistent with your industry’s ethical standards? Personally, I’m a big fan of the golden rule—does it violate that? You might decide to proceed despite your intended action being against some rule or other, but it’s a good idea to devote a few minutes of thought to whether this is wise.
  1. How would you feel if your actions became widely known?
    Would you be comfortable with that? Would you want your clients, or colleagues, or friends to know? How about your spouse or kids? What if your mother found out?

    If the idea that people whose opinions you value know what you’ve done makes you uneasy, that’s a pretty big red flag—proceed with caution. I’ve always made a point of never accepting a finder’s fee for referring another supplier to one of my clients, because I wouldn’t be comfortable with my client knowing about it.

  1. What if everybody did this?
    Would the world be a better place, or would it be diminished? Throwing a bag of trash out of your car window isn’t a big deal if you’re the only one who does it, but if everyone on the road follows suit, things will get messy in a hurry. Misleading research participants about the nature of the study in which they’re participating might not do too much damage if you only do it occasionally, but if we all start doing it all the time, it could cause major dysfunction. If your contemplated action being emulated by everybody in your industry would cause problems, maybe it’s not OK for you to do it.
  1. What are the potential consequences of my actions?
    This one’s a biggie. What could happen if you do this thing? Do you risk prison? A fine? Losing your job? Being run out of town on a rail? Dirty looks from people you don’t care about? Another great philosopher—Maimonides—once wrote that a wise man is one who knows the consequences of his actions. I think we often find ourselves in sticky situations because we didn’t take some time to think consciously about where our actions might lead. I’ve always believed that the Enron disaster might not have happened if somebody had just said, “hey everybody, there’s no way this ends well.”

So there you have it: four simple questions for worrisome situations. If you make them a habit, you’ll make ethical behavior habitual as well.