Does Being Ethical Just Mean Following the Rules?

When I took a media ethics course in college, the professor said something I already intuitively knew but hadn’t thought about until then: Ethics and law are no more than “kissing cousins,” meaning sometimes they happen to coincide, and other times they don’t. After all, thinking back on U.S. history, how many laws, such as segregation, have we had that enforced behaviors as legal that today most people would say were not ethical?

I think the same thing about ethics and kindness. Sometimes ethical workplace behavior happens to be kind, but other times, even though it’s ethical, it falls short of being kind. Take a corporate executive board that knows the company will be closed down in three months. Is there a workplace standard for ethical behavior that would dictate they tell employees as soon as they know for sure the closure is happening? I’ve never heard of any such workplace ethics standard that would tell the executive board to inform employees as soon as possible. It’s been my experience that it’s considered acceptable corporate behavior to wait to tell employees until close to the exact moment you no longer have use of them. It’s definitely not kind; some would say it’s even cruel.

What I’m getting at is being ethical is a baseline standard for corporate behavior, but one that a company should strive to go beyond. A piece I found on LinkedIn from a few years ago by Leandro Valente depicts corporate ethics primarily as black-and-white rule following, with one added complexity—the need for companies to also stand by employees who act according to their conscience, whatever the rules may say: “…ethical behavior is acting within certain moral codes in accordance with the generally accepted code of conduct or rules. It is always safe for an employee to ‘play by the rules.’ This is always the best policy, and in instances when the rulebook is inadequate, acting with a clear moral conscience is the right way to go. This may cause friction in some organizations, but ethical organizations will always stand by the right moral decisions and actions of their employees.”

What are examples from your company when an employee needed to make a judgment call because there was no clear direction provided by ethics rules, or because the employee felt that following the rules would violate her conscience, forcing her to do something she felt would be damaging to another person?

Going back to the job scenario, the question of when to inform employees of the imminent ending of their jobs is always dicey. On the one hand, the company wants to keep its commitment to investors and other “stakeholders,” keeping its operations intact as long as necessary. But, on the other hand, executives with a conscience may be bothered by the toll on the workforce of being told days rather than months prior to the end of their jobs. For a middle- or lower-income employee, a few months versus a day or two can mean the difference between financial catastrophe and manageable trauma. Does keeping financial commitments justify the potentially devastating impact on employees?

I may be a softie, but I wouldn’t feel good as an executive knowing for months in advance that much-needed jobs would be ending, and just keeping it to myself, especially if I interacted regularly with the employees who would be losing their jobs.

About 10 years ago, one of my friends lost her job in an unceremonious way. At 4:30 p.m. on a Friday, my friend was called into her boss’ office. The boss—who had brought her along with him when he switched jobs to another magazine—sat there, along with the publisher of the magazine. The two of them, together, informed her that her job was ending, and she had a half-hour to clean out her desk and vacate the premises. It was not performance-related. They said they no longer needed her skill set, or some vague explanation like that. My friend was devastated to be losing a job because it meant she was suddenly losing her livelihood, but she also was devastated because she had considered her boss a friend, and they had spent time outside the office together, and he hadn’t given her any warning that this was coming. A few days before the termination, they had worked out together at the gym in the office building, and she invited him to the parties she occasionally threw at home. They talked often about their personal lives outside the office. He felt bad, and embarrassed, and apologized that he couldn’t tell her in advance because his bosses wouldn’t let him. What do you think of that explanation? Is that fair enough, or does it seem to fall short of the kind of ethics that are guided by conscience, rather than solely by the rulebook?

It’s frightening to disobey orders, whether from an institution such as the police or a person such as your boss, but sometimes it might be necessary to do so to practice meaningful ethics. Being truly ethical to me means striving to be more than just a rule follower. It means avoiding actions that create suffering for others you wouldn’t want to experience yourself.

How do you train employees to be ethical? Do you handle it as a simple list of do’s and don’ts to follow, or do you treat it as a more complex topic?