Ethics Or Mismanagement: What Would You Choose?

Very few people live their lives with the overriding desire to achieve personal wealth and success, at the deliberate and genuine expense of everybody and everything around them.

Over time however, most of us will be faced with moral and ethical dilemmas at work. The higher you make it up the corporate ladder, the more frequent those will happen, and the more difficult those decisions will be. A lot of the time, we may not even know we are making unethical decisions, due to either genuine naivety, but also – if we are completely honest with ourselves – down to a case of pretending not to know or burying our heads in the sand.

So what is the answer? Is it black and white, and when push comes to shove what should we do in those situations?

Corporate governance and business ethics

Dig around on any corporate website or brochure and you’ll find a passage waxing lyrical on the lofty moral and ethical values that the organisation lives by. In truth though, a business cannot be ethical in itself. It is the people in that business, and in particular those creating the strategic framework, and implementing the policies and procedures that hang on that framework who determine whether it behaves ethically or not. It is; therefore; down to the management at all levels, i.e. those who are making the decisions that influence what is done, and how it is done, to take responsibility. In reality it is them – you – who are accountable for the manner in which the organisation operates, and by implication, the effect that it has on its employees, customers, stakeholders and the environment and world outside the company walls.

What is mismanagement?

Mismanagement – especially in terms of the ethical decisions we are discussing here – ranges from the dramatic events that brought the world’s economy to its knees almost a decade ago to the more mundane decisions that happen on a daily basis in almost every company and are either not noticed, ignored or swept under the carpet.

No matter how whiter than white we claim to be, we have all made decisions that – with the 20:20 clarity of hindsight were questionable at best, and downright unethical at worst. There may be the occasion when you are asked to do something by your manager that you know:

  • is either not right for the company
  • will unfairly put a colleague or fellow employee in a difficult or disadvantageous position
  • is contrary to company policy or procedure
  • is illegal

These are usually easier to spot, if not deal with but there are more subtle ways that we find ourselves faced with the choice of making unethical decisions. For example, when the Senior Executive decides to award a project to his relative or friend?

Also, a common scenario that a lot of managers face is when recruiting for their team. Many managers might be forced on accepting resumes; not based on qualifications; but rather a referral from the Senior Executive based on friendship or family relatives.

Are you doing the right thing for the company by opting for the unqualified candidates who you know they will not support the business? Are you making the decision based on the targets you know you will be judged by? Are you making an ethical decision? Suddenly it isn’t as black and white.

The difficult scenario -following your ethics vs. aligning with the mismanagement:

“I was simply following orders” has disturbing and profound historical connotations, but it is a far too easy defence to hide behind. There comes a time when we do have to draw the line and say “NO, this isn’t right.” The situation may be a case of your own moral judgement against that of your superior, or it may be that you are forced to make a decision on behalf of the business against the Senior Executive. That of course is a whole new scenario.

Do you do the right thing for the company, or stay loyal to the Senior Executive? Where does the buck stop when it comes to the ethical responsibility of the company? It should stop at the top, but if that is not seen to be happening, are you capable, willing or brave enough to take on that burden yourself? Even if it means (for the short term at least) detriment of your career?

At the end of the day, regardless of your ambitions, your politics or religion, you are the person who has to look at yourself in the mirror every day. If you don’t want to be repulsed by what you see; if you want to be able to sleep at night, and be able to look back in years to come with a clear conscience and heart and say “I did it the right way”, I think you already know the answer. This applies any time, every time, and all the time.

“The bigger question for all organisations is, if you have a clear mismanagement scenario and poor-performing Executive, how long does it take you to pull the trigger?”.


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