“Have you ever been pressured to do something unethical at work?”  he asked me.

I nodded.  “Yes”.

“What were you pressured to do?” he further prodded.

This past Fall, I met with several student groups at Michigan universities.  I learned what’s important to them and what makes them anxious about the future of their world.  During one of the conversations, I was asked these unexpected questions.  I wish I could have told the students they will never experience dishonest business practices or be pressured to do something that compromises their ethics.

Ethics are the enduring human virtues that guide our behaviors every day.  They are a person’s moral values of what’s right and wrong.  Most of us believe we are ethical and aspire to be better versions of ourselves.  Ironically, what’s considered ethical varies from person to person.  One person may view cheating on an exam to be reprehensible, yet see breaching a contract to be a legitimate way of conducting business.  Another person may view stealing from a stranger as criminal, yet see short-changing a store merchant as excusable.

Deviating from moral values, and then rationalizing and justifying the behavior, seriously compromises trust.  In the absence of trust, personally and professionally, time and energy are wasted unnecessarily.  In the absence of honesty, the very foundation of humanity is sabotaged.

What to Do When You’re Told to Lie or Cheat

As a management consultant, having advised nearly 200 companies and thousands of professionals, I’ve seen good people twist the rules and great people break the rules.  I’ve witnessed less-than-satisfactory or even incomplete work be delivered to a decision-maker who erroneously relies upon it.  I’ve experienced or have been aware of pressure to embellish the results of work, inflate numbers to artificially make them more optimistic, forge signatures, bait-and-switch on verbal agreements, breach contracts, lie about professional experience and education, and turn the other way in the face of financial manipulation and fraud.

To the college students, I explained:

“In business, answers are not always black and white.  There are many shades of gray.  As you advance through your career and as the stakes become greater, the areas of gray will become more challenging to navigate.  It isn’t a question of IF you will be tested — You WILL be tested.  It’s only a question of when and how you’ll deal with it.”

In the face of such toxicity, how do you keep your moral compass from wobbling?  In my personal experience, I’ve learned three (3) important lessons:

1)  Know what your values are and who you are becoming.  One of my complaints about college, is that it thrusts young people into the world without really helping them develop their conscience and sense of self.  Ethical values are nurtured throughout young adulthood, but ethical values evolve and change as life progresses.  It is imperative to continuously evaluate moral principles and how they align with business conduct.  Similarly, it is critical to be mindful of when business conduct compromises these values.  If you aren’t self-aware of who you are and cannot trust the very foundation upon which business is built, you become more vulnerable to pressure.

2)  Don’t make exceptions.  Rationalizing and justifying even the most minor deviance makes it easier to commit and excuse the next.  Mild dishonesty and white lies, exhibited again and again, slowly erode integrity and begin to normalize deceit.  When the bar is gradually lowered, major violations eventually seem not so outrageous.  Beware of granting a pass for abuses in the first place.

3)  Stand up for your values or find the exit.  Eleanor Roosevelt warned:  “When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else, you surrender your own integrity.  You become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being.”  Whether it is the quality of your work or the quality of your character, never, EVER, compromise your standards and values.  It is better to be unemployed than unethical.

While it’s admirable to have the audacity to confront or physically exit an unethical environment, it’s rarely easy to do so.  It’s important to assess personal circumstances and whether the decision would put you or others in an even worse situation.  Is your decision going to put you, your family, or coworkers in danger of physical, emotional, or financial harm?  You must weigh the options.  Know that staying put in an unethical environment doesn’t make YOU an unethical or bad person.

Far-Reaching Consequences

Today, it is more important than ever to maintain strong integrity.  In just fifteen years, we have seen and experienced September 11th, Enron, sex abuse in the church, a war in Iraq justified by faulty intelligence, an economic recession steeped in financial mismanagement, Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, a deeply-polarized U.S. government, regular shootings in schools and public places, police controversies, and countless other scandals, violence, and unethical behavior.  While these traumas have impacted many individuals directly and personally, it’s the intangible, far-reaching impact that’s even more harmful.  It has eroded confidence in the very institutions people entrust to serve in their best interests:  government, military, police, schools, religion, and business.  Society-wide trust in institutions is at or near record lows.  The consequences of a less confident and trusting culture are insecurity, paranoia, and fear.  It becomes increasingly difficult to live harmoniously, drive positive political change, and conduct more transparent business.

While many of these events are largely outside our control, we have enormous power to set an ethical tone for ourselves.  Society and business culture are a reflection of people and their behavior.  Everyday interactions and trust among colleagues, family, and friends are at the core.  If we are to build a stronger society and business culture, we must adhere to our principles when interfacing with others and demand the same from them.  At the most personal levels, if we do not hold ourselves and each other accountable, how can we expect otherwise from our institutions?

I concluded:

“You will get burned, likely many times throughout your life.  Don’t use this insecurity, paranoia, and fear as justification for becoming disillusioned or unethical.  Don’t allow passivity to triumph over resilience to cynicism.  It is everyone’s responsibility, collectively, to adhere to the values we want to see upheld in our relationships, our businesses, and in the world.”