A Minute With...

C.K. Gunsalus, expert on professional ethics

2/25/2013  8:00 am

March is National Ethics Awareness Month – when employers and employees are encouraged to revisit the importance of good ethics in the workplace.

C.K. Gunsalus is a professor emerita of business administration and a nationally recognized expert on professional ethics. In her recently published book, “The Young Professional's Survival Guide: From Cab Fares to Moral Snares,” she shows young working professionals how to steer clear of all the traps, trouble and temptations that come with transitioning into the working world – and how to work through them should they become unavoidable.

Gunsalus, also the director of the National Center for Professional and Research Ethics, spoke with News Bureau business and law editor Phil Ciciora about the importance of ethics in today’s workplace for workers of all ages and experience.

How important is it for employers and employees to talk frequently about ethics?

image of professor c.k. gunsalusIt’s absolutely essential. If you look at the numbers, more young people get fired for ethical violations than for anything else. And if you look at what happens with businesses that have employee turnover, a lot of it depends upon the ground-level employee’s sense of how much justice there is in an organization. That perception of “Does what I do here matter?” and “Do I believe in what’s happening here?” is vital to an organization. Because if you have an environment where people are cynical or where people feel they are being treated badly, then they’re likely to pass that along. They’re more likely to steal from the company and otherwise stint on their commitments and work.

It’s really about learning to walk your talk and making choices that allow you to do that. That means anticipating and preparing for the problems that will come up all the time in the world of work. We emphasize with young professionals the importance of seeking a workplace that matches their values. And employers should hire and manage based on their values and missions.

What are some effective approaches to ethical education that everyone – bosses, parents, teachers and colleagues – can use to help build integrity-based decision-making skills?

The really simple answer is to select issues relevant to your profession and talk about them. Discuss dilemmas that are in the press, and how they relate to your values. The choices aren’t always easy and not all of these stories have happy endings. We have to acknowledge that reality. At the same time, it’s generally true that what goes around comes around. It just often takes more time than feels just. Our choices can affect how situations play out, and preparation and skills can help achieve a good outcome.

For employers, the key is creating an environment where it’s safe to talk about these issues. One of the things that businesses talk about is creating tone at the top, mood in the middle and buzz at the bottom. Everyone is involved. Workers need to know what is expected, what resources are available when there are problems, to help them think through their choices.

For employees, it’s important to work with people who are rooted in a compatible value system. It’s also important to be able to articulate your values in non-abrasive ways. We call that having a personal script. It can be as simple as asking a question: “Did I misunderstand? I thought the procedure required something else.” Or saying quietly, “I’m not comfortable doing that, could I find another way to meet the objective?” It also helps to have someone you can call for a reality check. These are forms of professional preparation. You’ve got to be prepared for the challenges to your values and your ethics.

But talking about it isn’t enough. As I mentioned, you have to live it, too. If entry-level employees see the higher-ups doing questionable things, then they’re going to feel justified in doing the same.

With unemployment hovering around 8 percent, the job market still isn’t that promising. But if you're in a job where, from an ethical standpoint, you feel uncomfortable with what's going on around you, when is it time to start thinking about moving on?

It depends. In that situation, you’ve really got to figure out what’s bothering you. Are there things about it that you could change? Can you affect the environment around you by articulating your values, or by raising constructive questions at good times? We can have more power over our environments than we think.

Really, it comes down to who you are and what you stand for. Because when you’re being asked to do something that’s clearly over your line, you may well have to decide, right then and there, if you want to continue working for that employer. Consider this: Would you rather lose a job by being fired for refusing to cross the line or would you rather lose the job when you go to jail for having crossed the line?

If there’s really no choice, no options, then you may have to quit. If it’s not that dire, but you’re in a place that makes you uncomfortable, I think it’s fine to keep your own hands clean while you’re looking for another job. Still, occasionally, you do have to walk away and live with the consequences. It helps to create and then maintain what I call an “ethical cushion” in your bank account.

Do even small ethical lapses – the little white lies of the business world, say, fudging an expense report – eventually lead to bigger ones?

I think the small things do matter, and the reason is because of the way our brains work.

We all like to think of ourselves as good people, so when you cross the line even a little bit, you still think, “I’m a good person, therefore it’s OK,” which makes it even easier to do so the next time. I’m not going to tell you that if you fudge one expense report or run one red light that you’re going to turn into an axe murderer. What happens is that you normalize the concept of that little act being OK, so it gets easier to take the next little step. They add up. It affects your compass; it affects your boundaries. I’ve studied this for a long time, and I’ve never seen anyone who went from being ethical to unethical overnight. It’s usually small steps – in the literature, it’s called “normalizing deviance.”

You recently published a book about young professionals and ethics. What’s the one piece of advice you would give to all employees, no matter their age or experience?

Start with knowing yourself: Who are you? What do you stand for? What difference do you want to make? And then prepare for the inevitable moment when you will be asked to compromise yourself and your values by having the skills that it takes to act in a way that matches your answers.


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