Has ethical behavior become meaningless term?
Ask several of your employees what is ethical behavior and you will probably receive a glazed stare. Ask your leadership peers what subsets of their behavior are influenced by ethics and you may receive the same result.
Proper organizational moral and legal behaviors may be understood, but only because of compliancy efforts by human resource and legal department edicts. This is not surprising considering the leadership in business, unions and politics over the past twenty years, but it is certainly a topic that warrants consistent attention, so let’s explore it.
Since defined benefit pensions were replaced by 401(k) plans, there has been an ever increasing pressure on CEOs of publicly held companies to produce profit for the shareholders, which is now an integral part of the retirement plans of shareholders. This has unfortunately led to an increasing compromise of ethics.
This pressure has given leaders a sense of urgency, lest they be replaced for under-performing in the short term, and it’s an urgency that results in making decisions based solely on short-term gains without much regard for long-term growth. True, the rewards can be high, but the dangers are just as high. Employees become productivity units. Produce more and produce faster or be replaced! If a job can be done by a foreign nation at a cheaper price, then let’s offshore! If a part can be produced less expensively by an offshore company, then let’s buy from them! And if ethics have to be compromised for profit, then by all means, let’s do it!
The topic of “ethics in leadership” certainly prompts a series of questions in my mind. Why are these actions tolerated and why aren’t those responsible taken to task? Well, for one, because we are the responsible party. We expect our retirement plans to return high interest rates—after all, if our 401(k) plan returns 10% annually, do we care if the CEO receives a $500 M bonus? Do we care if that the company laid-off 1,000 American workers? Do we care if the product is being prepared in a third world country with child labor? Yes! The answer should be yes. Though some people might not believe they’re related, these issues are “ethics in leadership” subject matters and consequently should matter in our decision making process.
Unions should also own up to some of the outstanding issues created in the workplace today. Unions created safe work environments, protected older workers from being dismissed through seniority programs and provided medical benefits. Today, OSHA, EPA, the Civil Rights Act, Obamacare and many other laws and governmental agencies enforce the benefits that were fought for and won by unions. To keep relevant, unions have increased political pressure on federal policy. Now, however, more and more of union worker’s dues are being used for political lobby efforts when in reality, how much of this increased spending has actually helped the average union employee better themselves? It seems like the union work has destroyed companies by inflated wages and destroyed individuals by rewarding complacency. “Unions first, workers, organization and country after” seems to be a common approach. Is that ethical?
The current political trends also seem to be unethical as well. In fact, the winning strategy in politics seems to be who can be the most unethical. Lying is one of the most unethical things you can do, and our current leaders seem to practice that habit daily. They pass laws without public debate. They exclude states from laws in order to gain those states’ Senators’ approval. They ignore the Constitution. As a result, a select group of special interest parties are satisfied at the expense of the majority.
Immanuel Kant was an 18th century philosopher whose ethical questions asked whether or not an action respected the moral rights of everyone.
Kant recognized four ethical rights:
- The right to be told the truth.
- The right to privacy—to do, believe and say whatever the individual chooses in their personal lives as long as they do not violate the rights of others.
- The right not to be injured unless the individual does something freely and knowingly that deserves punishment or freely chooses to take risks of such injury. Injury can be physical, psychological, financial or social.
- The right to do what is agreed upon through an implied (such as social) or explicit contract.
According Kant’s views, our leaders are failing us with their unethical behavior. And our country is suffering because of it.
The saddest part of unethical behavior is how acceptable it’s becoming. We need to understand that children are learning unethical behavior at a very early age, and then mature believing it is the norm. It will take a lot to refocus on ethical leadership, but if ethics can become important parts of the workplace again, especially at the leadership levels, then perhaps it’s not too late to teach our children that right from wrong applies to all walks of life, not just the ones outside of the political and professional worlds!