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If you’re a rule follower, the answer here is likely no. If you’re a rule maker, you may feel the same. But in business, where does one draw the line? Where does one say we have to do what is right, even if that means breaking a rule or even making a new one and is there a time when leaders just throw out the rule book all together? Today’s Monday Moment takes a closer look at not only an unusual question, but the scenarios in which the answers might surprise you.


Leaders, by definition, are often tasked with bringing about change. As a result, nearly every decision made in those times of change is going to include some form of ethics. Many of the actions of the workforce, from front line to middle management is then also going to incorporate their ethics and in places where a decision is not easy, nor able to be made, the leader will be tasked with invoking a ruling, based on their ethics. Yet, for many, the topic of ethics boils down to doing the right thing in the right way. But, seek to define “right” and there is often a problem. How much of one is the question. The prevailing belief is rooted in motivation. A leader or company who is ethical demonstrates ethical, or what some call “good”, behavior out of a sense of duty. The contrary motivation would be to do something such as avoid profiting from sweat shops or destroying the environment in the production of one’s products for the sole purpose of getting marketing coverage for having taken the necessary measures or precautions. The very discussion of ethics, however, is enough to make one’s head hurt or at the very least, spin. Philosophy weighs in, five distinct approaches from scholars are a factor (saving those for next Monday’s Moment), and the passion with which any given leader argues for the “rightness” of his or her deeply held beliefs, can make a difference. For this reason, it is difficult to discuss what ethics mean to a group of new leaders or open the discussion up to a team of people you have the privilege of leading because the situations, answers, and certainly perspectives, are so varied. So, let’s examine a few scenarios.

Scenario 1:

You discover information that could keep a big sale from happening in your organization. You have a relationship with the client as someone on the team you lead is working the details of the deal. Do you stay silent about what you’ve found until the deal is done, and papers are signed, or do you reach out to the client to share what you know in the hopes that you can still find a solution?

It is in these scenarios that what a leader truly values becomes most obvious. Do you see doing the right thing as telling the client what you’ve found because you know it will bring them harm? How much harm? Do they earn too much anyway? Will you look bad for putting the deal at risk? Is your reputation less or more important than your integrity and what some of our parents used to call lying by omission? Your decision and how you lead the situation not only reveals your own ethics, but the ethics you expect those you lead to follow. The question of having too many ethics might come into play when the risk is actually smaller than the leader believes, and the leader is prone to drama and leaning on ethics as an excuse to become the center of attention.

Scenario 2:

A long-time employee with a stellar performance record is found to be clocking in a co-worker who was actually not arriving for work until hours after the clock-in time recorded. That co-worker happened to be his wife, unable to leave home to arrive at work on time, due to the recent birth of their new-born son. You discover the action and take the matter to HR, who you know will immediately terminate the long-time employee for stealing hours and money from the company. Do you report it? Do you write up the employee? Do you ignore the situation and therefore become somewhat complicit?

Being a member of Human Resources can be tricky for many reasons, some of which are found in the answers to the above questions. How much is loyalty valued in your organization when it comes to long-time employees who are also strong performers? Can your top producers pretty much get away with murder? How clear is the zero-tolerance policy on stealing and is getting paid for extra hours really considered stealing? Where is the role for empathy for the clearly lacking in communication, new mom who needed to make adjustments to her schedule? How you answer these questions will set precedents. How you approach Human Resources and make them your enemy or partner will largely determine the loyalty you’ll experience from employees you lead in the future. But is there a possibility there are too many ethics in this scenario? More often than not, the issue is not one of having ethics in excess but having no time to address issues that are perceived to be minor or able to blow over or go away with a simple chat or threat of consequences made to the team member.

For some, ethics are easy. They’re black and white and easy peasy. Do not be lulled into such a distinct belief unless of course you lead people and a workforce who is also always black and white and customers who never make requests other than those that are easy peasy. People are complex and they always bring their complexities with them. The real question is not whether or not you use too many ethics to respond to the situations that involve them, but whether or not you do what allows you to look yourself in the mirror in the morning and stay employed according to the guidelines of your office.

For your Become a Better Leader Challenge this week, seek out an ethical dilemma from employees past or from within your organization that is able to be shared or could be considered public knowledge. Change the names where appropriate and review how the situation would be handled by the team you have the privilege of leading, should it come up again in the future.

I’m Monica Wofford and that’s your Monday Moment. Have a great week and of course, stay Contagious!

Monica Wofford, CSP develops leaders. CEO of Contagious Companies, her firm designs and delivers leadership training for those managers who’ve been promoted, but not prepared. Author of Contagious Leadership and Make Difficult People Disappear, Monica may be reached at www.ContagiousCompanies.com, www.MonicaWofford.com or by calling 1-866-382-0121.

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